Saturday, 16 March 2013

Fictional Characters from the Inside Out

Do they look like they are from the inside out is a question I try to ask as I create a new character. I feel it's important (but not imperative) to start with how a character is inside, rather than  how they appear in the flesh. Mind you, don't get me wrong, if you see a girl on a station, and the way she stands makes you want to write about her, or if you see a shot of someone's life in a Sunday supplement, and the same strong urge is generated, or if you recall a family member from your childhood – the way they wore their hair or the way they they always scratched their nose – then that's as good a starting point as any. But if your story starts at some other juncture, so that the characters are not so much an initiation into it but a continuation of your thinking about it, then I think it's a good idea to build the character from the inside out. Say you're writing about two people in a restaurant (Okay, I confess, I'm writing at this moment about two people in a restaurant), and you know the story, and the outcome (which I'm lucky enough to do...I think), then you may already have a fairly solid idea of what those people are thinking, what their life is when they're not in the restaurant; what they hope and fear; even what their back history is. So now, you can start looking at how to describe them from the outside. Sometimes, it's not even necessary to do this; readers really prefer the inside story when it comes to characters. But if you are going to do some describing, start by asking 'how would this person look outside, now I know how they feel inside? Creating symbols, so long as they are not too obvious, can be a good way forward. For instance, in my story, my male character is doing a PHd in ancient history, so when he first sees the girl, it's her dark eyes that attract him; and so I made her someone that uses a lot of black eye make-up.

If you do physically describe, your words should trigger a strong reaction – first in you, then in your readers. The more vivid the description, the more powerful that reaction will be. If you're new to writing, as a lot of my followers are, it’s a good idea to practise writing about people you know or that you have observed at first hand.  It will help you to develop a writer's eye for detail and will mean that eventually you will be able to create fictional characters much more convincingly. There are many ways of describing characters. Here are four:
  • Physicality and mannerisms
  • Clothing and possessions
  • Action
  • Speech
All of the above can be represented on the page in one of two ways – mundane (Sally was a red-haired girl with attitude), and extraordinary (‘My eyes aren’t really green,’ Sally admitted, ‘the contact lenses accentuate my hair colour.’) Both are relevant when building character. By the way, the first example was physicality and the second was speech. Below is an excerpt from early in the short story A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor  (A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories 1953) How are the four basic methods of description used and where did the author use simile and metaphor?

Bailey didn’t look up from his reading so she wheeled around then and faced the children’s mother, a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied round with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like rabbits ears.  She was sitting on the sofa, feeding the baby his apricots out of a jar. “The children have been to Florida before,” the old lady said. “you all ought to take then somewhere else for a change so they would see different parts of the world and be broad. They never have been to east Tennessee.”
The children’s mother didn’t seem to hear her but the eight-year-old boy, John Wesley, a stocky child with glasses, said, “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” He and the little girl, June Star, were reading the funny papers on the floor.
“She wouldn’t stay at home to be queen for a day,’” June Star said without raising her head.

I didn't say that the four categories above are in anyway definitive. I can think of further categories, and if you put your mind to it so can you. If you're still new to writing, it's a good idea to note all this sort of thin down, wherever you make such notes (for my writing clients, we call this our 'Progress Pages'). Add any notes, or snatches of writing (yours or other writers'), that supports the list. And why not start to compile an ongoing list of eye-catching  similes and metaphors, so that you've always got one – at least one you can rejig – to hand? 

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