Thoughts About Story Characters

A lot of ideas, presented rather sketchily, about how to create characters for a story.

Copyright 2022 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

I’ve lately decided that my problem is my lack of imagination, something I’ve always worried about and always reassured myself about.  The reassurance comes from my long list of “Good Mornings,” ways to say that the sun has risen—some mundane, many flowery or otherwise nice.  When I read it, I tell myself, “what I’ve done once I can do again.”  Still, it doesn’t seem to translate to story-writing.  I had the thought, Kat and Janelle meet a couple of people in the forest that they’re exploring, as discussed here yesterday, I think; but there was something lacking, probably “an angle”—maybe I can use the lists of “tasty words” to randomly stimulate my unconscious into producing an angle that I can use?  I have created these tools, it’s a shame that I haven’t found uses for them.

“An angle” is suggestive but offers no guidance.  “Relevance” might be more useful; relevance to what?—encounter with a stranger, for example.

The plot:  a character might be a source of information, direction, or wisdom.  “Information” will help the protagonist decide, or lead her astray, give her insight, warn her from her present path; information about terrain, another character, herself (perhaps “shoe untied” or “you’re looking ill”), weather (environment), source of water (etc., an alternative goal), history (encounter with the antagonist), etc.

The stranger could be a source of danger, threatening or attacking…

This is all rather sketchy.

I spent almost an hour this morning, leafing through the thesaurus—Roget’s International Thesaurus, Seventh Edition, from HarperCollinsPublishers, 2010—looking for “characters.”  There are lists of biology specialties, farm workers, musicians (and endless musical instruments—a saxophonist is not a violinist), and entertainers (which seemed more useful than most categories).  But it just wasn’t offering what I wanted.  A character’s employment is crucial, surely.

Then I took a look in Roy Peter Clarke: Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2006-2016, at chapter 27, “Reveal traits of character,” and read this:

Edna Buckley, who was fresh from representing New York State at the National Chicken Cooking contest, where her recipe for fried chicken in a batter of beer, cheese, and crushed pretzels had gone down to defeat, brought with her a lucky handkerchief, a lucky horseshoe, a lucky dime for her shoe, a potholder with the Pillsbury Poppin’ Fresh Doughboy on it, an Our Blessed Lady pin, and all of her jewelry, including a silver charm also in the shape of the doughboy.

The source is Nora Ephron: Crazy Salad.  I’m not sure if this is brilliant or tedious, but it does characterize “Edna Buckley” somewhat more than “obese redhead who reads Erica Jong novels and works as a violinist,” while it was the latter summary that I was looking for in the thesaurus.  All details are valuable, though not equally valuable; “redhead” is less valuable than “violinist,” surely.  Hair color can come from a bottle—red, especially—but violinist requires years of education and dedication and says much about “character.”

I could generate dozens, hundreds, of “capsule characters” like that; but so what?  I’m seeking the wrong thing, and I don’t quite know what I should be seeking.  The logical next step is that K&J find BP, or gain some evidence of where he might be, or they give up for the day.  So?

I’m also seeking some “revelation of how to write a novel.”  I have books full of such revelations.  Between a minimal breakfast, twenty minutes of Democracy Now, and lots of floundering around, I’ve spent two hours and forty minutes accomplishing almost nothing—and now I’m ready for a nap.

Before my nap, I dug out an old photocopy; Samuel Barondes: “How to size up the people in your life,” New Scientist, 13 August 2011.  The blurb reads, “Our understanding of personality has come a long way since the ancient Greeks started asking why people are so different.  Samuel Barondes outlines his tool kit for finding out what people are really like.”  The article has this quote:

…when we meet someone new we intuitively ask ourselves, are they assertive or reserved? Warm or cold? Organised or disorganised? Tense or relaxed? Open to new ideas or closed? Psychologists call these traits the Big Five, labelling them: extraversion/introversion; agreeableness/antagonism; conscientiousness/disinhibition; neuroticism/emotional stability; and openness to experience/closedness.

No—I think we’re looking to see, am I attracted or repelled?  Can she be useful or a danger?  Compatible?  Relevant to my needs?

In the bottom margin of this page I wrote:  mature-immature; I’m OK-You’re OK; cheerful-depressed (mood); driven-drifting (goals, long term); focused-distractible (goals, immediate); serious-facetious; risk averse-risk taking; idealism-cynicism-realism; optimistic-pessimistic; classic-romantic; Apollonian-Dionysian; rational-emotional; morality and legality.

On my way to my nap I was thinking:  religion, philosophy, metaphysics, politics…

I’ve been thinking about characters and characterization for a long time; in my twenties I read (and argued with) a book by Maren Elwood called Characters Make Your Story.  This is all very interesting (to me), and quite useless.

