OK, so you have a killer plot, the perfect setting and any number of ideas on how to get from the introduction to the denouement. What else do you need? Characters, that’s what. You definitely need a protagonist, you’ll almost certainly need an antagonist (unless your hero is fighting nature or his/her own personal foibles) and there probably will be some victims…er, supporting characters, heh heh. However you slice it, you’re going to need some people/entities to act and react in your story, because that’s what your readers will hang onto to get through your work.
Let’s say you have a character or three in mind already. You know their names, their vital stats, what they do and their basic personalities. That’s a great start, but now, you need to figure out how to get these folks to take shape in your reader’s mind without bogging down in mind-numbing detail. How do we, as writers, go about the Herculean task of defining our characters?
Essentially, there are three different approaches to building characters, and while certain aspects of your work will dictate which methods you rely on, most writers use a combination of the three. Each approach has its benefits and disadvantages, and the best prose balances these carefully throughout the story line. In many cases, the first choices an author makes in writing or creating a story will dictate the character approach, but it’s good to be able to articulate these choices, for clarity’s sake if nothing else. So, the three approaches:
• Thoughts – Of the three approaches to building character, this one is the most direct. Letting the audience into your character’s mind is the surest way to give the audience an understanding of the character’s motivations, true feelings and deepest beliefs. It’s also a good way to lose your audience in tedium, because it’s easy to overshare when in this mode. As with anything, revealing a character’s thoughts directly is best done with moderation. If you’re writing in first-person perspective, balancing the character’s thoughts with observation is an excellent way to keep the reader from getting bogged down in one set of thoughts while moving the action along, as well as establishing a voice. Jeff Lindsay does an excellent job with this in his Dexter Morgan novels; everything is seen from Dexter’s point of view, but while his thoughts are always clear, the outside world is not given short shrift.
• Dialogue – Dialogue can be a tremendous tool for revealing character, because even if you’re writing from a limited narrative point of view (meaning the reader isn’t privy to the thoughts of some or all of the characters), you can use not only what is said, but how it’s said and when it’s said as character construction. When talking face-to-face, the majority of information is not carried in the words we say, but in the inflections in our voices, the expressions on our faces and the gestures we make. Even the words we say aren’t always complete carriers of information; we use allusions, shared histories, quotes and sound effects just as much as actual, transcriptable words. It may not be easy to render all these into prose, but if you can do so, using dialogue and the specifics of its delivery as character building is a flexible and useful tool. Crime writers seem to have a special knack for this kind of thing; try Elmore Leonard and Charlie Huston for some interesting examples. Carl Hiaasen is pretty good at this kind of thing, too.
• Action – As readers and as people, we tend to place the highest premium on actions, and there’s no reason to treat our prose worlds any differently. If you’re working with first person or third-person omniscient, you don’t have to rely on action as much, but it’s hard to overstate its effectiveness. Physical sensations, gestures or habits can underline a character’s opinions, desires or hidden feelings about a situation or development, and the best part is that pound-for-pound, showing actions gets the point across in the most economical way. For a famous example, let’s delve into the Bard’s playbook and look at Lady Macbeth for a moment. Sure, she’s possessed of monstrously ruthless ambition, but there’s that hand washing thing, the whole “Out, out, damned spot” business. Now, the first time she does that, it’s pretty clear what’s happening, and Will doesn’t need to waste any more words on it. We know that Lady Macbeth’s guilt is clawing at her, causing her to scrub and scrub at blood only she can see, and that’s evocative. That works. Even if Lady Macbeth had no more dialogue after the first mention of the damned spot, we’d be clued into her, and that’s one of many reasons why Shakespeare is still studied and read so much, more than 400 years later. Another good example would be Uriah Heep from David Copperfield; Dickens uses his constant twitching, predatory staring and general reptile-like demeanor to underline his untrustworthiness. It works, too.
These are the tools we have for creating life, and as the multitude of books we read and love attest, they’re all the tools we really need. Creating working characters isn’t an easy task, mind you; it might be the toughest aspect of creating good stories. Still, it’s the one thing that virtually all fiction can show us how to do (even if through a negative example). You can find stories without plot, and you can find stories without dialogue, but a story without a character of some kind, even indirectly stated, is about as common as a three-legged unicorn, and just as useful. Once again, the soapbox is closed.