Think of the great characters from fiction. Gustave Flaubert’s romantic and unfocused Emma Bovary. Mark Twain’s spunky Huck Finn. Larry McMurtry’s lusty Gus McCrae. Margaret Mitchell’s willful Scarlett O’Hara.
Each is memorable because each is a whole person, carefully crafted with a volume full of specific actions, revealing words and individual attributes. The cliche is that good characters come to life on the page. The truth is that they often seem more human than the living characters we actually encounter in our daily lives.
The novel rises or falls on the strength of its characters. A work of fiction that has a lasting effect on us, that somehow changes the way we see the world, does so through the people who live on its pages. A trashy piece of science fiction, long on plot and peopled with cardboard characters, may pass an afternoon on the beach. But it won’t stay in memory for so much as a month.
Even the great popular writers make their millions, at least in part, because they go beyond plot to craft strong characters. Ian Fleming’s James Bond lives in a predictable, fully formed world that includes a running flirtation with Miss Moneypenny, a distinctive brand of custom cigarettes and a recurring faculty for smart-ass comments, perfectly timed. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe never strays from his part as the brilliant, detached aesthetic. John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee is forever hard-boiled, with a soft center.
Fiction writers have been struggling to find techniques for creating character at least since Homer sent Odysseus on his way. And novelists have been refining the shape of the modern character since Daniel Defoe stranded Robinson Crusoe on an unnamed island.
Newspaper writers who hope to capture believable characters in their own work will listen carefully to what their fiction-writing elders have to say. Not because journalists should make up characters, of course. But because the detail that makes a character live and breathe can just as easily be the product of good reporting as of imagination.
Fortunately, some fiction writers have given a good deal of thought to their craft. They’ve created a body of literature on technique, and a large part of that deals with techniques for building character. Among the best are Robie Macauley and George Lanning’s “Technique in Fiction,” John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction” and Janet Burroway’s “Writing Fiction.” What follows is a summary of what they have to say about the fine art of characterization.
The first point virtually all of them make is that the most fully crafted characters are round, rather than flat. Janet Burroway draws the distinction this way: “A flat character is one who has only one distinctive characteristic, exists only to exhibit that characteristic, and is incapable of varying from that characteristic. A round character is many faceted and is capable of change.”
Macauley and Lanning quote E.M. Forster to the effect that flat characters are “immediately recognizable because they have habitual forms of expression or habitual responses to any situation.” They cite examples such as Sam Spade, Yossarian or Nurse Ratchitt.
Not that flat characters can’t be useful. Every character who appears in a novel can’t be fully formed. Many simply exist to advance the plot at some point, or to play off the more central – and complete – characters.
The logical conclusion for nonfiction writers is that reporting on characters will be more or less complete depending on why they appear in a story.
If we simply quote government officials to establish authority, for example, we need only the flattest of characters. The nature of their jobs and their official opinions are about all that count. If we create scenes with quick descriptions of several characters, each will be almost as flat. We might sketch some rough outlines by noting ages, manner of dress, obvious details of appearance and so on. But that’s about all that’s necessary.
Only if we’re planning a much more complete profile might we venture into full-scale characterization comparable to that found in the best fiction. Even then, the natural space limits of the newspaper will limit our effort to create round characters who surprise us by doing the unexpected or who go through dramatic changes in the course of a story.
But when we do venture into more complete characterization, we will no doubt do so with techniques pioneered by the novelists.
The first choice we must make is whether our attempt at characterization will be direct or indirect. Direct characterization is simple commentary by the writer, in the manner of Henry James or other 19th-century authors who were a heavy presence in their novels. Janet Burroway, for example, quoted James’ description of Mrs. Touchett in “The Portrait of a Lady.”
“She had her own way of doing things,” James wrote, and “rarely succeeded in giving an impression of softness.”
Newspaper writers who describe their subjects as timid or brash, forceful or passive, are pursuing the same kind of direct characterization. They also are writing in a style that largely disappeared from the novel decades ago, and that is particularly inappropriate to the just-the-facts-ma’am style of modern nonfiction.
Instead, the best modern fiction and nonfiction writers let a character’s visible persona speak for itself. They carefully choose a few details that hint at the underlying character. Through the choice of detail, they lead readers to certain inevitable conclusions about the character they are describing. They create character, in other words, through careful reporting. Their method of characterization, unlike that of Henry James and other 19th-century novelists, is largely indirect.
Fiction writers who practice indirect characterization do so via the details they report in several basic categories.
