WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT IS “WHO”
WHAT’S THE WHO?
IF YOU can’t create characters that are vivid in the reader’s imagination, you can’t create a damn good novel. Characters are to a novelist what lumber is to a carpenter and what bricks are to a bricklayer. Characters are the stuff out of which a novel is constructed.
Fictional characters—homo fictus—are not, however, identical to flesh-and-blood human beings—homo sapiens. One reason for this is that readers wish to read about the exceptional rather than the mundane. Readers demand that homo fictus be more handsome or ugly, ruthless or noble, vengeful or forgiving, brave or cowardly, and so on, than real people are. Homo fictus has hotter passions and colder anger; he travels more, fights more, loves more, changes more, has more sex. Lots more sex. Homo fictus has more of everything. Even if he is plain, dull, and boring, he’ll be more extraordinary in his plainness, dullness, and boringness than his real-life counterparts.
Real human beings are fickle, contrary, wrong-headed—happy one minute, despairing the next, at times changing emotions as often as they take a breath. Homo fictus, on the other hand, may be complex, may be volatile, even mysterious, but he’s always fathomable. When he isn’t, the reader closes the book, and that’s that.
Another reason the two species are not identical is that, because of space limitations, homo fictus is simpler, just as life is more simple in a story than it is in the real world.
If you were to write down everything that went on with you while you were, say, eating breakfast this morning, you could fill a fat volume—if you included all the millions of sensory impressions, thoughts, and images bouncing around in your head. When depicting the life of a fictional character, a novelist must choose to include only those impressions, thoughts, reflections, sensations, feelings, desires, and so on, that bear on the character’s motivations, development, and decision-making faculties—those aspects of character that will affect the way in which the character copes with the dilemmas he will face in the story.
The result of this selection process is the formation of characters who, although they are lifelike, are not whole human beings. Homo fictus is an abstraction meant to project the essence, but not the totality, of homo sapiens.
SUBSPECIES OF HOMO FICTUS
There are two types of homo fictus. The simpler type is called “flat,” “cardboard,” or “uni-dimensional.” These characters are used for the “walk-on” parts. They walk on, say a line or two, and that’s that. They are the waiters, newspaper carriers, doormen, bartenders, bellhops. They may be colorful or nondescript; at a high emotional pitch or placid. But they are always peripheral, never central; the reader’s interest in them is fleeting. They are easily labeled characters who seem to have only one trait: they are greedy, or pious, or cowardly, or servile, or horny, and so on. They may startle, enlighten, or amuse for a moment, but they have no power to engage the reader’s interest for a protracted period of time. They have no depth; the writer does not explore their motives or inner conflicts—their doubts, misgivings, feelings of guilt. As long as uni-dimensional characters are used only for the minor roles in your novel, okay. But when they are used for major roles, such as the principal villain, dramatic writing turns into melodrama.
The other broad type of character is called “rounded,” “fullbodied,” or “three-dimensional,” All the major characters in your novel should be of this type, even the villains. Rounded characters are harder to label. They have complex motives and conflicting desires and are alive with passions and ambitions. They have committed great sins and have borne agonizing sufferings; they are full of worries, woes, and unresolved grievances. The reader has a strong sense that they existed long before the novel began, having lived rich and full lives. Readers desire intimacy with such characters because they are worth knowing.
CREATING WONDERFULLY ROUNDED CHARACTERS, OR, HOW TO PLAY GOD
George Baker, in Dramatic Technique (1919), claims that “great drama depends on a firm grasp and sure presentation of complicated character … thus the old statement ‘Know Thyself becomes for the dramatist ’know your characters as intimately as possible.’”
Now then, how do you go about getting to know your character “as intimately as possible”?
Lajos Egri, in his essential and remarkable book, The Art of Dramatic Writing (1946), describes a rounded character as being three-dimensional. The first dimension he calls the physiological; the second, the sociological; the third, the psychological.
The physiological dimension of a character includes a character’s height, weight, age, sex, race, health, and so on. Where would Jim Thorpe have been, for example, had he been born with a club foot? or Marilyn Monroe, had she turned out flatchested? Or Hank Aaron, had he had a withered arm? Or Barbra Streisand, a small voice? Obviously, not only would their choices of profession have been affected, but their personalities would have been shaped differently as well. A small man cannot “throw his weight around” as a large man can. Pretty or ugly, short or tall, thin or fat—all of these physical traits affect the way a character would have developed, just as such physical traits affect real people.
