Characters are the bedrock upon whom the foundations of a a story is laid. They speak the author’s words, they are his eyes to see with, they are the prism through which a writer can refract the pure white light of everyday actions to render a brilliantly rich rainbow of a million hues.
But like a prism, characters need to be crafted just so to catch the light and shine a beamof the appropriate jaundiced colour JUST on what you want illuminated.
Comic relief in a heavy melodrama needs to be expertly crafted to highlight the seriousness of the other characters. Grim undertakers in comedic works have limited page time (unless their very grimness is a gag in itself). And as I’ve said previously, economy of page space and judiciously using your reader’s attention span is key.
My own novel has only one character who is really set in stone (the main character, whose existence predates the book itself). I’m absolutely clear on this character: what they look like, how they behave and what their attitudes are. If things go well, this book will be the introduction to this character for a lot of readers, which presents a problem. I’m writing on the basis of familiarity wheras my readers will encounter it on the basis of ignorance (or worse, indifference). If they’re not grabbed by my character, they’re not going to have any reason to care about them, or reason to follow them. A sufficiently brilliant plot can certainly overcome that, but dull characters are the death of many a promising book.
In second draft, I’m going to need to look carefully to see whether he (and the other characters) have been provided with sufficient characterisation. He has (I believe) a distinct and somewhat sardonic voice, which is given full reign in his first person sections. This is all well and good, but I want some independent verification. I want him to be seen not just only as he sees himself (for good and for ill) but as others see him, and perceive him.
There are a lot of different ways to define character, and in future posts, I’m going to delve into a few of them (particularly the issues of names and voices).
One good way to do this is with a brief character aside. Shorter than a full scene, an aside is taking a paragraph or two out of the flow of the narrative to provide a moment that encapsulates something about a character, a single trait or concept.
Let’s take an example from Le Carre. I’ve been reading his “Karla series”, partially as an education into a genre (spy fiction) that I am interested in writing about one day and partially as an examination of an author with a serious sense of craft:
From the amount of ceremony with which Fawn departed, one might have supposed that the little buff form was the highest point so far of his sheltered life. This was not so. Before the fall, Fawn had worked under Guillam as a scalp-hunter based in Brixton. By actual trade, though, he was a silent killer. – The Honourable Schoolboy, John Le Carre
Fawn is a minor character in the book, and this is probably the largest section devoted directly to him. The juxtaposition of a menial clerical task with his trade as a “silent killer” gives the reader a sense of a character with hidden depths or skills, and of all those parts of a character’s background which remain off the page.
Merely hinting at this can be far more effective than showing it or describing it. The use of “one might have supposed” deftly lets Le Carre ascribe a particular perception to the reader, which he then goes on to flatly contradict with his final line (which, I suspect not coincidentally, ends the chapter, giving it considerably more weight). A subsequent sequence showcases an act of shocking brutality from Fawn which goes well to support this initial sketch, as confirmation of this earlier impression. This allows Fawn to feature throughout the intervening period as a potentiality of violence which is entirely out of whack with the actions he actually takes.
Let’s take another extract, this time for the series’ main character, George Smiley.
Another mannerism had him polishing his spectacles distractedly on the fat end of his tie, which left his face so disconcertingly naked that one very senior secretary — in the jargon, these ladies were known as ‘mothers’ — was on more than one occasion assailed by a barely containable urge, of which psychiatrists would have made all sorts of heavy weather, to start forward and shelter him from the impossible task he seemed determined to perform. – The Honourable Schoolboy, John Le Carre
Smiley is presented throughout the book as an unflappable character, who almost never reacts, is endlessly patient but who is also held in great respect by his staff. This section emphasises both the nerdiness (polishing his glasses on the ‘fat end” of the tie) the underlying vulnerabilty (the “mother”‘s reaction) as well as the underlying steeliness (the impossible task he was determined to perform). This is presented as a mannerism, i.e. something that the character does regularly, and therefore is a consistent part of their underlying personality. Routine, banal tasks or habits can often be infused with texture about a character or their reactions to the world. The curl of a lip or the way someone walks down the street can be far more revealing than you telling your reader what your character thinks or how they feel
Both these asides carry a lot of implications about the characters whom they describe. They are small, concrete examples which are a sort of building block further writing about the character. One final example:
Lord Vetinari looked attentive, because he’d always found that listening keenly to people tended to put them off.
And at meetings like this, when he was advised by the leaders of the city, he listened with great care because what people said was what they wanted him to hear. He paid a lot of attention to the spaces outside the words, though. That’s where the things were that they hoped he didn’t know and didn’t want him to find out.
Currently he was paying attention to the things that Lord Downey of the Assassins’ Guild was failing to say in a lengthy exposition of the Guild’s high level of training and value to the city. The voice, eventually, came to a stop in the face of Vetinari’s aggressive listening. – Terry Pratchett, Jingo!
Now apart from a flimsy excuse to put in some Pratchett, this is another character aside that says a lot about a character by the way in which they do a simple task. It paints him as manipulative, perceptive, paranoid and an imposing figure to those around him. It also sets the scene effectively and also tells us something about the character’s relationship with other characters in the book.
All three descriptive sequences above are in an third-person voice, ascribing attributes and attitudes by voice-of-author. Unreliable narrators are immense fun, but I’m not using one in this context, so if I need some concrete description of the character, they’re going to either come from the perspectives of other characters or from omniscient non-personalised statement of fact.
Used poorly, asides are a digression which breaks suspension of disbelief and reminds readers that they’re reading a book, written an author, trying to tell (not show) them something.
Used well, the reader remains within the spell of the story, given a glimpse of a character almost out of the corner of their eye. Asides can be an efficient and sometimes memorable way to reveal a facet of a character that wouldn’t necessarily come out within the “normal” action of the narrative. They are also less involved than flashbacks and a lot less self-important than internal monologues. They need to be carefully crafted, but when written into a neat capsule, they provide a palatable way to infuse a character with genuine life experience and depth of personality.