Just Creative Writing

The Four Elements of Fiction: Character


Characterization is rooted in detail. - Oakley Hall

Writers are all voyeurs. We like to see how others survive, how they resolve problems, what they do that is different from each of us. That being the case, the importance of character to the story cannot be overstated. All stories survive on the strength of their characters. A story does not exist without characters. The character moves the story along from the beginning through the middle to the end, carrying the story’s theme on his or her back. Without character, the reader does not experience the setting, has no theme to follow, and sees no purpose to the story.

Today’s fiction is primarily character-driven, and the amount of planning and research a writer puts into the development of his characters will determine whether the characters spring off the page fully grown or appear two-dimensional (flat) and uninteresting. They must be three-dimensional regardless of the role they play in the story. The writer will visualize each character as a composite of many. He will determine what the characters will say in any given situation, how they will say it, and why they will say it. It is not enough for the author to give us two-dimensional characters through passive writing; he must round out his characters through dialogue, description, point of view, conflict, and active narrative. As explained by E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel: “The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way.”

Readers want to follow a character through his or her many trials and tribulations; they want to cheer for the protagonist and watch the antagonist go down in (well-deserved) flames. Readers want to care about the characters they encounter, and in order to achieve this, characters must be believable. The writer will strive to have his characters loved and hated, but indifference is not an option. Flat, ill-defined characters do not draw emotions from the reader.

The principal objective of today’s blog is to encourage writers to work with the basics of character development as it relates to setting, situation, and theme—the other three major elements of fiction.

Character and Setting

Setting is best delivered through the eyes of the characters, through their five senses. The character’s point of view is used to give the reader a sense of place and time and environment. Setting delivered through narrative such as weather, era, season, time of day, etc., may give the reader the information she needs, but in order to experience setting, she must experience it through the eyes of the character(s).

Setting will establish a character’s depth and dimension, i.e., a dark, sinister library; a sailboat alone on the ocean; an untidy house with open drawers, doors, windows, etc. A waitress who is a minor character and appears only once in the story will have dimension if she slips on the wet diner floor and spills coffee on the antagonist.

Background characters are present as part of the story; they flesh out and add realism to settings. Although they remain background characters, their support of the setting gives them a sense of importance to the story.

Characteristics that determine the relationship between the elements of setting and character include environment and location: how the character deals with these items—whether they change or remain static—will affect her relationship to the current setting of the story.

Setting will have meaning to the characters and provide the characters with emotion. It provides the backdrop for character development.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier: How does the setting of Manderley affect the various characters, for example, Rebecca (absent character); Mrs. de Winter (the second); Mrs. Danvers (the housekeeper)?

A Christmas Carol: What are the various settings, for example, visits by Christmases Past, Present, and Future, and how does each affect Ebenezer Scrooge?

• Historical settings: How do they affect character? For example, London during the blitz; Chicago, 1968 Democratic Convention; Oklahoma during the Depression; Chicago, St. Valentine’s Day, 1929.

Setting is to some degree, our “stuff,” whether the house we live in, the car we drive, or the place where we work. One of the goals of setting is to establish the makeup of our characters, and setting will determine their actions, reactions, and behaviors.

Character and Situation

The story grows from a situation that is present. The author is responsible for placing the protagonist in a variety of tight spots that evolve from that initial situation, but it is up to that character to get herself out of those predicaments, relying only upon her own cunning, wit, intelligence, and so on. Characters must grow and will be developed upon their ability to resolve or inhibit the resolution of a situation. “To make your story credible, a character has to be able to perform the actions sketched out in your plot synopsis” (Rubie, 1996 p. 41).

Relationships between the major characters will unfold as the writer determines and exposes how they relate to each other as the situation grows into the story. This will be reflected through the tension and conflict created by the writer. “Interwoven character relationships almost create plot complications all by themselves. They can help make plot outcomes dependent upon each other,” (Maas, 2001).

Expansive backstory on a background character distracts from the situation and can lead the story in a different direction or at the very least will slow down the pace of the story and possibly lead to confusion.

Orson Card, in Characters & Viewpoint explains, “If you actually expect your reader to get emotionally involved, to respond to your story as a story, you must wring more life from the character, so that she isn’t so obviously being manipulated by the author to produce results that have nothing to do with the events of the story itself.”