Society shapes our character based on our appearance, size, sex, build, skin color, scars, deformities, abnormalities, allergies, posture, bearing, lilt in the voice, sweetness of breath, tendency to sweat, nervous ticks and gestures, and so on. A petite, delicate, golden-haired girl with big blue eyes grows up with a completely different set of expectations about what she’s going to get out of life than her needle-nosed, bug-eyed sister. To develop a fully rounded character, you must understand the character’s physiology completely.
The second of Egri’s three dimensions of character is the sociological. What is the character’s social class? What kind of a neighborhood did he grow up in? What kind of schools did he attend? What kind of politics did he acquire? Which church nourished his spirit, if any? What were his parents’ attitudes about sex, money, getting ahead? Was he given a lot of freedom or none? Was discipline lax or harsh, or somewhere in between? Did the character have lots of friends or few; what kind were they? A Missouri farm boy has grown up in another country from a kid in New York’s Spanish Harlem. To understand a character completely you must be able to trace the source of his traits to their roots. Human character is forged by the sociological climate in which an individual is nurtured, whether it’s a real human being or a fictional character. Unless the novelist understands the dynamics of the character’s development, the character’s motivations cannot be fully understood. It is the characters’ motivations that produce the conflicts and generate the narrative tension that your novel must have if it is to succeed in holding the reader’s attention.
The psychological, Egri’s third dimension of character, is the product of the physiological and the sociological dimensions. Within the psychological dimension we find phobias and manias, complexes, fears, inhibitions, patterns of guilt and longing, fantasies, and so on. The psychological dimension includes such things as IQ, aptitudes, special abilities, soundness of reasoning, habits, irritability, sensibility, talents, and the like.
To write a novel you need not be a psychologist. You do not have to have read Freud or Jung or Dear Abby, nor must you be able to discern the difference between a psychopath and a schizophrenic. But you must be a student of human nature and acquire an understanding of why people do what they do and say what they say. Try making the world your laboratory. When the secretary in your office quits, ask her why. Your friend wants a divorce; listen to her complaints. Why did your dentist take up a profession that inflicts pain on others and requires him to be nosing around in people’s mouths all day? Mine thought he could get rich that way, but so far he can’t keep ahead of the payments on his drilling equipment. It’s amazing what people will tell you if you ask politely and listen sympathetically. Many novelists keep journals or make character sketches of people they meet, which is a good idea. Grace Metalious, it’s been said, peopled Peyton Place with friends and neighbors in her hometown, and everybody she knew had no trouble figuring out who all those rakish, bed-hopping characters were. She lost a few friends, got the cold shoulder from a few neighbors, but wrote a damn good novel.
MAKING CHARACTERS SIZZLE
If your novel is not only to succeed, but to be electric, you need to people it with dynamic rather than static characters. A character can be fully-rounded yet be too passive, too mamby-pamby. Characters who can’t act in the face of their dilemmas, who run away from conflict, who retreat and suffer without struggling, are not useful to you. They are static, and most of them should meet an untimely death before they ever appear in the pages of your novel and ruin everything. Dramatic novels require dynamic characters, alive with great passions and strong emotions: lust, envy, greed, ambition, love, hate, vengefulness, malice, and the like. Make your characters, at least your major characters, emotional firestorms.
BUILDING CHARACTER FROM THE GROUND UP: THE FICTIONAL BIOGRAPHY
In Fiction Is Folks (1983), Robert Peck gives the following advice:
Writing is one heck of a rough racket, which means that if you do it dog lazy, it will defeat you quicker than boo. So, before you type Chapter One at the top of a Virginal Page (and then sit there for a week while you wonder what to do next) do your homework for each one of your characters.
“Doing your homework” means creating a background for the major characters: in effect, writing their biographies. For most writers, and certainly all beginning writers, character biographies are a necessary preliminary step in the making of a novel.
Suppose you want to write a murder mystery. You don’t have a plot yet, or even an idea for one. The first thing you need in a murder mystery is a murderer. The murderer will be the villain and antagonist of the novel. In a mystery, the story stems from the machinations of the villain. In a sense, the villain is the “author” of your story. The cast of characters you will need in your novel will depend upon your villain’s scheme.
Say you have a notion of a woman who murders her husband because he has disgraced the family by selling dope to finance his addiction to betting on slow horses. You have no idea who this woman is or what she is like, but you know she is a clever woman (otherwise she is not a worthy antagonist). You know she will plan the crime with great care and cunning. Her cunning, moreover, will determine the degree of difficulty the detective will have, so you’ll want her to be as clever as you can make her.
