What do characters do for a story? How is it that the writer crafts such an entity with whom readers can empathize? How does bringing a character to life serve to enliven the plot and setting?
Characters are half the reason we read. We're excited because of the plot, but we care because of the characters. — Patrick Rothfuss
Characters tend to provide a lens into a story.
Characters do not have to be people. (Authors like China Miéville in novels like Perdido Street Station or The Scar develop the city of New Crobuzon and the sea into characters with impressive movement, texture, and indeed emotions unto themselves.)
But characters usually are people, whether like us or not, with at least a handful of relatable qualities that allow the reader to invest in the story.
Visual imagery, personality traits, backstory, relationships, and unique characteristics may all be employed to make a character feel real in the reader's imagination.
Do novelists start with character?
Not all. (More to come.)
But authors like Patrick Rothfuss believe strong characters are central to a compelling story, providing the driving force. Character growth (or change) through various challenges and obstacles despite the character's flaws is highly relatable and keeps the reader interested. Rothfuss is known for using memorable moments of dialogue to reveal character.
Sketching a Character
Another fantasy writer, Brandon Sanderson, tends to outline a story's plot and setting before "casting" characters to see if they belong in the story:
Alright, I'm going to try writing a character in this world. I'm going to see where this person goes, what their passions and dreams and hopes and fears are, as I write them. And if that works, great! I'm going to keep going with that, and that becomes my character. If that doesn't, I put that aside and I try something very different.
There are many ways to begin the process of developing a character. Questions like the following are merely simple entry points:
- What does the character want and why can't they have it?
- (If a plot already exists) What is the protagonist's personal connection to the plot? Perhaps their motivations will come into conflict with those of other characters. Perhaps an external event will call them to adventure.
- Will the character be able to become the person they need to become?
Once a character is imagined, the task of making the character come alive on the page presents itself.
In the writing of character, or characterization, writer Jeff Vandermeer submits questions like, How much interiority will we get from this character?
Does immersion into a character's thoughts drown out the world beyond? (Ulysses or Gravity's Rainbow.)
Or is the character drawn in a full or rounded way, three-dimensional? In this mode the reader gets access to thoughts, feelings, and relationships but in such a way that these thoughts are not what is exclusively defining the story.
Finally, partial characterization, for Vandermeer, includes Idiosyncratic (characters aren't flat, as in folktales, but neither do we get a full sense of them; they remain mysterious but somehow seem unique) and Type driven (the stern policeman or the light hearted airline stewardess where readers may as a result of that type project qualities not explicitly drawn by the writer).
In Vandermeer's Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, a few more questions are posed:
- Is the viewpoint character the one with the most to gain or lose?
- Is this the character with the most agency in the narrative, and does agency drive your view of character more than the idea of external constraints on the character?
- Is this the character who most interests you or that you are most passionate about?
- What limitations will you have as a result of using this character?
- If you are using first person, does this character have an interesting way of expressing things?
- Do you want the reader to feel close to this character or more distant?
Perhaps even more basic:
- What does this person need?
- What does this person want?
A Knock at the Door
To emphasize, these questions may only be quiet invitations or subtle hints at opening the door to a character who has come knocking at the threshold between your subconscious and conscious experience.
Do you answer? Do you pretend not to be home (before or after spying from the window)? Do you shout for your son to answer because you are occupied?
Whatever you do might say something about your character.