Think about one of your favorite classic stories in fiction. Something you enjoyed reading more than anything else as a child, over and over again. Was it Alice in Wonderland? Treasure Island? Black Beauty? Some Nancy Drew mystery? The Adventures of Peter Rabbit?
Now ask yourself why you enjoyed reading that story so much. The answer is nearly always the same. The main characters.
Characters are important to the reader. They are what the reader identifies and empathizes with; they are what the reader loves to love ... or hate. Many great stories with weak plots, shoddy descriptive passages, and marginal dialogue have relied for their greatness solely on characterization. If you don't believe me, go back and read Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises or The Old Man and the Sea. Papa's works are notoriously weak on story line and only marginal on description and dialogue. Where Hemingway works his magic is through his characters. When he writes about Ezra Pound or Gertrude Stein, about F. Scott Fitzgerald or even the ubiquitous Brett, we develop a love/hate relationship with those characters that is strong enough to keep us coming back, looking for more pages to turn.
So, how do you get from here to there? How do you take a blank screen and fill it with lovable (or at least empathetic) characters? Let's take a look at some of the things that have always worked for me.
See Your Characters!
First and foremost, you need to take the time to visualize your characters, one by one. See them in your mind. Ask yourself what it is about their looks that makes them stand out, that makes you notice them in a crowd. Come up with some mental images of each character. How does he look dressed casually, formally, and ready for bed? How does he look not dressed at all?
How do his eyes move? Do they dart around quickly, like those of an anxious ferret, or are they slow to move, cautious, hesitant to be seen in the eyes of others? How does he stand? How does he hold his hands? What does his mouth look like? Can you equate that mouth with something non-human (a "gaping hole" is a bit trite; how about a "great sandstone cavern of epic proportions")? Often, equating a human physical trait with a non-human feature enables the reader to conjure up a whole boatload of visual images in just a few words.
Show Your Characters!
Once you've come to see your character physically in your own mind, it's time to sketch him out in a few short paragraphs of descriptive passage that match your own internal vision. Here's an example from The Death and Life of Hymie Stiehl:
I quickly surveyed his large, bulging eyes, puffed out and encircled by several rings of time, then let my gaze drift across his thick, meaty face to his nose—a great bulbous affair that shone bluish-grey in the cast of a long bank of fluorescent lights stretched out overhead. Running from one side of his nose to the other were scores of tiny blue-green lines—ribbons of highway seen from a jetliner, at first barely visible from high above the city, then growing ever larger and more prominent with each passing second until they threatened to explode into a billion shards of concrete and shattered steel.
His mouth was the only thing about him that did not seem too large for his overall carriage. Not his mouth, exactly, but his lips. Two thin lines that, later when I got to know him, I would see purse out in an effort to expand their size, as though he knew these mere slivers of pastel were the one feature out of keeping with his greatness and set about to change them.
These two short grafs say as much about the physical appearance of the man as anything; yet, in doing so, they also reveal something about his character and internal motivation. Just a touch of vanity appears to reside in this character, which we learn when he tries to expand the insignificant slivers of his lips to make himself look more the role of personified greatness.
Notice, however revealing the paragraphs are, that they are not overwhelming. The reader doesn't need to know every physical aspect of the character all at once--and, in fact, he doesn't want to. Just as we come to observe things about the real people around us over an extended continuum of time, so, too, must the writer reveal those things about his characters at a staggered pace, a little at a time. Dumping seventeen pages of physical description on the reader at once would not only place an unbearable burden on the reader's retentive powers, but also would destroy the flow of the story.
So, you'll need to work in additional descriptive passages as the opportunities present themselves. Here is something that appears elsewhere in the same book about the same character:
"You know him?" one of my students asked casually as we stood in the hall, talking of literary greatness and how best to achieve it.
"Who?" I asked foolishly, following the gaze of a pimply faced young literary radical down the corridor to a stoop-shouldered old goat with pock-marked skin and dead stogie dangling from a pale and puckered mouth. "Him?" I'd known of Hyman Stiehl, the great and famous poet laureate, for years. But who was this? I turned to my student and shrugged, then glanced again at the old man. His steel-blue eyes met mine briefly, then darted away, speeding off down the hall where they came to rest on the sylvan form of a young maiden in a tight-fitting green knit dress.
Now we know a little more about the looks of this character. As a bonus, we also know a bit about the physical appearance of the student to whom the narrator is talking, as well as about some of the habits of our main character. In particular, he smokes a cigar, has quick-moving eyes, and lusts after young girls in tight dresses.
Be Your Characters!
Once you've envisioned your character's physical traits in your mind and written them down to share with your reader, it's time for you to become your character. Step into his shoes. Learn what motivates him, how he reacts to certainly stimuli around him. After all, if a character were developed simply by describing his physical attributes, writing would be damned easy stuff.
No, we must actually get into the character's persona, give him a personality, much as an actor studying a role would do. Writers are, after all, little more than actors off-stage. So let's act!
“Yeah,” the student replied as the old man turned and took several sure steps toward us. “Hymie Stiehl. You know him? We have coffee together at Francie’s in the mornings.”
“You? You and …” My mouth fell open as I looked from one face to the other.
