My Kind of Character
Deciding with whom to populate your stories- who you write about- is one of the most crucial decisions you make. So where do you start?
In general, I gravitate towards people who seem really interesting (people I want to hang out with) or people I loathe (people I want to study). If I am indifferent to a character then the story will be flat. More and more, I gravitate towards characters I want to study.
Bringing these people to life is the challenging part, but also the fun part.
Characters have to be interesting, but not necessarily likable. This idea is up for debate- why would you read about an unsympathetic character? But you have to figure out how your character is going to come across to you. Your attitude towards the character will show, and this will guide how the audience views the people in your work. Understanding this, you need to determine how YOU feel first. This feeling will guide your exploration of the character—you’ll figure out which questions to ask him/her, which situations to create to test these people. The actual story grows out of the questions and answers.
You also need to figure out this character’s voice- and not just how they speak. How does the person shape their thoughts? Imagine getting to know him or her at a party. What do you talk about? Where might you steer the conversation? What might he or she steer clear of? This type of exercise reveals not only who the person is but also who the person is not.
At the end of the day, you want your characters to be memorable, and for me this doesn’t mean that I “like” them. I think of some of the many characters whose minds I have inhabited in the books or short stories I’ve enjoyed or been challenged by—I don’t always read for pleasure and I don’t always expect to enjoy it in the conventional way. The best story teaches you something about craft as well as entertains, but some merely teach.
Would I ever consider the decisions a character like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert “good”? No, but there is an honesty mixed with pain that is worth studying. Same thing with Olive Kitteridge, from Strout’s novel of the same name. This wounded woman makes some far less awful decisions than Humbert—but they’re closer to home in so many more ways, and in that respect, more interesting. Same thing with Amir in Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, where the character must live with the time he turned his back on a friend. These people share the lasting effects of things they’ve done, and from them we learn. If they were robotic, “easy characters, they wouldn’t resonate. And when you craft characters of your own, that’s something worth shooting for.
When it comes to introducing these people on the page, the textbook way to do so is to either show them at a crisis moment–the person’s life is about to change–or in a moment that typifies the individual. A great intro does both. It’s what will also compel the reader to keep reading.