If you have been writing for a while, or if you have consulted any books on writing, or taken a class of some kind, you have probably heard this advice: be sure to make your characters “larger than life.”
Fine, you say, chewing on the stub of your pencil until your gums bleed, but just what the hell does that mean? What is “larger than life” – apart from Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe, or the giants in Harry Potter, how can someone be “larger than life?”
I’ve always thought that was an unfortunate phrase, a rather clumsy way of trying to convey a complicated and specific notion of what a fictional character should be. What I take it to mean is that fictional characters should be more condensed, more vivid, and more intense than people in real life. Or, to put it another way, many people seem to drift through life in black and white. And then, every once in a while, we meet someone who seems so alive, so full of vitality and force of personality it’s as though they walked right out of the pages of a book. That’s what I think is meant by “larger than life.”
“You’ll tell it to me or you’ll tell it in court,” Dundy said hotly. “This is murder and don’t you forget it.”Take that, copper. Oh, yeah.
“Maybe. And here’s something for you not to forget, sweetheart. I’ll tell it or not as I damned please. It’s a long while since I burst out crying because policemen didn’t like me.”
Too Revealing – Or Not Enough?One of the questions a writer faces – especially in mystery and crime fiction – is how much to reveal to the reader, and how to reveal it. It’s obvious why this is true about plot, but it is also true about character. Another phrase you may butt up against in discussions on the craft of writing is “fully rounded characters.”
What does this mean? You often see nifty little checklists in books on writing about the things you should know about your characters – I’m always astonished at how complete these lists are. Are they a cat person or a dog person? Do they use Dove or Ivory soap? Do they like baths or showers? Do your really need to know every little thing about your characters, what kind of cologne they wear, what their favorite color is, boxers or briefs?
And then do you have to dutifully reveal that information to your reader?
In a word, no.
Like everything else in writing, you must choose what to reveal to your reader. If it’s pertinent to know what college someone graduated from, for example, then by all means mention it. If it’s not germane to the story you’re telling, leave it out. Your job is not to give a resume for each of your character – nor is it your job to know every little thing about your characters, any more than you know every little thing about the people in your life. Give yourself time to get to know your characters, the same way you might get to know a friend. Take them out to dinner, watch what they order. Go for a walk, see what they enjoy about architecture, or nature. Go to a concert, a play, or a museum – see what kind of paintings or music they prefer. In other words, treat them the same way you’d treat anyone else you don’t know very well – rather than imposing your tastes on them, let them tell you what they like.
Character Is As Character Does
It was eleven-thirty on a Friday, the night her father got paid, the worst day of the week. And now there came the sound she dreaded, the sharp closing of the front door. He came blundering in and she saw her mother move in front of the armchair, which Rhoda knew would awaken his fury. It was to be her father's chair. He had chosen it and paid for it, and it had been delivered that morning. Only after the van had left had her mother discovered it was the wrong colour. It would have to be changed, but there had been no time before the shop closed. She knew that her mother's querulous, apologetic, half-whining voice would enrage him, that her own sullen presence would help neither of them, but she couldn't go up to bed. The noise of what would happen beneath her room would be more terrifying than to be part of it. And now the room was full of him, his blundering body, the stink of him. Hearing his bellow of outrage, his ranting, she felt a sudden spurt of fury, and with it came courage. She heard herself saying, "It isn't Mother's fault. The chair was wrapped up when the man left it. She couldn't see it was the wrong colour. They'll have to change it."
And then he turned on her. She couldn't recall the words. Perhaps at the time there had been no words, or she hadn't heard them. There was only the crack of the smashed bottle, like a pistol shot, the stink of whisky, a moment of searing pain which passed almost as soon as she felt it and the warm blood flowing from her cheek, dripping onto the seat of the chair, her mother's anguished cry. "Oh God, look what you've done, Rhoda. The blood! They'll never take it back now. They'll never change it."
P.D. James, The Private Patient
You might find you’re surprised by some of the things you discover about them. And there is no greater joy in writing than that sudden, surprising discovery, as the veil lifts and you see your character standing before you. In fact, it can be downright spooky.
Often our best characters come from a place so deep within us, a force so universal, that it feels spooky, uncontrolled, eerie. Let it happen – if you have an experience like that, consider yourself lucky.
More often, I suppose, characters are a hodgepodge of traits from people we know or have seen – or even other fictional characters. We imbue them with life by giving them the inner life of our own unconscious or conscious mind.
