This week, while I wait to hear about that movie sale, I'm going to be teaching a four-day workshop on PLOTTING AND CHARACTERIZATION FOR THE GENRE NOVEL. Being passed out now are the lesson plans. This year's workshop is full, but God willing I'll be here again next year. I encourage my own students to circulate, to take different workshops on succeeding years. I hope some of you will decide to take mine next year, as well.
My talk this morning will be about one of the most challenging aspects of writing: the creation of character. It's a process that's central to every length and genre of fiction. In some types, the character literally IS the story -- there's nothing BUT the gradual revelation of character.
The ability to construct believable characters is especially crucial to the novelist. But a sure hand with character is also important in short fiction. And it's even helpful in nonfiction; the same techniques can introduce real people in interviews and personality pieces.
Even in genres in which ideas or plots predominate, such as science fiction or mysteries, it is the characters who remain in our minds long after the technology or the intricacies of plot have evaporated. The writer who cannot create intriguing and credible characters is like a carpenter who can't use a saw. Yet I've noticed that even many writers who are capable of reasonable prose and workable plots, seem to find adequate character development beyond them. But characterization can be taught, practiced, and learned. To convince you, let me share something that usually I'm happy to leave buried: part of my first novel, published in 1978 and long out of print. To my relief.
In a windowless room, far from Paris, Yoshiko Kasuhara sat in front of a large desk. The room in which she sat was an office, and judging by its furnishings -- walnut, chromium, heavy glass, a vibrant Persian rug spilling over the floor like wine -- the office of a Very Important Person.
This person sat across from her; reaching middle age, but still intense, still as assertive and as outspoken as ever. Still very much in command. The reddish-brown hair was a bit faded, almost a dull brown now, though no gray dared to show yet. There were a few fine lines in the well-kept face, a few furtive crow's-feet around the sharp green eyes; but those eyes still gleamed, still held the glance of subordinates as a rattlesnake's curved fangs hold a mouse.
"Roudensky?" the middle-aged woman asked.
"He accepted, Dorothea," said Yoshie quickly. She did not really fear Lindahl, for all her very real power; in the last five years she had lost too much ever to fear any person again. There was little more that Dorothea Lindahl could do to her. But she had the Japanese respect for age and experience, so she answered quickly, glancing from time to time at a blufflooking man who stood, legs spread wide apart, beside the woman's desk.
"I don't know what your sources were, but they were right. When I approached him he seemed a bit amused, I think at the mysteriousness of our meeting; or maybe he wasn't expecting someone like me. He's handsome, in a polished European sort of way, but he struck me as a bit of a snob. He was ready to listen, though. He didn't tell me much, but I gather that he had already decided to leave his newspaper. And, I think, to leave his wife as well."
Dorothea Lindahl nodded.
Yoshie went on. "As you instructed, I told him nothing of importance. That is, nothing that could lead him to us. I said that the work would be meaningful but possibly dangerous. That it could be of importance to humanity. That he was guaranteed return passage to France when the assignment was complete, with full publishing rights, if he chose to return. And finally that the pay would be . . . nothing."
"Um," said the bluff-looking man. Above his folded arms a broad, weatherbeaten red face creased into a grin. "For some chaps that's a lure they can't resist."
"Money, you mean, Adrian?" asked Lindahl.
"Not quite," he said, taking out a short, scarred old briar and tamping a dark tobacco into it. "The intimation that money is below their notice."
Actually we could find worse passages than that in my early work, but this one illustrates two points. First, it's possible to publish even if you can't write very well. Second, even if you write badly, it's possible to improve. My goal today is to get you to think about characterization as possibly more demanding than telling me what color the hero's hair and eyes are.
CHARACTERIZATION IN FICTION: THE PROCESS
I divide the fictional process into six stages. These move from the first suspicion that a story exists, down to actually putting the flesh of words on the bones of the tale. These stages are:
o Structure and technique
Is the third stage of the process, halfway from idea to finished book, where we sketch in the actors who will carry out the action proper. In most instances, they'll also be the narrators, those who tell us the story. What else do they do? Put yourself in the place of an employment agency. What is the "job description" for fictional characters?
o They offer judgments
o They tell us about other characters
o They describe, ruminate, think
o They speak, and engage in conversation with other characters
o They act
o They interact
o They react
Continuing in our role as casting director, let's ask: what sort of characters do we need to hire? We can sort out a few categories. Protagonists -- antagonists -- sidekicks -- romantic interests -- informed bystanders -- complications -- assistants -- and clowns. These last are very important. Some authors, such as John Irving, employ only clowns. Others, such as John Gardner, ask the clowns to convey an ironic message, by commenting on the action proper.
Let's say you have the basic idea of your novel. You know the setting. You have a fuzzy idea of plot. Now let's carry our "casting director" metaphor a step farther.
Wanted: shy young man, aged 15-20, speaks fluent Viennese, able to cope with sudden psychological stress -- such as being turned into a giant cockroach.
If you don't have a character ready to hand, it might be helpful to write a want ad. That should sensitize you to the kind of person who eventually, when he or she walks in, is going to be right for your tale.
WHERE DO CHARACTERS COME FROM?
