Without sympathetic people in your story, you might as well be writing a grocery list. ~Jack M. Bickham
Isn’t that true? When I have no feeling one way or the other for characters in a story, I put the book down. And let me say here that a pitiful character won’t hold my attention long. Characters must do and think likable things to make me keep reading and worrying about them when there is trouble.
When I closed the book, A Caribbean Mystery, by Agatha Christie, I sat thinking about the heroine, Miss Marple, asking myself what traits did she have that caused me to like her. Miss Marple’s main actions throughout the book were to listen carefully, knit, and think, mostly thinking about human nature, displaying wisdom and understanding in both thought and her dialogue. In this vein, too, Miss Marple was always scrupulously polite and pleasant. These were obviously values to her, likable traits to which everyone can relate. Perhaps one thing that keeps the Miss Marple books in favor is that when you delve into one, you can escape the harshness of current life.
Here’s a clip from Joan Hickson portraying Miss Marple in the BBC version of A Caribbean Mystery. It’s good fun to see the film adaptation after reading the book, and the BBC always does an excellet job:
What we’ve been talking about can be summed up broadly as the Character Tag device. The writer uses these tags to design and impress the image of the character on the reader. Character tags define the character in many ways, making him either likable or unlikable. They also work intertwined with the character’s goals. I suppose character goals can be another tag. I mean, a character who has the goal of buying her young son his desired Christmas present of a remote control car, who has to go without herself to do this, is a likable tag. (And a shameless plug for my Christmas book, Miracle On I-40, just published in ebook.)
Character Tags include:
- a character’s name. (Miss Marple. Can’t you just see her with knitting and thinking?)
- a physical description. This can be toned up or down, depending on the effect desired. I’ve read a number of dramas where the physical description is next to nothing, and Miss Marple could fall in this category. But the character action leads us to our own vision of the person.
- a character’s actions. Did he kick the dog or love it? Is she always watching men? Does she continually gossip? Does she continually primp, or does she dress with thorough common-sense–always wearing the walking shoes?
- manner of speech–both what is said and how it is said (good example of this is Major Palgrave.)
- the characters reactions to others, and other characters reactions to the character– remember when creating a likable character, have other people like him.
- the character’s introspection about his background, his attitudes of mind, in both dialogue and thought, as Miss Marple did of her rural life. Modern novels seems to be skipping this, but I like well-done introspection. Stream of consciousness it is often called, and well done is a delight, because it moves the emotions. A character gets to say honestly in her thoughts what she prudently would not say with voice. Miss Marple does this a number of times, making her very human.
Character tags are exaggerated in order to bring the character off the flat page. The amount of exaggeration is determined in large part by the type of character and of story. As a character, Miss Marple is not nearly as exaggerated as the other characters in Christie’s story; the suspects are who Miss Marple (being the reader’s eyes) is looking at.
One more point–the setting will be a character, too, and have it’s own set of character tags. For me, the setting is often a major character. Southerners by their nature love the land, and their own characters grow out of this love.
We’re half way through National Novel Writing Month, have used up 15 days and nights of literary abandon. I don’t know about you, but life in the past week has certainly intruded and sucked a lot of that abandonment out of me. Thinking about these points of crafting character has helped to revive the literary spirit. I hope it does for you, too.