The second thing you need is someone to solve the crime, the protagonist. You may at the moment not have anyone in mind to play the part. What do you do then?
There are many different types of detectives in such novels. He or she can be a hard-boiled pro (Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade), a cerebral pro (Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot), a gifted amateur (Ellery Queen, Miss Marple), or a bystander who gets drawn into the mystery (the second Mrs. de Winter in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca).
Your decision will depend on the type of novel you envision. Detective fiction offers readers many delights. One might be the delight of watching a great thinker at work. Another might be sharing the bafflement and terror of an innocent caught up in murderous intrigue. Or watching a tough-guy detective slogging through the mud and mire on the seamy side of town, bashing heads and ducking bullets as he goes.
If you’re an aficionado of one type, that’s what you should be writing. Write the kind of book you like to read. The exception to that rule is the tough-guy detective novel written in the first person. It is a difficult prose style, especially for a beginner. When it’s not done well, it comes off as imitative; or worse, as parody.
Whichever type of novel you select, you will be writing in a tradition, and it’s best if you’ve read widely in that tradition and are thoroughly familiar with its conventions. An established writer may depart from convention and his readers will forgive the departure, but a beginner will not enjoy this privilege and is hereby warned to stay within the bounds of accepted practice.
Let’s say you decide to write about a pro detective because you enjoy reading Erle Stanley Gardner, Ed McBain, Ross MacDonald, John Dickenson Carr, and Robert B. Parker. The “pro” detective is your favorite kind of detective. But you have no idea what your pro might be like. A good place to start is with a name, which might give you a mental image.
Let’s not give him a typical detective’s name like Rockford, Harper, Archer, or Marlowe. You want something fresh and different, but nothing far out. Nothing like Stempski Scyzakzk, which you fear might turn your reader off. The idea is to be creative within accepted form, as an architect will change the corners, pillars, slope of the roof, yet still have all the bedrooms, bathrooms and closets his clients have come to expect.
Let’s call your detective something that sounds un-detectiveish, like, say, Boyer. Boyer Mitchell, how’s that? Good as any. If you can’t think of a name, the phone book is full of them.
A lot of detectives are middle-aged, tough, grizzled, and experienced. For novelty’s sake, let’s make Boyer young and inexperienced. Physically, he should not be a typical detective either. Fictional detectives are often tall, handsome in a rugged way, and brash. Let’s make Boyer small-boned and gangly, medium height, intelligent-looking, and let’s give him large, dark, penetrating eyes and make him round-shouldered and rather slow in his movements. He believes, let’s say, in dressing well to make the best impression possible, is well groomed, and has large, sparkling teeth. He has a pleasant manner—quiet and thoughtful. Most people would take him to be a scholar. He’s twenty-six and single.
Where did this picture of Boyer Mitchell come from? He was made up out of thin air by the author of the book you are reading, as the book was being drafted, selecting features that are the antithesis of those of most detective characters—features that have become stereotypes. Boyer could just as easily be old, fat, and alcoholic. Your decisions on what characteristics to include in your characters should be based primarily on two considerations: breaking stereotypes and good orchestration.
Good orchestration, according to Lajos Egri, is the art of creating characters with contrasting traits so they are “instruments which work together to give a well-orchestrated composition.” In other words, don’t make all your characters, say, greedy or ambitious. Characters should serve as foils for one another. If one is excessively studious, another might be excessively lazy in his studies. Hamlet was indecisive; he lacked will, being prone to thinking rather than acting. He brooded, sulked, and felt sorry for himself. His foil, Laertes, was a tough man of action.
One other consideration, when it comes to making up characters, is that you, the writer, will have to live inside the heads of your characters for a long time. You should ask yourself whether you really want to work with these characters. Are they characters you find interesting? Maybe you wouldn’t want to work with Boyer Mitchell if he was old, fat, and alcoholic, for no other reason than that you prefer him to be young, small-boned, intelligent, and so on. That’s okay, it’s your book. If you are fascinated by your characters and like them, it is more likely your readers will too.
So far we have determined some of Boyer’s physiological dimension and have a hint of his sociological dimension. We are starting to get a picture of what he is like, but it’s still nebulous. We will need to penetrate his character and really get to know him, for he is to be the star of this novel.
