This post is an excerpt from Fine-Tuning <Fiction by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.
All fiction begins with people and the premise that people are interesting. The term people covers all species and forms of characters, human or otherwise, who command your attention as a writer, for if the people of a story cannot hold your interest as a writer, no reader will be interested in them, either. Think about the stories you remember best: are you more aware of the characters than the action?
What about the characters held your interest? Why were those personalities interesting?
10 Memorable Character Traits
Choose one of those memorable characters and write down ten things that make him/her/it memorable. Keep in mind that the character in question must come from a reading source, not film, television, on-line,or other audio-visual media.
Take a good look at what you have written. Think about how these elements have combined to make a character you believe in, one who held your interest and made you involved with his/her/its life, a character who convinced you. What made all these factors compelling and convincing? How did the writer do it? What made the character come alive for you?
Without characters, a story is nothing more than an account, requiring no argument or resolution, which are the foundations of story-telling. Developing characters who hold the attention of your readers is the first task of the fiction writer, for the nature of the characters drive their stories, just as the personalities of real people shape their actions in life. Characters are what make your story real or unreal, convincing or unconvincing, compelling or dull; without them, fiction cannot exist.
Bringing Your Characters to Life
You must know them well, and far beyond the limits of the story in which they appear. You must take the time to learn all that makes them come alive for you — because (to make the point again) if they don’t come alive for you, then they cannot and will not come alive for your readers.
For example, if the character on the page is nothing more than a puppet, or a simple persona, or the object of reporting, nothing more need be said than this:
- A man went down the corridor.
- A man moved along the corridor.
This figure is little more than an object in motion, hardly more than an extra in the drama, a stick figure in a sketch, or mobile window dressing.
But add some means of distinguishing him—it needn’t be much—and he becomes more interesting—more real:
- The man limped down the corridor.
- The man sidled down the corridor.
- The man skittered down the corridor.
- The man in the raincoat stalked down the corridor.
- The man, clad in paint-spattered overalls, jogged heavily down the corridor.
- The man with the hazard armband hurried down the corridor.
- The man, his Armani suit set off by the daisy in his button-hole, sauntered down the corridor.
- The man with the bruised jaw stumbled down the corridor.
- The grey-haired man struggled down the corridor.
- The man with the camera sneaked down the corridor.
- The man with the bandaged hand strode purposefully down the corridor.
Each sentence provides a sense of who this man is and implies something about his character and his intent in moving down the corridor. It also creates a desire to know why he was limping or sidling or skittering or stalking or jogging or sauntering or stumbling or struggling or striding down the corridor, which is the beginning of characterization, for it implies a stake in the action taking place in the corridor, of giving a figure dimension beyond the immediate situation, or in other words, making the character extend beyond the page.
In my own work, I subject the characters of my stories to what I call The Pizza Test:
The Pizza Test
Premise: The character in question is asked to join colleagues for a celebratory pizza (or its equivalent for the culture and setting of the story) upon the occasion of a shared accomplishment.
First question: Does this character like pizza: why? What is his favorite kind of pizza?
Second question: If this character does like pizza, will he go with his colleagues: where?
Third question: If this character does not like pizza, will he go anyway: how come?
Fourth question:If he goes,what will he order: if not pizza, what would he prefer? Will he actually order it? How will he account for the preference, or will he explain at all?
Fifth question: How will he pay for his part of the meal: if he does not pay, who pays for him and why? How will he react to being treated, or not being treated?
Sixth question:Will he enjoy himself: why or why not? If he has a good time, how will he show it?If he does not enjoy himself, how will he behave? What does he think of the others attending the celebration?
Seventh question: What makes the occasion important to him and why? Does the character think that sharing a pizza is an appropriate way to mark the occasion?If you have a primary, secondary, or tertiary character you can’t do the Pizza Test with, you do not know that character well enough.
Incidentally, there are no correct or incorrect answers to the Pizza Test; there is no grade for doing it—it is only a device to help fix the character more clearly and comprehensively in your mind. Every character will have different answers, and so long as they are true to that character, whatever the answer is, is the right answer.
About the Author: A professional writer for more than forty years, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro has sold over eighty books,more than seventy works of short fiction, and more than three dozen essays, introductions,and reviews. She also composes serious music. Visit her on the web.