Monday, June 4, 2007

A Matter of Character-Part III

Once you've created your character (s) with all of his or her idiosyncrasies, how do you reveal these important traits, making them evident to the reader with only words?

Character can be revealed through straight narrative, and sometimes that's the most effective way. Diana Lee placed herself backstage where she could keep an eye on Ashleigh during her performance. Her black skirt grazed the top of her flat ballerina slippers as she stood in the familiar singer's pose - feet six inches apart, right foot slightly forward. Her long hair, undone from it's usual tortoise shell barrette, swept down and across her broad shoulders. Ashleigh was Diana Lee's top student, and had an excellent chance of winning this competition. If only she remained focused, and didn't allow her nerves to get the best of her.

Or, you can use a combination of action, speech, thought, and appearance to create a sense of depth in the story as you reveal aspects of your character. "In real life," Reissenweber writes, we experience people in a variety of ways, often simultaneously, and mixing the methods re-creates this sense of reality." Diana Lee stood backstage, her broad shoulders thrust back, her feet planted firmly six inches apart, watching closely as Ashleigh took her place alongside the pianist. Squinting through the thick lenses of her eyeglasses, Diana Lee peered intently at the tall, slender girl preparing to sing. "Stay focused, breathe, be passionate," she willed her thoughts toward her student. "You have what it takes to win it all, and you'd better not screw it up!"

You can also use a discrepancy in these elements to reveal conflicting aspects of your character's personality. The judge greeted Diana Lee with an effusive smile, and possessively took Diana's Lee hand in both of her own. "How thrilled you must be with her performance," she gushed. Diana Lee narrowed her eyes slightly at the woman, yet smiled warmly in return. "Yes, of course I'm so pleased," she answered, turning away as soon as politely possible. "You quack," she thought in distaste. "You wouldn't know a good soprano from a frog in a pond!"
In her article, Character: Casting Shadow, from the Gotham Writers Workshop Guide to Writing FIction, Brandi Reissenweber cautions the writer not to "go overboard" in revealing details about your characters. "Every character detail you use in your fiction should serve to advance or enhance the story you're telling."

Lastly, Reissenweber mentions the role of name choice in revealing character. "Names are like the wrapping on a present," she states, "offering just a hint of what's inside the person." I chose the name Diana Lee for my character to portray her dramatic, "diva-esque" nature.

Obviously, a great deal of thought and practice goes into creating the kinds of characters a reader will care about, identify with, or even love to hate!


Anonymous said...

Thanks Becca. I liked the post. But, at a more personal level, I feel there is no real need to be technical about the different manners a character can be portrayed. I feel, the most unassumed and spontaneous manner of construction is often the best. Once the character is formed on paper, it propagates itself. It is quite amazing...

Frankly, I haven't been to a writing workshop. I am sure it must be a wonderful experience. But I feel, the fun actually lies in getting it sometimes all by yourself.

Would look forward to your blog more ofetn for engaging discussions on similar subjects.

Julie said...

I can see the previous commenter's position of allowing a character to unfold naturally as you write; however, I think the previous mention you made of defining your characters clearly before you start is important. How much you reveal and the timing is something that is bound to come rather naturally, I would think, if you have done your homework ahead of time.

I didn't interpret what you have shared here to mean that the writer must be hurried in exposing all the characteristics (and some may be withheld completely, left for you to know as you shape them from your imagination). These are simply meant to be exercises to stretch one's horizons in approaching the various aspects of writing, are they not? Variety makes for a much more interesting read and probably makes the writing more interesting as well.

I appreciate that you are sharing what you are learning. I can certainly see where I missed the boat on the planning stage before beginning NaNoWriMo; deciding at the last minute can leave you writing at lightning speed and backtracking just as fast to add or correct as needed to amend the early framework for something you've just been inspired to add. And the names...for me these were the most difficult to supply. I agree that choosing the right name could make a so-so book into something you could get lost in (not to mention that you're going to grow attached to these characters as you shape them).

I'm looking forward to more from this series.

Deirdre said...

These posts are so helpful. I'm working on a new story, one that has presented itself with a nagging urge to write. I'm letting the characters show themselves to me and asking small, quiet questions. And they answer!