10/13: The class about character

Character is the first element in our equation that equals a story. So what is a character?

A character is a fictional representation of a person.

How is a character different from a real person?

People are infinitely complex. As we all know, each individual carries around inside of themselves a unique version of the most complex structure in the universe -- the human brain. Each person has a unique history, unique perspective, associations, etc. It's simply impossible to do justice to the complexities of a real person in print.

A character is like a sketch of a person -- a line drawing, with shadows and contrast, realistic but not real. A character is a semblance of a real person, but without all the incredible complexity that every real person has.

A lot of beginning writers make the mistake of starting a story without knowing a sufficient amount about the main character. This can lead to misdirection, confusion and writer's block down the road. More about this in class.

A lot of beginning writers make the mistake of creating a character that's too similar to themselves. These semiautobiographical characters almost always make for bad fiction. Why? Because most writer-types are quiet, nonconfrontational observers who are acted upon by the world and tend to wax poetic about it. For some reason, creating autobiographical characters nearly always paralyzes the narrative and turns a story into an exercise in navel-gazing.

Fortunately, the opposite is true -- the more unlike the author the character is, the more active the character tends to be. Remember this when inventing your main character.

What's the difference between flat and round characters?

Flat characters are one-dimensional. Flat characters see the world in a limited way. Take for example the character of a notorious miser, Ebenezer Gluck. Ebenezer goes outside in the morning and sees a clear sky, a delightful sunrise, a cool comfortable temperature -- what does he think? Not What a beautiful day! but I can turn off the lights and open the windows -- it's finally cool enough to leave the air conditioner off all day.

Flat characters are incapable of change. Their one-dimensionality precludes them from being able to learn and change. Therefore, flat characters make bad protagonists/main characters.

Flat characters are frequently used in comedy, or for comic effects. But they're important in all fiction.

Round characters are more complex. They are capable of seeing the world in more than a single way, are capable of learning and therefore are capable of change.

Because of this complexity, round characters must be more deeply imagined and researched and documented than a flat character. Round characters have biographies, likes and dislikes, life stories. Flat characters may be not much more than a name.

Making a character round instead of flat automatically tells the reader that she is more important than any number of flat characters.

How much do I need to know about my main character?

A lot. The more you know, the better. At the minimum, you'll need to complete a character biography for each round character in your story/novel. Not all of this info will make it into your story (indeed, maybe none of it will), but it's equally important.

The information that you know about your character but don't include is like the chips of marble that are knocked away, leaving a statue behind. Even though those bits of marble are gone, their "ghost" lingers and gives shape to what's left.

What's a character biography?

Nothing more than a list of facts about your character. Examples will be distributed in class. You can make up your own character biography format or copy the example I give you.

How do I go about making up a character?

This can be as easy or as hard as you make it.

If you're starting from scratch, making up a character and letting that character lead you into a story, then you can pluck your facts out of thin air. I stole a trick from novelist John Dufresne -- he takes phone books from hotels he stays in. That way, when he needs a name, he just pulls down a phone book and pages through until he finds one that he likes.

Every time you ask yourself a question, "What kind of ethnic food is Jarred's favorite?" your first instinct will be to answer the question as yourself, the author: "Cuban." If you pause for a moment, and separate yourself from the character, you can give a different and more interesting answer, and start to create a new, more interesting character: "Navajo. He developed a taste for Navajo cuisine during the two years he worked in the oil fields out west."

If, on the other hand, you have a plot in mind and you're looking to create a character who fits the plot, you should first determine what kind of person fits the restrictions of the plot. We'll discuss this more in class.

What makes a good, memorable, interesting character?

A combination of factors. Memorable characters are frequently larger than life, dramatic, showy -- think of James Bond. They're often quirky. They're frequently obsessed with something (there's a lot of energy in obsession... it's interesting).

Active characters, characters who do things, are interesting. Readers are far more entertained by people doing things than by people thinking about things.

Outrageous characters are interesting. So are funny characters.

Think about characters you remember from books and movies. What makes them so memorable? Make a list.

Reply to this post with questions or for clarification.