Characteristics that determine the relationship between the elements of situation and character are:

Occupation: What the character does for a living can be key to moving the story forward.

Example: Jonathan Kellerman’s protagonist, Dr. Alex Delaware, is a child psychologist, and because of his occupation, he is drawn into assisting the police with crimes that relate to children’s behavior.

Background/Reputation: A character’s background will cover a multitude of levels. How she was raised; her relationship with family; her religious background (or lack thereof) will be significant to the movements of the story and may be even more significant in genre fiction, such as Romance, Science Fiction, Thriller, etc.

Example: In Michael Crichton’s Time Line, his major characters have an educational background in French history, and as they are carried back in time to medieval France, their knowledge of the time is essential to the satisfactory conclusion of the story.

Motive: A character’s motives will drive the story forward. If a character has no relationship to the situation, he has no reason to be in the story, and the writer should not expend any time on developing him.

Example: In James McBride’s Song Yet Sung, Patty Cannon’s motive is to recapture escaped slaves for monetary gain. Patty’s motive makes her a vital character to the story’s outcome.

Conflict: is a primary technique used in moving a situation forward into a story. Characters grow as they confront the areas of conflict—the actions and reactions—set before them by the writer. As conflict occurs for both the protagonist and the antagonist, the reader moves from being an observer of the story to being a participant in the story.

Situation develops characters, regardless of their role—from the primary protagonist and antagonist to the lowly little less-than-minor characters who occupy tables in a restaurant. Every character has a role to play in the story, and the story progresses from the initial situation through the characters’ actions, dialogue, and motivation.

Character and Theme

Major characters are the heart of the story and will convey the theme to the reader through their actions, motivation, and attitudes. The author lets the viewpoint character (narrator) communicate the theme through narrative, point of view, and dialogue. In developing the protagonist and the antagonist, the writer must know the goals of each; and everything these characters do, every conflict they experience is designed to achieve those goals; to express the author’s theme.

Example: James McBride’s Song Yet Sung focuses on the theme of “slavery’s haunting choices” in 1850s Maryland. Every character carries this theme throughout the book. Their actions and thoughts keep McBride’s theme always close to the surface. His protagonist, Liz Spocott; his antagonist, Patty Cannon; and every major and minor character that comes in contact with them, adds perspective to this theme. McBride does not waste time on developing even a minor character who is not going to keep this theme in the reader’s attention.

An author will use personal experience to develop his characters as they relate to the story’s theme. The writer will put himself into both his protagonist and his antagonist because no one can deliver his theme better than himself. By the end of the story, the protagonist will have grown and learned something about herself, and through this growth, she will have delivered the author’s message as well.

Characteristics that determine the relationship between theme and character include:

Motivation: This is a crucial aspect of a character that relates directly to theme. A character without motive is static, like a piece of furniture. Motive is the character’s purpose or intent when she takes action. Every revision of motive is a revision of the story. A character’s actions will be motivated in two ways: internal and external. Why do the characters take the action(s) they take? The writer will set characters in motion through conflicting motives. How does a character’s motive drive the story forward? Each character will have different motivations; if all characters have the same motives, the story will be monotonous. Don’t tell the reader what the character’s motivation is—show the motivation through action, body language, mannerisms, dialogue, etc. A clear understanding of a character’s motives will help deliver the author’s theme.

Consistency and Potential for Change: Changes in the character—subtle or obvious—must relate to the author’s theme.

Attitude: Through attitudes, we establish the meaning of relationships between characters, and the relationship between character and theme.

Character is defined by the human condition, and the theme will show the depth of this condition through the character’s actions. Theme provides life to the characters, especially the protagonist and antagonist who will struggle through the conflicts established by the writer.

Every character in the story will represent the theme in some aspect. In some instances, and to increase tension in the story, an author may choose to use opposing themes; the protagonist works against one theme and the antagonist against another. However, the use of two themes must follow through the story from beginning to end; they must crisscross, and at the end, the reader must understand how each of these themes has communicated the author’s message and how the themes relate to one another.

Characters--in particular the main character, must change throughout the story and as these changes occur, the reader learns about the author’s theme through an understanding of why and how the character changes.

In a few weeks, we will revisit “character” and discuss creating strong characters throughout one’s story, regardless of the role they play.