We could start by asking, since he doesn’t seem like the typical detective, just how did Boyer get into this business? Perhaps he got into it the way many other young men get into business—by following in his father’s footsteps. Here’s where you can let your imagination run. Let’s say his father was the famous “Big Jake” Mitchell, who was the model Dashiell Hammett used to create the character of Sam Spade. Big Jake was tough, ruthless, and shrewd; he would stop at nothing to protect a client’s interest. More than once he broke a jaw in the service of what he called “higher justice.” Boyer regards his father as having been something of a bully, but he did admire him. He believes in justice just as strongly as his father did, but he also believes that civilization depends on respect for the law.
Choosing such a father for Boyer would compel him to live up to Big Jake’s high standards. People would always be comparing him to his father. Old enemies would still be trying to even scores with the father by making life miserable for the son. Big Jake, even though he’s gone, would be a cross for Boyer to bear. When creating a character’s biography, look for elements that will influence the character’s emotions and behavior in the story. Rounded characters will have a past, and, just like real people, the past will still be with them.
We as yet have only a rough sketch of Boyer Mitchell. We need to flesh him out. We can do that by writing a complete biography of him, either in third person or first person. A biography such as the one that follows is not a story. It may, as this one does, meander a little, give snatches of relationships which are not explored, allude to unexplained events, and so on. Such biographies are not intended to be encyclopedic presentations of the character. A character biography is a brief summary of the character’s life to give the writer a better understanding of the character. It is for the writer’s use only. Here, written in first person, is Boyer’s:
I was born Boyer Bennington Mitchell on the first of January. I’m twenty-six. Not only am I young, I’m young-looking. That makes it difficult for me to get respect in my profession, but I’ve learned to live with it.
What counts with me is getting the job done. That’s the one thing I learned from my father. You take somebody’s money, you owe them your best work.
My father was “Big Jake” Mitchell. That’s another of my problems. It’s difficult to live up to a legend like that.
My mother’s the one who named me “Boyer Bennington.” She was born into an upper-class family—a Bennington of the Vermont Benningtons. Very old New England family. It so happened that in 1955 one of her uncles was murdered here in San Francisco and the police couldn’t solve the crime. Big Jake to the rescue. He nabbed the murderer in twenty-four hours and married my mother twenty-four hours after that. Swept her off her feet. He really had a way with women. Women used to go for that macho stuff. My mother did anyway, they tell me. Of course my parents’ marriage was about as happy as life in the Black Hole of Calcutta.
The main reason for all the unhappiness was that Big Jake insisted they live on his earnings despite the fact she had money enough to buy the Principality of Monaco. Big Jake made a good living, but still, what’s a good living when you’re used to Rolls Royces and wintering in the Bahamas? What a life I had when I was a kid! My mother wanted me to play the violin despite the fact I have no sense of rhythm, a tin ear, and the dexterity of a brine shrimp. I had nine different violin teachers. Mother always blamed them for my lack of skill. But I never wanted to be a musician. When I was about fifteen she finally gave up on the music. She then decided she wanted me to grow up to be a banker. But I wouldn’t hear of it. No sir, from the time I was old enough to know what’s what, I wanted to be a private eye. And even then, when I was a kid, I was stubborn as hell. When I wanted something, I’d never stop trying to get it until I had it.
Mother said I’d never make it, of course, because I’m not like my father. She fought me like the Boers fought the British. But believe it or not, you don’t have to be like Big Jake Mitchell to be good in the business. His style isn’t my style. If I ever acted like he did, I would have been broken in half my first year in the business.
My approach to being a private eye was to become a scientific criminologist instead of a cheap thug. In college, I took a lot of chemistry, physics, math, police science, forensic science, and computer programming. I would say I’m a specialist in crime detection. When Big Jake was gunned down in 1982, I was just finishing graduate school. It was a hectic time in my life. I was planning to get married, I had just had an operation on my deviated septum, and I was looking for a house to buy, but I put everything aside and stepped right in and took over his business … .
We now have the bare beginnings of the outline of Boyer’s life. For an important character such as Boyer, this biographical sketch might be ten to fifty pages long, describing the character from his birth—including family history—up to the beginning of the story.
Now then, why were these particular elements of Boyer’s biography selected? As noted above, you should choose elements that will have a bearing on the character’s emotions and behavior in the story. Boyer was made young-looking because it will cause him to be self-conscious; his appearance may lead other characters not to take him seriously, making it harder for him to do his job. You should always be looking for obstacles for your characters. Boyer’s slightness will make it difficult for him to live up to his father’s reputation. His mother, who is still living, will be trying to get him to quit the business—yet another obstacle. But he will stubbornly stick to his goals. To compensate Boyer for his lack of physical toughness he is endowed with other abilities: he’s smart and studious. His father’s death, however, forced him to take over the business before he was ready, which also interrupted his wedding plans. Another problem.