What’s important about a character is their relation to the story and perhaps to your protagonist.  I could make up a full page of traits and characteristics for a particular character (one book, if not many, recommend this as a place to start with a character), but the thought is anything but inspiring.  Tell me that a character is going to betray my protagonist, however, and I’m suddenly all ears.  And maybe I feel some ideas churning in my subconscious, like this morning’s Cheetos in my guts.

I lied; I didn’t eat any Cheetos this morning—did you see how my weight went up since yesterday?  But I hope my point is clear, because I sure don’t know what it is.

More from Barondes (who, by the way, was flogging his new book, Making Sense of People:  Decoding the mysteries of personality from FT Press); he describes “troublesome personality patterns”:

…Suspicious type is similar to what psychiatrists call the paranoid personality pattern, in which other people’s motives are interpreted as malevolent. [Theophrastus’s] Fearful type resembles the avoidant personality pattern, in which an individual is socially inhibited, with feelings of inadequacy and hypersensitivity to negative evaluation, while the Proud type resembles the narcissist pattern, with someone exhibiting grandiosity, a need for admiration and low empathy.

Also cultures influence moral standards, every culture values self- control (temperance and courage), mutually beneficial relationships with other people (kindness and fairness), and a personal awareness of one’s place in the universe (self- transcendence and wisdom).

The final stage in completing a description of a personality is to figure out the person’s sense of identity—their personal narrative of where they are headed and how they got to be the way they are. Grounded, in part, in reality, this personal story also includes plans for the future and selective reconstructions of the past. To understand a personality it is, therefore, necessary to observe this story as it is expressed in words and actions.

Protagonist; coprotagonist; friend; enemy; neutral obstacle; neutral assistant; distraction; adviser…I’m trying to create here a typology of characters as they relate to story.  Perhaps this is a better way to attack the question of introducing a character.

Well, I have lots of questions, and no easy answers.  Pity.

How about:  friendly obstacle, Kat’s mother; neutral assistant, Sheriff’s deputy; distraction, Bud; coprotagonist, Janelle?  Enemy, Black Pete?  Don’t know, maybe BP is a neutral obstacle.  This doesn’t seem to be of any particular value.

Okay, the exciting thought this morning is that Kat is about to go crazy.  This thought came to me as I was deciding to buy: Plot (Part of the Elements of Fiction Writing Series) by Ansen Dibell.  That’s text I copied from Thriftbooks.com.  I copied the ISBN (0898793033) and checked it at Amazon, then took advantage of their “Look Inside” feature and started reading.  It was fascinating reading for about two pages, telling the story of Melville’s troubles with Moby-Dick and Tolkien’s troubles with The Lord of the Rings; specifically, Melville washed a seemingly-important character overboard from the Pequod, and Tolkien’s “Strider” came out of nowhere and J.R.R. didn’t know who he was or what to do with him.

Yesterday I wrote “The logical next step is that K&J find BP, or gain some evidence of where he might be, or they give up for the day.”  Last night, just before bed, I read the last chapter (“try this at home” is the title; the first letter is lower-case but enlarged: cute) of Rod Judkins:  The Art of Creative Thinking:  89 Ways to See Things Differently, the best book I know to get a sluggish brain humming.  I was at the stage where “make a mark” is just what I needed to hear.  Don’t know what to do?  Do anything.  So:  Kat must go crazy.  It is the illogical next step.

I’ll lay down a law:  you’ll never get a “moment of surprising rightness” by being logical.  When July Johnson asks Clara to marry him (please go read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, a Pulitzer winner) in Chapter 99, she doesn’t give him an answer.  Instead, she dips her finger in the pancake batter she’s been mixing, and holds it out to him, asking him what he thinks of the taste.

It’s a brilliant moment of surprising rightness, completely illogical, and poor July fails the test.

“Kat goes crazy” is probably not a brilliant moment of surprising rightness, but maybe it’s a crutch to get me past this stumbling block of not knowing what to do.

I hope you can tell that I’m excited.

{8/23/22}

Well, that excitement went nowhere, though I think I worked a bit on the story.  Here are today’s follow-up thoughts.

“Kat goes crazy” because she’s intensely frustrated, without a clue:  her beloved younger brother is dead, she feels responsible, and there is no conceivable way to change any of this.  She should, perhaps, come on to Janelle?  This is coming from her character and her situation—it’s not “out of the blue.”  It’s not even illogical, though it’s emotional, irrational.

Final thoughts:

  1.  Take the illogical next step, keep trying until you get a good one.
  2. Any of the approaches listed can be right for a particular moment or problem.

Copyright 2022 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

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