“Hey-yeah. Pleased to meetcha,” the two thin lips said, quivering lightly as he held out his hand. “What’s your name again?”
“This is D.J.,” the student responded. “You know, the guy I told you about. The writing instructor?”
“Oh, yeah, yeah, sure,” he said. His eyes glowed suddenly brighter and his brows—already sprouting in every conceivable direction—seemed to rise and swell to twice their previous size. “Oh, so you’re D. J. Yeah. I’ve read your stuff. Some of it. A little. In the papers. Or the magazines. Very nice.”
He held out his hand, and I grasped it firmly, surprised at how weak it felt, how light the grip, delicate, effeminate practically.
Here, the reader learns that the character is more complex than originally revealed. And, perhaps, just a tad superficial ("What's your name again?"). He's also not above laying out a little trash, as when he claims to have read D.J.'s stuff, then quickly adds "Some of it" without being able to recall where. Notice that, even though the main elements of physical description had been laid out earlier in the book, new bits and pieces are constantly emerging, to keep adding to the overall portrait. Here's some more revelation shedding light on Hymie's personality, revealed as he and D.J. attend a college staff party:
Suddenly I felt a strange aching in my heart. Not as though I wanted her. More as though I realized I couldn't possibly have her. Not now nor ever. Not so long as she was with Alexis. I felt the need for air; I felt the need for escape; I felt the need to put myself as far from this woman and Alexis and the stink in the room that Hymie had talked about as possible. But now Alexis was talking with him, with Hymie, who seemed to know Alexis from years back. At least from their body language. And now I would have to stay and listen to the chatter, cringe over the bragging, waddle through the bullshit. I would have to watch the overt glances, ache over the subtle touches, struggle beneath the tremendous weight of all the crap Alexis loved to throw around. I'd been to parties at which he was in attendance before. I'd seen him with other goddesses.
Hymie turned his head half toward me as if to whisper a secret. I pulled closer to him so I could hear above the growing din.
"Christ, I wouldn't mind fuckin' her," he said in a voice loud enough to carry to the end of Navy Pier and back, and then he shuffled his feet right past a stunned crowd, parting Alexis and his busty young companion on the way out the door.
I suddenly felt all eyes upon me. My feet clung tenaciously to the floor as if they suddenly had some vested interest in the real estate along North Lake Shore Drive and, as tenants in good standing, were not about to vacate the premises even a second before their lease expired at the end of the month. My face grew redder and hotter by the moment as I realized just how many people, including Alexis, Denise, and the goddess herself, had heard the remark. I didn't say it, I proclaimed via a sheepish grin. Don't look at me, for Chrissake, I didn't say it!!!
But it didn't work. They did look at me, and just about the moment I thought I would die or melt away beneath their hostile stares, my feet grew tired of their inactivity and began shuffling slowly but steadily across the grey-tile floor.
"Have a nice day," I heard my lips mutter to Alexis as I slipped through the door. I found myself winding my way down the stairwell and out through the arched opening leading toward the thick summer air, and when I finally emerged, I could hardly contain my fury.
"Jesus Christ," I shouted as I slipped into the cab and slammed the door behind me. "What the hell did you do that for? It'll be a miracle if I still have a job in the morning. Alexis knows everyone in this town. What the hell did you have to say that for? What the fuck did you say that for???"
"Aww, forget it," Hymie said, fumbling for a match to re-ignite a stogie that he had originally lit in the spring of '46. "They're nothin' but a bunch of horses' asses, anyway. You wanna spend the rest of your life kissing up to them, that's up to you. Me? I got better things to do, thanks. Besides, you always got your night job."
"Oh, yeah," I said. "Right. That's easy for you to say. You've got a secure future. You've got money in the bank. Me? I need this job. You know, to help provide for the little things in life. Food, clothing, shelter. My night job at the ‘Y’ doesn't pay shit."
"Thirty-fifth and Shields," Hymie barked at the cabbie, motioning off to the right as the car shifted into gear and lurched from the curb. "And step on it, will ya?"
Now we're getting some character development! Now the reader knows for sure what he has so long suspected: Hymie is a stitch! A round, full, surprising, surprisingly likable, stitch. He's also a tightwad--relighting a cigar that should have been laid to rest long ago. He's opinionated (putting it mildly). He's selfish, not particularly concerned whether or not the kid loses his job over Hymie's comment. He's animated, talking with his hands as he barks directions at the cabbie.
These grafs also speak worlds about Hymie's character through the words he chooses to use. "Wanna" instead of "want to." "Nothin'" instead of "nothing." "Ya" instead of "you." All in all, within the relatively short space of a dozen or so pages, the reader learns that Hymie is crude, boorish, educated, selfish, vulgar, opinionated, self-confident, perpetually horny, rough, gruff, and--throughout it all--somehow likable. And, remember, it's only the beginning of a portrait of a strong, well-rounded, living, breathing character that is as real as any we've ever met in life. From here on out, the reader is hooked. Hymie is reason enough for the reader to continue turning the pages, if for no other purpose than to find out what extraordinary things he's going to do--or say--next.
And that's exactly what a round character in a work of fiction is supposed to make us do.