Characters in Narrative

Characters in narrative are not human beings. Even in creative nonfiction, characters based on "real people" are transmogrified into fictional beings through the act of narrative. However, well-written characters move us like people in our lives. I remember, as a young girl, wanting to know Anne Shirley, from the novel Anne of Green Gables. I pictured her nothing like the freckle-faced model on the book's cover. In fact, her face was never distinct in my imagination. Instead, I knew her temperament, her gestures, her proclivity to get in big trouble. And she surprised me as often as she followed her own patterns. That Anne Shirley still lives in my imagination.

She lives there because Lucy Maud Montgomery created a young girl that spoke to her young audience. Anne was human enough to make me long to be her friend and to emulate her audacious pursuit of happiness. She was human enough to act stupidly, to contradict her own values, at times. As humans, we may be conditioned toward certain behaviors. We may be expected to follow certain patterns, and often we do. But life is richest, whether joyous or painful, in the moments when we shift from habit. I have noticed that people who stay in my life consistently surprise me, often because I cannot predict their behavior. They are consistently inconsistent.

Interestingly, each writer quoted above identifies an autonomy in their characters. That is, their characters do not act like puppets or props but like real beings. They act like humans. They have desires and knowledge. Beattie is informed by her characters, L'Engle thrown into space, and Faulkner is compelled to trot behind his character like a scribe.

The idea that characters are alive is inherent in each writer's comment. What does this mean? It means that like human beings, characters act from desire. Like human beings, characters have complexity and inconsistency.

You may have your own characters that move through your brain, compelling or thrusting you into your stories. I often hear a character's particular voice saying a particular sentence. So if a strong story begins with a good character, where do characters begin?

Writing Practice

Try this. Imagine a character. Give her a name and an age. Supply him with a place to be: a city, a landscape, a room. Fill in the blanks for the following statements about your character.

1. He would not consider_.

2. She understood this about her mother, that_.

3. His affection is not squandered on_.

4. Her singular ambition is_.

5. He would rather_than_.

6. In the last presidential election, she voted for_.

7. His favorite pastime is_.

8. Each day, she visits/drives/buys_.

9. His greatest fear concerns_.

Read through your list. Consider what this exercise reveals about your character. Are you interested in the person you've sketched? Surprised? Set your sentences aside for now.

Notice that this exercise did not ask you to identify physical aspects of your character. Physical details are rich aspects of character development but writers can sometimes over-saturate a narrative with that detail. A character is rich because of his or her behavior, thoughts, and speech. What a character reveals through action or contemplation identifies her particularity. Physical characteristics should illuminate that identity rather than attempt to define it.

Rarely does a good story present a character like a personal ad. That "Janet" is 5 feet 7 inches, blonde, and green-eyed, with a 32-inch waist does not illuminate anything except a general description of an average white woman. Nothing identifies her presence specifically. Unless Janet is simply the object of another character's gaze, her introduction is lacking.

Visualizing Characters

You may imagine characters by visualizing them. If so, listing physical characteristics might be a strong starting point. However, very rarely should such a list appear in a story. Additionally, you will discover from your own reading, a character emerges from precise physical detail grounded in a psychic presence. As a result, a character's gestures often reveal more than his physical attributes. That character's habit of tugging at his eyelashes provides a physical picture that may evoke greater curiosity than his brown eyes.

Writing Practice

Considering the character you created in the previous exercise, write one paragraph responses to the prompts below.

1. Describe her hands.

2. Describe his gait. (How does he walk?)

3. Describe the shape of her eyes. (Okay, you can describe the color, too.)

4. Describe a distinctive gesture.

5. Describe her fingernails.

Physical detail is obviously important to creating a character. Just remember that any number of people have green or blue or brown eyes. But every set of eyes has subtle, distinguishing characteristics that individually mark a human face. The set of your character's jaw can reveal volumes in a single sentence.

Now return to the last two exercises and from them, write a one- to two-page sketch of your character. You don't have to make this exercise a story; simply "paint a picture" of your character.

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