Boyer Bennington Mitchell could have had a completely different background and could have emerged as a completely different character. His father might have been a crooked cop, say, and Boyer might be trying to salvage the family name. Boyer’s skills could be of an intuitive rather than scientific nature. His mother could be poor and sick and he could be trying to pay her bills. The way in which Boyer is drawn depends completely on how the author feels about the character. An infinite number of possibilities would work, as long as the end result is a believable, three-dimensional character that will give a good performance in his role in the story.
If you do a thorough job on your biographies you will know your characters well—at least as well as you know your brother, sister, or best friend—before you begin your novel. It is not possible to make a list of all the elements that should be included in these biographical sketches. You should include any detail that affects the motivations and actions of the character. Include anything that influences his relationships, habits, goals, beliefs, superstitions, moral judgments, obsessions, and so on—all the factors that govern choices and behavior. You should know your character’s views on politics, religion, friendship, family; his hopes, dreams, hobbies, interests; what he studied in school, which subjects he liked and which he hated. What are his prejudices? What would he hide from his analyst? What would he hide from himself? You should be able to answer any reasonable question anyone might ask you about a character as if that character were someone close to you.
You may complete the biography of your character and still not know all you’d like to know. Say your character found a wallet with $10,000 in it. Would he keep it or return it? If he contracted a fatal disease, would he commit suicide? If he could save one thing from his burning house or apartment, what would that one thing be? If you don’t know the answers to such questions, you need to explore your character further before you begin your story.
INTERVIEWING A CHARACTER, OR, GETTING TO KNOW HIM THE EASY WAY
If, after you have created your characters, you still do not see them in your mind’s eye walking, talking, breathing, perspiring, you might try a little psychoanalysis. Put them on the couch and start asking them questions. Here’s how such a session might go:
AUTHOR: What I still don’t understand, Boyer, is really why you stay in the business. Your mother, to whom you are very close, does not want you in the business, and your fiancée is demanding you get out of it or the wedding is off.
BOYER: I can tell you this because you’re my author, but I wouldn’t tell anyone else. I feel like I have to prove something to myself. That’s the real reason I stay in the business. Sure, I’m afraid sometimes, but I can’t run away. I wouldn’t feel like a man if I did.
AUTHOR: I understand—you’re competing in a way with your father. Cigarette?
BOYER: You know I don’t smoke.
AUTHOR: That’s right, I remember. Let’s see, I understand you vote Republican.
BOYER: Not true! I’m a registered Republican for family reasons. I’m basically apolitical. I don’t vote often, if you want to know the truth. Either I forget or it just doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot who’s elected. I don’t even know much about the issues anyway, and all the candidates look the same to me.
AUTHOR: Tell me about the girl you’re going to marry.
BOYER: Sally’s a wonderful girl—bright, articulate, sweet.
AUTHOR: Have you ever slept with her?
BOYER: What kind of a question is that?
AUTHOR: It’s important, if I’m to understand you, that I know your experiences and attitudes and so on.
BOYER: I’ve never slept with her.
AUTHOR: Have you ever slept with any girl?
BOYER: Not exactly—there was an almost in college.
AUTHOR: An almost?
BOYER: Yeah, well, almost.
AUTHOR: Tell me about it.
BOYER: This will have to be just between you and me … .
By the time you’ve thoroughly interviewed your character, he should have become like a dear friend or a hated enemy. Once you feel that close, you should be confident working with him.
AT THE CHARACTER’S CORE: THE RULING PASSION, AND HOW TO FIND IT
The ruling passion is a character’s central motivating force. It is the sum total of all the forces and drives within him. For Boyer Bennington Mitchell, his ruling passion has to do with solving crimes. It is rooted in his family history, in his competitiveness with his macho father, in his wanting to prove his snobby mother wrong, in his drive to overcome his physical limitations by building up his mental capacities. He also has a strong sense of justice and a powerful desire to do a job well. Not just well, let’s say he wishes to be an artist at it. Not just an artist, a great artist. Boyer’s ruling passion:
To Be the Leonardo da Vinci of Private Eyes.
Will he waver if he meets with discouragement? Not much. Will he be swayed by bribes, threats, hardships? Not a chance. If he is beaten and shot, will he quit? No, because he’s out to prove himself; deep inside he will find the strength to go on. It’s possible to slow him down, but he will keep coming back to his task. He will solve the crime the author assigns to him or die trying. This kind of determination makes Boyer a strong character. He is well-motivated and strong enough to go the distance despite the numerous obstacles the author is going to place in his path. A worthy protagonist for a dramatic novel indeed.
