How To Create Characters Who Leap Off The Page
by Maxine Thompson
Show me your friends, and I'll tell you who you are, a special co-worker once told me. First, let me explain what special means. In Ebonics, we'll say, ''She's a special case.'' Or if someone is not dealing with a full deck, but yet are loveable, we'll say, ''She's special.'' So as you see, this was a ''gem'' spoken out of a ''special'' person's mouth.
Although, at the time, I didn't quite understand what she meant, I now know what she was talking about is called ''character.'' In life, this could be a bad thing, but in fiction this is a good thing. Nothing works better for memorable fiction than strong characters with flaws. To get to the point, how does one create memorable characters? Sol Stein, in his book, Stein On Writing, points out that eccentricity is at the heart of all strong characterizations. In short, the most effective characters in fiction are to some degree bizarre.
Character is an essential part of the best fiction. Think of all the memorable characters in fiction. When you think of the books whose characters resound in your head, you don't think about, well this happened and that happened, (plot), you generally think of who the protagonist was. Words such as ''Scrooge,'' ''Pollyanna,'' and even ''Uncle Tom'' developed in our culture to express a personality, an outlook, a character trait. And in spite of my dislike for the Antebellum South, from my first reading at fifteen, Scarlettt O'Hara and Rhett Butler stenciled a place in my memory as colorful characters. (Who can ever forget Rhett Butler's last sardonic words, ''My dear, I don't give a d--?.''
As an African American, I grew up during the 50's with no role models in my fiction. No archetypes that had any relevancy to my life. But now, I--and readers from all races-- are blessed with a list of memorable Afrocentric characters. Janie ( who left 3 husbands), creator, Zora Neale Hurston. Sula, Milkman. Pilate. Sethe (who cut her baby's throat rather than see her back in slavery). Creator, Toni Morrison. Nana Pouissant (who built bottle trees to protect her family), creator, Julie Dash/ Daughters of the Dust. Likewise, I'm hoping that my fictional characters--Jewel, Big Mama Lily, Nefertiti, Solly, Pharaoh and Reverend--will one day also become household names in the literary corridors of my reader's mind.
Eccentricity has frequently been at the heart of strong characterization for good reason. Ordinariness is what readers have enough of in life. The most effective characters have profound roots in human behavior. Their richest feelings may be similar to those held by many others. However, as characters their eccentricities dominate the readers first view of them. The first time I encountered this is through the character of Pilate, from Song of Solomon. She has no navel, yet has the ability to communicate with her dead father. I am still haunted by her dying
Another reason character is so important in plotting your fiction is that people are different. The same tragic event can happen to two people and have different effects. One person can lose his job and never bounce back, and another will be galvanized by the same event. These are the types of points of departure you can examine in fiction through your characters.
These are the three major techniques I think will make the difference in creating memorable characters who leap off the page.
1) Point of view. Even if the character is eccentric, you should make the reader understand his world view.
2) Specificity in Details. Develop your character's quirks, habits, motivations, and hobbies.
3) Challenges. Fiction that takes risks and challenges our smug assumptions about life.
Don't just write about normal situations. Examine the human hearts and the depths of what people will go when faced with moral dilemmas. What will a mother do when she is broke and hungry and has children to feed?
To distinguish between plot-driven fiction and character-driven fiction is the same distinction you find between popular movies and serious movies. The former categories often satisfies you, but, like Chinese food, can leave you ravenous after a few hours. Character-driven fiction/movies will stick to your ribs like ''soul food.'' It will make you examine the human heart and condition. Most of all, it often disturbs you like the book and movie, Beloved, yet you will find yourself driven to read these same books over and over.
About the Author
Maxine Thompson, Inglewood, CA USA
More Details about http://www.angelfire.com/ca2/blackbutterflypress here. Dr. Maxine E. Thompson is the owner of Black Butterfly Press, Maxine Thompson’s Literary Services, Thompson Literary Agency and www.maxineshow.com. She is the author of eight titles, The Ebony Tree, No Pockets in a Shroud, A Place Called Home, The Hush Hush Secrets of Writing Fiction That Sells, How to Publish, Market and Promote your Book Via Ebook Publishing, The Hush Hush Secrets of How To Create a Life You Love, Anthology, SECRET LOVERS, (with novella, Second Chances,) and Summer of Salvation. SECRET LOVERS made the Black Expression's Book Club Bestselling list on 7-8-06 (after a 6-6-06 release date.) Since 3/05/02, she has hosted an on-line radio show on www.voiceamerica.com called "On The Same Page". The show is aired live on Tuesdays at 6:00 a.m. Pacific Time, 6:00 p.m. Pacific Time, and Saturday 1:00 p.m. She is also a host on www.artistfirst.com Monday at 6:00 p.m. PST. On March 1, 2005 she launched her own radio show at www.maxineshow.com. You can sign up for her free newsletter at http://www.maxinethompson.com.