When I was a kid, my mom used to say I was “quite a character” when she introduced me to her adult friends. I would smile and blush, and shuffle my feet around a bit, embarrassed by her flattery of my obvious gifts and abilities.
Only many years later did I learn that being a “character” isn’t always a compliment.
This month, as we explore characterization, perhaps we should understand what a character is. Many of you are probably rolling your eyes just about now — really, everyone knows what a character is, right? So go ahead, define it. Just what makes someone, or something, a character?
Our first reaction is to say it’s a person who appears in your book. And that would be right. But what about if your book doesn’t have any people? Maybe the story is told through a dog’s eyes. Okay, so a character can be an animal.
If you read “The Old Man and the Sea”, you will also discover a character can be a thing, as in this story, the sea, is. A book about mountain climbing could have the mountain carrying the job of being a character.
A character is any one or any thing that moves the story forward. It doesn’t have to be a person. It doesn’t even have to be a living thing. A character simply must move the story forward.
When you create characters that are people, it can be easy to get to know them, to use some of the techniques described in other posts, such as asking them questions. But, when your characters aren’t people, knowing them, and therefore, telling the story through them, can be more difficult.
If you’ve ever listened to Kids’ Point on AM910 (KPOF) on Saturday mornings, Nature Corner teaches us a lot about getting to know our non-human or inanimate characters. Every Saturday Uncle Bob interviews something from nature. They have birds and fish and other animals, and sometimes they have a star, or a kind of rock, or coral. Cool stuff. And they give it a life, a voice, a personality.
Creating memorable inanimate or non-human characters requires you to give them the same things your human or animate characters already have — a personality. Give them an attitude, a reason for being, a purpose in being in the story.
In a current WIP I’m working on, one setting is the Brown Palace. Older than dirt, that building has a history, an attitude, an air of regency, which I am weaving into my story. I want to draw the reader into a genteel time in the past, where people thought different than we do now, they acted different, they had different expectations. And one of the ways that time was manifested is in the Brown Palace.
Take a look at your current work in progress and see if there is a setting, a building, a mountain, an ocean, that can tell an element of the story from a different perspective. I’m not telling you to have talking cars in your story, but, hey, Stephen King had a best-seller based on the character of a car, Christine.
Characters are everywhere, and they aren’t limited to people. Look for an undiscovered character in your story.