THE STEADFAST PROTAGONIST, HEARTBEAT OF THE DRAMATIC NOVEL
The protagonist of a dramatic novel should always be determined, well motivated, willful. Here are some examples:
•The old man in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea has not caught a fish in eighty-four days. He is disgraced. He is impoverished. His very manhood is being derided. He must catch a big fish or die trying.
• Michael Corleone in Puzo’s The Godfather is another example of a worthy protagonist. Michael’s father has been shot. His beloved family is under siege. His father’s enemies have brought the family to the brink of disaster. Michael Corleone will risk everything to save them.
• Scrooge in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is a protagonist with a negative ruling passion. He’s a passionate miser, unrepentant, ill-humored, ready at all times to defend his miserliness. And he does defend it, against all comers, all cheerfulness, all happiness—even against the supernatural. Does that make him a worthy protagonist? It certainly does.
• How about McMurphy in Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest? He’s going to run things his way or else. He refuses to be dominated by Big Nurse. He’s the Bull Goose Loony, he says. He will dominate the ward or die trying.
• Remember Leamas in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold? He has gone behind the Iron Curtain pretending to defect in order to trap an East German spy master. He’ll do his duty despite betrayal, despite disillusionment, despite everything, right up to the climactic moment.
• Humbert Humbert, the protagonist of Nabokov’s Lolita, is a cad, but he has one monumental passion, which rules his every waking moment. He must have Lolita’s love or die.
• Emma Bovary, in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, is a hopelessly romantic woman stuck in a provincial town, married to a dull country doctor. She must find romance despite the risk to her reputation. This kind of passion is the stuff of which great classics are made.
You need not look far to find other examples in literature. Think of any character you ever liked and you will find at his core a definable, strong ruling passion. Look at Defoe’s Moll Flanders and her relentless pursuit of the good life, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and her love for Vronski, Melville’s Ahab and his passion to kill Moby Dick. Examine any enduring dramatic novel and you will find central characters with burning passions that rule their every action.
Even though a character is controlled by a burning passion, he acts out of a complexity of motives. Take Boyer Mitchell. He wants to best his dead father. He wants to prove himself to his mother. He has a love of justice. He likes a mystery. He’s fascinated by applied science. All of these motives combine to form his ruling passion, to be the Leonardo da Vinci of private eyes. His antagonists will act out of a complexity of motives as well.
STEREOTYPED CHARACTERS AND HOW TO AVOID THEM
Stereotyped characters are characters that are too familiar: the whore with the heart of gold, the Southern sheriff with a slow drawl and a sadistic core, the tough-but-tender private eye. If you watch network television you will see stereotyped characters on nearly every show.
When you say a character is a “John Wayne” type, you mean he is a stereotype of the screen character created by John Wayne. The same is true for the “Woody Allen” type. Readers and audiences like to type characters. It’s unavoidable. Whether or not you like to think of your characters as types, your readers will. But there is an enormous difference between fresh characters of a recognizable type and stereotyped characters.
One of the first novels ever written was Defoe’s Moll Flanders. Moll is a delightful character—lusty, gutsy, full of life. She’s an anarchist, a thief, a whore, a bigamist; she commits incest, yet she’s honest with herself and has an infectious good humor. What type of character is she? Let’s call her a “sympathetic sociopath.” A couple of hundred years later another sympathetic sociopath comes along. He’s an anarchist—lusty, gutsy, full of life. He’s a thief and a liar, and he has an infectious good humor about himself. His name is Zorba the Greek. Moll and Zorba are both of the same “type” but are not stereotypes. The reason? Both have great complexity and depth, and therefore differences abound.
Pierre, in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, is an innocent in search of meaning as he slogs around in the muck of the Napoleonic Wars. He’s indecisive and easily swayed; he attempts understanding through befuddled philosophical speculation. The same is true of Robert Stone’s Converse in Dog Dog Soldiers, written a hundred years later—except that Converse is slogging around in the muck of the American drug culture of the 1970s. The characters are similar, but they are not Xerox copies. They are similar because traits in both homo sapiens and homo fictus tend to “clump” together.