In playwriting and screenwriting, there are three basic ways of revealing character: what a character says about himself, what others say about him, and what he does. In prose fiction, you have the added element of narrative: you can tell your readers what you think about your characters. But don’t make the mistake of doing this too often – it’s the least dramatic way of revealing character.
Come Here, Watson, I Need You
In fact, in mystery fiction we speak of “the Watson” character – usually a first person narrator – someone close to the detective but not with him at every moment, who relates the tale to the reader as it progresses. Archie in the Nero Wolfe stories is such a character. He does virtually all of the “heavy lifting,” running around town chasing down clues, suspects, and witnesses, while Wolfe lumbers around his apartment tending to his orchids and dining on gourmet delicacies provided by his Fritz, private chef – but, in the end, it is Wolfe who puts together the pieces of the puzzle and solves the crime. It may seem a bit unfair that the final glory goes to his corpulent employer, but Archie doesn’t have it so bad – after all, he gets to hang out in speakeasies, drink bootleg whisky, and woo willing damsels while on his various errands.
The Watson character serves as the ears and eyes of the reader. He is never so close to the action as to spoil the surprise – while the detective is off solving the case, Watson may be following a false lead, or chasing down a clue, or even trying to locate the detective, who has mysteriously slipped off somewhere. He may be in on every step of the case, watching the detective work, but from a distance: the great thing about the Watson character is that he doesn’t always know what the detective knows, doesn’t see what he sees.
The Watson character tends to be more “normal,” or average, than the detective, who is likely to be brilliant but troubled, a gifted bundle of neuroses – like Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe – or Adrian Monk and Greg House. (Though regarding “normal” people, I like Joe Ancis’s comment: “The only normal people are the ones you don't know very well.”)
Mystery fiction abounds with variations on the Watson character. Inspector Morse has his Sergeant Lewis, and Hercule Poirot has his Captain Hastings. In these examples and others, the Watson is not the narrator of the action, but is the man (or woman) of action, whereas the detective is more cerebral (though in the Doyle canon, Holmes himself is very athletic, with expertise in several martial arts.)
Claire Rawlings mysteries, I made Claire herself the Watson character. She’s not a woman of overwhelming intellect, nor is she an especially forceful personality. I left those qualities for the detective in the series – a twelve year old girl with a genius IQ and a personality like a Brillo pad. Abrasive, neurotic and troubled, Meredith Lawrence needs the steadying influence of someone like Claire – just as Claire is drawn to the girl’s energy and brilliance.
The Watson, then, can serve as a balancing, complementary character to the detective. And in general, when creating characters, you want to make them as different from each other as possible. This is sometimes called the orchestration of characters. Just as a composer writes different parts for the oboe and say, the violin, the fiction writer covers different spectrums of behavior and character traits with each character. The spectrum of human behavior, tastes and traits is wide, and so creating two characters who are similar is not only a waste of space, but a lost opportunity.
In fiction, opposites attract. Complementary characters make good stories. This is so well known to some writers that it has become, once again, nearly a cliché. If the heroine is a good girl, her best friend will be a bad girl. If the hero is shy and serious, his sidekick is a sociable goofball, and so on. You can find endless variety in this basic idea – as endless as the permutations of personalities. The pattern is an old one, but if you write with truth and imagination, it will not come across as a cliché.
Heels and VillainsOf course, every Holmes must have his Moriarty. It goes without saying that in crime fiction, without a criminal, there is no story. You can put as much energy and ingenuity into the creation of your villain – and have as much fun – as in creating your detective, your Watson, or your love interest (more about that later).
When you set out to create your antagonist – whether it’s a super virus or a super villain – remember that in that character lies the engine of the story. It is the action of the antagonist that drives the hero to greater and greater effort and peril; without a cunning and dangerous antagonist, your hero will sit at home with his feet up, sipping Jack Daniels and watching reruns of Star Trek. That is why it is so important to make your protagonist dangerous. And, of course, the more people he/she/it can put in peril, the more exciting your story will potentially be. In the case of Professor Moriarty, of course, it is his ruthlessness combined with his immense intellectual ability – but you could just as easily create a criminal who is so desperate he will stop at nothing, or who is exceptionally violent, or driven – the choice is yours.
And, of course, in the case of a medical thriller, the antagonist might be a bacteria or a disease, so do your research and choose (or make up) something really scary. If the antagonist is a person or persons, think driven and obsessed – in other words, nearly unstoppable – nearly. One of the reasons serial killers are so fascinating is that they are both driven and obsessed. They aren’t really in control of their behavior – once they start killing, they can’t stop. The forensic psychological literature is full of case studies on serial killers, and though the mechanism isn’t fully understood, what is known is that their behavior is so driven they will risk almost anything to kill again and again.
