Characters Worth Knowing

Lajos Egri in The Art of Creative Writing (1965) asks rhetorically, "What should a writer strive for?" His answer: "Characterization. Living, vibrating human beings are still the secret and magic formula of great and enduring writing."

Vibrant, living, human beings are of course human beings that are worth knowing. Hamilton Clayton in The Art of Fiction (1939) says, "A novelist is, to speak figuratively, the social sponsor of his own fictitious characters; and he is guilty of a social indiscretion, as it were, if he asks his readers to meet fictitious people whom it is neither of value nor of interest to know."

What kind of characters are worth knowing intimately? Edwin A. Peeples says in A ProfessionalStorywriters Handbook that characters "must have the uniqueness of real people. They must have the contrasts of inconsistent behavior common to individuals ... contrasts make character." It is through such contrasts that fully rounded, three-dimensional characters are brought to life. It is through contrast that good characters can become great characters who are truly worth knowing.

Great characters are so extraordinarily interesting that if you met them at a cocktail party you'd later want to tell others about them. A good dramatic character, then, is interesting in the normal sense of what makes people interesting.

Okay, so what is it that makes people interesting?

Some are interesting because they are well traveled. They've been to India, say, or Mozambique with the Peace Corps, or to the South Pole with National Geographic.

People are interesting who have thought deeply about life or who have strong, unusual opinions. Maybe they think they saw Elvis in a 7-Eleven. Maybe they voted for Prohibition, went ballooning in Algeria, or got arrested for throwing a snowball at a statue of Marx in East Germany in the bad old days. Interesting people have been places, they have done things, they have had rich and varied experiences. They have been on spiritual quests, they have been trying to unravel life's mysteries, they have, in other words, fully lived.

In How to Write a Damn Good Novel I advocated writing biographies for all the important characters, which is an extremely helpful practice. They help you make the characters real and mul-tifaceted. But beyond that you should make the biographies interesting stories in themselves. Write biographies of characters who, if they were real people, might have real biographies written about them.

Okay, that's well and good, you say. But you've never been to India and sat at the foot of a transcendent guru, or played polo, or dined at the Ch√Ęteau de Rothschild. So if you have not experienced it, how can you write about it?

Easy. The libraries are full of firsthand accounts of people who have done everything imaginable. When you create a boxer or a ballet dancer or a shark hunter, go to the library and poke around in a few biographies. You'll be amazed at what you find.

Say one of your characters is a whore. Any good library will have ten or fifteen life stories written by whores. The same goes for nuns, saints, jockeys, jocks, and submarine captains.

If you're writing about an actual accountant, the phone book is full of them. Call a couple and introduce yourself. Offer to buy them lunch and put them in your acknowledgments. Ask them what their on-the-job problems are, what joy they get out of work, how they got started in the business, what they want in the future. Have they caught any crooks, and what have they done about it? What do they think of the IRS?

Probe deeply; ask the tough questions. Just what does happen at an accountants' convention? How much dipping in the till never gets discovered? Can IRS auditors be bribed?

You get the idea. You want the nitty-gritty details of their lives.

You'll pick up attitudes and speech patterns that will make your novel ring with the kind of authenticity, say, Joseph Wam-baugh has in his. Even though Wambaugh was a cop for nearly twenty years, he still hangs out with cops, so he doesn't forget how they talk and act. Elmore Leonard says he does the same. Amy Tan knows intimately the Chinese immigrants to America whom she writes about with such insight. Joseph Wambaugh, Elmore Leonard, and Amy Tan are all writing damn good novels making use of their intimate knowledge.

Getting to know people like the ones you're writing about just might work for you, too.

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