If you find a soft-spoken intellectual, an expert on, say, medieval morality plays, he will probably not be a greedy businessman or a shark at three-corner billiards. We expect cute young girls not to be interested in fascist politics. Kindly old grandmothers who like knitting and baking cookies are probably not making bombs in the basement. Expectations about characters in the reader’s mind are based on conventions such as these and are signaled by clues authors give about the characters. When you see a black-hatted gun fighter come on the screen in a western, you say to yourself, “Ah, the bad guy.” If you see a handsome, boyish, clean-shaven fella, a flower in his holster instead of a gun, a lasso twirling at his side, you say to yourself, “Ah, the good guy.”
When all the reader’s expectations about a character are fulfilled, when there are no contradictions or surprises in the character, you have a stereotyped character. If the old granny is a retired police lieutenant and the bookish intellectual secretly loves boxing, you have a start on breaking the stereotype.
Take, as an example, the stereotype of the tough-guy detective. Say you want to create such a character and you name him Brock Mitchell. He’s everything the stereotype calls for: he’s resourceful, ruggedly handsome, hard as nails, chews matchsticks, but he’s soft as mush on the inside. He likes kittens. He isn’t making it well financially, lives alone, has a wry wit and a fondness for rye whiskey. He collects blondes the way a blue serge suit collects lint.
So you’ve created the perfect stereotype. Philip Marlowe, Jim Rockford, Sam Spade, the Continental Op—this character has had a thousand incarnations. What to do?
Robert B. Parker broke the detective stereotype with Spenser, who loves gourmet cooking and is having a stormy romance with a lady psychologist named Susan Silverman. Donald E. Westlake writing as Richard Stark broke the stereotype by eliminating the soft mushy inside of his character, Parker. So did Mickey Spillane with Mike Hammer. You might make Brock a gambling addict or an ex-priest mourning his loss of faith.
But be warned. You can break the stereotype only if the break is well integrated within the character as a logical outgrowth of his physiology, sociology, and psychology, and not simply contrived by the author to surprise or shock. If Brock Mitchell were, say, sexually involved with a thirteen-year-old girl, you’ve broken the stereotype all right; you might even be able to make his pedophilia an outgrowth of his physiology, sociology, and psychology; but the reader is likely to find such behavior reprehensible.
You could give him other negative traits that the reader would accept, as long as he’s struggling to solve his problem. Say he’s a kleptomaniac and is warring with his inclination to steal. The kleptomania might be a result of some boyhood trauma, for example. He might have been severely punished for a theft he never committed. The reader could sympathize with such a character.
The secret of fresh, nonstereotyped characterizations is to combine character traits that the reader would not expect to find within the same character. You might draw a character in your novel, Sister Maria of Avignon, who loves comic books. You might find tenderness and compassion where you’d least expect it, say in a Nazi stormtrooper. An artist of the most delicate sensibilities can have a mean streak. There are contradictions to be found in everyone. Readers delight in seeing them in your characters. The trick is, of course, not to go too far. There is no objective standard for knowing what is too far; you have to ask yourself, “Is it believable?”
And like all character traits, contradictions should serve the purpose of the story; they should affect the emotions and the behavior of the character.
CHARACTER MAXIMUM CAPACITY AND THE “WOULD HE REALLY” TEST
Human beings sometimes do foolish things. They misspeak, they forget, they buy when they should sell, they miss opportunities, they’re blind to the obvious. In effect, they are not at all times and in all situations operating at their maximum capacity. Not so with homo fictus.
All of your central characters, both protagonists and antagonists, should at all times be clever and efficient in handling the problems you have presented them. Say your heroine is alone in a spooky house during a thunderstorm. The lights go out. “What’s that?”—strange noises are coming from the attic. Groaning and moaning and the clanking of chains. You’ve seen this scene a million times in cheap horror films. Your heroine finds a candle and lights it. But if she goes anywhere near that attic (as she always does in the cheap horror films), you are violating the principle of maximum capacity. No sane and sensible person, no matter how curious, would go up those stairs to the attic. This particular cliché is rather widely known as the “idiot in the attic” motif. Never use it.
The principle of maximum capacity does not require that a character always be at an absolute maximum, but at the maximum within that character’s capability. A weak character in the dramatic sense does not mean weak in the ordinary sense. Your character may be a ninety-pound milquetoast and still be a strong dramatic character—if he knows what he wants and is striving within his capacity to get it. The clever author is always placing obstacles in the path of his characters. It is cheating if the author does not allow a character to use all his capacities to overcome these obstacles. If your character is at his maximum capacity, the reader will never say, “Hey, knucklehead, why don’t you just pick up the phone and call the fire department instead of using a garden hose?”