The Heels Have ItAnother thing you can do to raise the stakes and made your hero’s task more daunting is to give him an Achilles heel. You remember the story of Achilles, right? In the Trojan Wars he was the great warrior who no weapon could harm – except for his heel. His mother dipped him in the river Styx when he was born – and the water’s magic powers made him invincible. But she held him by the heel, so that one part of his body was vulnerable (I never understood why she didn’t just give that foot a quick dip when she was done, but maybe double-dipping was frowned by the gods, just like in that Seinfeld episode.)
Silent Screams, I give my protagonist Lee Campbell a double whammy: his sister has been murdered, and he suffers from depression.
The archetype of the Wounded Hero is one we see throughout world literature, from Cervantes to Hemingway (Jake, the hero of The Sun Also Rises has a literal wound, making it both metaphorical and concrete). If the protagonist’s weakness, or wound, is part of what drives them, so much the better. Lee Campbell is ever in search of his sister’s killer; it’s the reason he became a forensic psychologist. Sherlock Holmes is ever in search of escape from the tedium and ennui of daily life; hence, he chases dangerous criminals. Oh, and yes – he’s a cocaine addict.
Of course, don’t just pull a weakness out of a hat – make it something you can write about either from personal experience, or be willing to do the necessary research. For example, we have all come across addicts in our lives, but Larry Block actually is an alcoholic, so he can write about it from personal experience, from the inside, as it were (I’m not spilling any secrets here – he’s made it quite public and has no qualms about discussing his addiction).
Another reason for creating a protagonist who is compromised in some way is that vulnerability makes people interesting. It adds another dimension to their character; it also gives the reader something to identify with. Even though fictional characters speak in snappier dialogue than real life, and have more exciting lives, on some level readers need to think of your protagonist as just like them. The process of identifying with a fictional character is tricky: on the one hand, readers like a protagonist they can admire, but on the other hand, if you make them too perfect, they will come across as unbelievable or unsympathetic. Your readers don’t have to fall in love with your protagonist, but they do need to empathize (of course, ideally you want your readers to fall head over heels in love with all of your characters).
Dames and Bad GirlsThe Bee Keeper’s Apprentice, in which a young Mary Watson signs on as an assistant to the aging Sherlock Holmes – becoming his love interest as well as his “Watson.” More often, though, the love interest is part of a subplot – and, in a novel, you will need one or more subplots. The love interest can be integral to the action of the main plot or separate from it. In Silent Screams, Lee Campbell’s love interest is a forensic anthropologist, so she becomes part of the main story line, as well as a romance subplot.
In classic noir detective stories, of course, there is the Bad Girl archetype – the dame the private dick can’t help falling for, but who screws him up in the end. Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon is the probably the prototype for this kind of Bad Girl. She’s sophisticated, intelligent and lovely, but in the end she’s no good. Part of her fascination lies in the fact that Sam Spade suspects she can’t be trusted – and yet he can’t help himself. The classic setup, of course, is the beautiful woman who comes to the detective for help – and turns out to be more trouble herself than he imagined. It can be a handy way to keep turning the plot: is she bad or isn’t she? In The Big Sleep, for example, Chandler turns the story again and again on the question of whether the Vivien Sternwood is trustworthy or not. In any case, there are plenty of bad guys who Marlowe knows are trouble, like hit man Canino. Of him Marlowe says:
"You know what Canino will do? Beat my teeth out and kick me in the stomach for mumbling."
Gay or straight, love struck or not, your protagonist is the one your readers will be asked to care the most about, so give them somebody to care about, someone they can admire but identify with.
And then put them through hell. Make them suffer, make them squirm – don’t worry; they’ll respect you in the morning.
Her plays and musicals have been presented in New York City at The Players Club, Manhattan Punchline, Pulse Theatre, The Van Dam Street Playhouse, Love Creek, Playwrights Horizons, HERE, the Episcopal Actors’ Guild, the Jan Hus Theatre, Lakota Theatre, The Open Book, The 78th Street Theatre, Genesius Guild, the 14th Street Y, and Shotgun Productions, as well as the Alleyway Theatre in Buffalo, The Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, Actors and Writers in Olivebridge, and the Byrdcliffe Theatre in Woodstock, New York.
She holds a B.A. with honors in English, with a second major in German from Duke University. She teaches creative writing at NYU and Gotham Writers Workshop.
Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and experience with us, C.E.!