Janet Burroway notes that “it is appearance that prompts our first reaction to people, and everything they wear and own bodies forth some aspect of their inner selves.” Macauley and Lanning make the additional point that the best descriptions rest on only a few carefully chosen details and that “they are made on the move.” The descriptive detail, in other words, emerges in the course of narrative. Writers show us characters as they move through scenes, rather than stepping out of the action and holding them up for a static description.
In “Treasure Island,” for example, Robert Louis Stevenson describes one of his characters “as he came plodding up to the inn door, his sea-chest following him in a hand-barrow; a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat; his hands fagged and scarred, with black, broken nails; and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, vivid white.”
Movements, Expressions and Mannerisms:
Most of us have some sense that a full-fledged narrative should show the characters in action. Beginning writers often go wrong, as Macauley and Lanning point out, when they include insignificant actions just to break up background or dialogue. “Many cigarettes have been lighted,” they write, “many noses rubbed, many throats cleared in that endeavor.”
The point, as always, is that every word must do some work, and every detail must advance the action line and develop character. We never include detail for its own sake.
In that vein, one of the main fictional purposes in descriptions of expressions and mannerisms is that they can reveal dimensions of character that often are hidden by words. Macauley and Lanning note that “one way to use mannerisms effectively is by showing some action, gesture, stance, bodily attitude, or change of aspect that betrays hidden emotion in a character.”
And, they note in an aside that might have been aimed directly at traditional newspaper style, “Characters who possess voices only may strike the reader as talking heads.”
Burroway notes that the purpose of dialogue in fiction “is never merely to convey information. Dialogue may do that, but it must also simultaneously characterize, advance the action or develop the conflict….”
Macauley and Lanning put it this way: “… the writer should constantly keep in mind the thought that speech is not only concerned with the exchange of information, but also with the characters’ attitudes, origins, education, sensitivity and intelligence….”
That opinion, which seems to be universal among commentators on fiction technique, departs strongly from traditional newspaper practice. Newspaper stories often are filled with information quotes, which do nothing more than pass along background that the writer could have presented directly. Moreover, newspaper reporters and editors often shy away from quoting distinctive speech patterns directly. We clean up quotes to eliminate slang, dialect and other forms of nonstandard English. Our characters become even more flat as a result of the practice.
Janet Burroway quotes Aristotle, who said that thought was “the process by which a person works backward in his mind from his goal to determine what action he can take toward that goal at a given moment.”
Thought, in other words, is the link between our desires and our behavior. As such, it’s essential to explaining both.
But how to do it? Writers who choose the indirect method of characterization most acceptable to modern audiences have to be extremely creative about getting inside the heads of their characters. They may, for example, suggest hidden thoughts by showing a conflict between what a character says and what a character does.
The most radical fiction technique for probing the minds of characters is undoubtedly the stream-of-consciousness style of interior monologue, which James Joyce took to its logical extreme in “Ulysses.”
Nonfiction writers have generally been even more reluctant to describe the thoughts of their characters explicitly. Gay Talese and the other new journalists caused an uproar when they introduced the literary device of internal dialogue in the late ’60s. They dared to tell us what characters were thinking as they moved through various scenes. Talese remembers being confronted by one huffy critic who demanded to know how he could presume to describe what one of his characters was thinking as he drove across the Brooklyn Bridge.
“I asked him,” replied Talese.
“In the past,” wrote Macauley and Lanning, “many writers put as much emphasis on surroundings as they did on physical appearance.”
The idea is that we reveal ourselves by what we own. Dumas said that to make a drama, a man needed only a passion and four walls. And, he might have added, some furniture to fill the space between those walls, clothes to cloak the passion and maybe a BMW to drive the passion to its destiny.
The most avant-garde of fiction writers have moved beyond the last century’s obsession with things as a door to character. The minimalists unfold their small plots on largely bare stages. They reject a preoccupation with physical surroundings as an excess of materialism and a cheap way of revealing human truths.
But the great popular novelists still write books rich in physical setting. Characters drive distinctive brands of cars, wear clothes that say something about their values and reveal their place in the social structure via their houses, furniture and jewelry.
Of all the nonfiction writers, Tom Wolfe has probably made the biggest fuss about possessions as a key to character. Like Madonna, he insists that we live in a material world. He capitalizes on that fact with a special expertise in using things to reveal values. He has unquestionably demonstrated that an astute student of popular culture can describe what we own as a way of discovering what we are.
He also has demonstrated that successful nonfiction often flows from careful study of techniques developed in fiction. Wolfe makes no bones about the influence of fiction on his own work. He was a newspaper journalist who studied the 19th-century novel of manners and discovered that some keys to culture lie hidden in the patterns formed by what we own, the things we value and the ways we behave.
And he had no compunction whatsoever about stealing techniques from those who perfected them.
We all can learn from that.
© Jack Hart, 1998