Characters at their maximum capacity will use any and all means available within their particular capacity to achieve their ends. Let’s say you have drawn an extremely shy character, Ellen, who is hopelessly in love with a married man who works in the same office. She fantasizes about him. She yearns for a hello from him, which she never gets. His name is Kevin, and he doesn’t even know she exists. It is not within Ellen’s powers (her capacity) to go up to this man and say, “Hey Kevin, old bone, what do you say we take a tumble in the hay after work tonight?” It is not even within her powers to speak to the man except on business matters, and even then she sputters, demurs, and blushes.
Now suppose you have drawn Ellen from a “real” character you know from the office where you work. Her name is Sue Ellen. Sue Ellen has worked with the “real” Kevin for twenty-two years, and every day of those twenty-two years she has been pining for him without ever saying one word or making a single move. That’s real life. Stranger than fiction, as they say. But nothing is happening; there is no drama, no action. The reader grows impatient for something to happen. A story is goaloriented ; it progresses, it develops. Homo fictus always operates at his maximum capacity and it is never within a dramatic character’s maximum capacity, when faced with a problem or a challenge, to do nothing unless the lack of action is being played for comedy.
True, a shy character has a limited range of options for action. In her regular state of mind she is not likely to do anything overt. But there are still a million choices she might make. You, as the storyteller, must select from among all the possible solutions which action she might take within her maximum capacity. Let’s say you go into your study and think real hard about all the things your character could do. Here are some possibilities:
• She might send a note to Kevin and tell all.
• She might have a friend intervene for her.
• She might telephone Kevin and disguise her voice.
• She might take assertiveness training.
• She might go to charm school.
• She might find out what bar Kevin frequents, then go there in disguise.
• She might find out what church he attends and join the choir to be near him.
• What if she were to meet his wife and befriend her?
• She might get tipsy at a party, find her courage—and make a fool of herself.
• She might manipulate things at the office so she gets appointed his secretary.
• While passing him in the cafeteria she might get flustered and spill her coffee on his new tie.
This list is not exhaustive. You might make up option lists like this whenever a character faces a new dilemma. If the character agonizes, so much the better.
Maximum capacity should always be exhibited but must never be exceeded. In each situation, you must ask yourself whether the contemplated action passes the would he really test. Suppose you have characterized Wilfred Frompet as a mild-mannered book dealer. He’s bespectacled, fiftyish, retiring, scholarly. Let us say you have him getting into a minor traffic accident. The other driver is a surly foreigner with garlic breath who pushes Wilfred around and knocks his glasses off. You’re not sure how Wilfred would respond in this situation. You reread his biography and ponder the possibilities. You want him to be resourceful and determined, so you have him go to the trunk of the car, get out his tire iron, and bludgeon the other driver to death.
What’s wrong with that? you ask. It’s willful, decisive, and reveals a new facet of his character. The trouble is, such an action flunks the would he really test. Such a violent response would be appropriate only in an absurd or satirical piece in which the characters are not intended to be portrayed realistically. Nothing will send a book to the garbage can sooner than a character that causes the reader to say, “Wilfred Frompet would never do a thing like that—at least not the Wilfred Frompet I know.”
That is not to say that a character such as Wilfred could not be pushed into such an action if the pressures on him were great enough. In other words, if Wilfred were drafted into the army, he might turn out to be a Sergeant York. In fact, Sergeant York himself refused the draft at first because he was a pacifist.
If you are conscientious in seeking out clever and resourceful alternatives for your characters, your story will prosper. Whenever your characters are faced with decisions that matter, ask yourself these two questions with regard to maximum capacity: “Would he really?” and “What else could he do that is more ingenious, dramatic, surprising, or funny?”
Asking these two questions will help you keep your character acting at his maximum capacity. A character at his maximum capacity always gives the reader a good performance.
But, you say, what if your character has little capacity? Doesn’t matter. He will act within that capacity and will surprise and delight just the same. Say you create the character of a business executive who crashes his plane in the desert. He has no survival skills; in other words, a low maximum capacity in that situation. His idea of hardship up until this point in his life is having no crushed ice for his vodka martini. His clumsy and ineffectual attempts to dig for water, to milk cacti, to kill lizards, and so on, could make for a damn gripping story, as long as the executive acts at his maximum capacity within the limited range of his skills.
It is also within the maximum capacity of a character to change, to grow, to develop. Characters are not made of concrete. They are living things, and no living thing remains the same. What causes them to change is the fiction writer’s magic wand: conflict, the subject of the next chapter.
HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL. Copyright © 1987 by James N. Frev. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 173 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.