Notes for Novelists: Credible Characters

Your novel needs credible characters, people more real than those you meet every day in the office or supermarket but still acting as anyone would in their situation. People who also represent characters your readers would like to be, so they can warm to and identify with them. You have these resources:

1. Descriptions

Characters used to be introduced with lengthy descriptions: 'Visitors to O'Connell's Ice-cream Parlor in the early summer of 1964 would have noticed the appearance, every morning at eleven, of an elegant young woman with tightly curled blonde hair and eyes so large, candid and blue that regulars would say, 'here comes summer on the prairies again.' She was dressed in . . . and the small waist was even more tightly pinched by . . . Everything was immaculate, even to the stockings, which were silk, as the better class of customer was aware-and O'Connell's did have the better class of customer in those days.' And so on.

Still useful for short stories, but something of a burden on the reader who has to remember these details. Who is noticing all this, and is it relevant? No doubt police officers and portrait artists do make mental notes of passing strangers, but most of us take in only what we need to get through our busy lives.

You may do better to build your character slowly, giving your reader just what is necessary scene by scene to explain the narrative. 'She wasn't pretty, but there was something about the manner, he thought: pleasing, a little girlish even, though she was in her thirties, he concluded, dismissing the thought. He brought out his cell-phone, and was making his third call of the morning, when he noticed she was looking at him again. Too old to be wearing that short dress, he said to himself, as though he had some claim on her life. . . '

Two last points: professional novelists often keep a 'casting book', where they jot down descriptions of characters dreamt up or met in real life. Into this large book they dip when the need appears for a character in their work. Detailed descriptions are also restricting, and many excellent novelists keep them simple and vague for that reason. Readers like to create them in their imagination.

2. Dialogue

Important here is what others say to and of the character you're building. If they call him 'spineless' or 'calculating' or 'a decent sort' that those descriptions will be one aspect of his character. Those aspects may not be accurate — the characters may be acting as unreliable narrators, or seeing matters too much through their own perspective — but character need not be presented all at once, but grow slowly in the reader's consciousness as the plot evolves.

3. Reactions of other characters

Nothing works in advertising like the personal recommendation from someone we trust, and the same technique is open to the novelist. It may be direct as in popular fiction:

Haines rubbed his jaw. 'Well, the only guy who's going to measure up to that is Rayner,' he said slowly.

'Red Rayner?' said Gonzalez. 'The guy the CIA ran out of Guatemala?'

'They ran him out of Peru and Mexico, and every other trouble spot in Latin America. But he's still there, and the CIA still use him, because he's the only operative the guerrillas respect. . .'

Or more oblique, as in literary fiction:

Devlin was the malevolent figure I'd met on my first day at the plant, who disappeared for weeks on end, only to re-emerge with an affable modesty when credits were being handed out . . .


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