Once your want ad is written, where shall we advertise? Scarlett O'Hara -- Claudius -- Oliver Twist -- Huck Finn -- Captain Ahab -- Captain Queeg -- George Webber -- Heathcliffe -- Dr. Frankenstein -- Tom Sawyer -- Pip -- MacBeth. Where did all these people come from? DID they come from Central Casting, or from ads in a sort of fictional Variety?
I like to read biographies of writers. It gives me a certain detachment vis-a-vis my own problems. It also pays off in tips. In my readings, I've noted four sources for fictional characters that are mentioned again and again.
o People the authors knew
o Newspapers or histories, or word of mouth -- in other words, real people, but not personally known to the authors.
o Adapting other fictional characters -- the worst way to develop a character, but that looks easy to too many beginning writers. That said, there are a few successful instances where characters are directly derived from previous characters. I can think of Holden Caulfield, being derived from Huck Finn; or on a lower level, of the captain in JAWS owing a lot to Captain Ahab. Kathy Acker does a lot of this, too, but it's tricky.
o Made-up or ORIGINAL characters.
Characters who have come alive for me -- Monaghan Burlew, Jaylen McGreen, Dan Lenson, Susan Chan, Philo McGiffin, Tiller Galloway, William T. Halvorsen, Jaysine Farmer, Phil Romanelli -- have ORIGINATED in all the above ways.
Now, I think it's clear how we can pick up hints from our friends, enemies, newspapers, or other reading. It's the DEVELOPMENT in which the mystery resides. I develop characters in only two basic ways. From the inside out, or from the outside in.
DEVELOPING REALISTIC CHARACTERS FROM INSIDE OUT
I'll start with the first, since it's the one most of you have already, undoubtedly, been exposed to.
The currently popular way to develop a character -- and you'll read this in innumerable books and articles -- begins with motivation. I've heard it said, even, that "motivation is character." Well -- there's truth in it. But only a little.
In fact, it's dangerously close to a Create-a-hero Kit. You assemble a name, occupation, desire, internal problem, and at least two external obstacles. A villain. A romantic involvement. Shake and bake and -- what have you got?
Usually something pretty trite and cardboard, because we are thinking of description in terms of appearance, and motivation in terms of conflict, in terms of desire versus obstacle. But this is less interesting, I think, than visualizing the essential contradiction in terms of the character's own self-image. If the concept of self is at odds with the environment, then either the environment or the character is going to be stress-tested, and probably due for some radical change as a result.
Shall we try an example? Let's meet Phil Romanelli, in chapter two of WINTER IN THE HEART.
And the snow fell without cease. It whispered down on silent hills. Soft, heavy, endless, it hissed down past the windows of the high school like congealed silence.
Phil Romanelli was sealed off from it by grimy glass into a steamy classroom on the second floor. He sat at one of three dozen identical desks. His face was too thin and his hair too long, and his left leg was twisted like a climbing plant.
At last he lowered his eyes to the note that had reached him a moment before, announced by a pencil-prod from fat Alice Saunters behind him. Miss Marzeau had missed the pass. He held it unopened, trembling a little.
He was savoring the possibility that it might be from Alexandrine Ryun. His explanation, a few minutes before, of why Jim had accepted the challenge of the island might have done the trick. An excited twitch made his leg knock rapidly against the desk.
With infinite care, shielding his hand behind Ed Masters' broad oblivious back, he peeled the palm-dampened paper apart.
KNOCK IT OFF SMART MOUTH read pencilscrawl. OR ILL TEACH YOU TO SUCK MY DICK INSTEAD OF MARZEAUS ASS.
Phil stared at it as the teacher droned on. Lozenge-shaped iron walls were closing on him, glowing-hot. Though half the seats in the room were vacant, depopulated by the first snowfall, the very air seemed suddenly solid with hatred.
He didn't know which of them had sent the note. But he knew the type. They sprawled in the back row with arms folded, sniggering to each other. They made farting noises with their hands. Technically they were his peers, but Phil had realized long ago they were of separate species. Jockus americanus, the common musclebrain, resisted learning as the Dutch resist the sea. While he sat near the front in every class; could not let an idea pass without challenge; could not accept an assertion without subjecting it to the proof of argument.
And could never, ever, be a jock.
Yes, the disease still existed. To the surprise of people he met. It seemed they always had to know exactly what was wrong with his leg, his hip, his arm.
He didn't remember the onset. But the first images he could retrieve of life were of bed, doctors, stainless steel, and pain.
At Strong Memorial in Rochester the specialists hadn't encouraged his parents. There were operations, they said, that might straighten the twisted leg. But there was little chance of the boy's walking. It was Joe Romanelli who'd insisted on surgery. Regardless of cost, regardless of the pain.
The worst operation had been the third, when Phil was seven. Most of his leg muscles were gone, atrophied and resorbed. The surgeon, a quiet balding man, brought hand-puppets on his rounds. He pretended they were biting the children's withered limbs and chests. He'd spent six hours teasing out smaller muscles from the undamaged ones in Phil's legs, and connecting them with ligaments cannibalized from the left arm.
After that came months of excruciating therapy, till it seemed the gleaming machines would tear his joints apart. Endless drill to retrain muscle tissue, to reprogram his brain. A hundred thousand calf-builders, quad-builders, and stretches. Always stretches. He still did them every morning. If he neglected them, even for a day, those painfully rebuilt muscles would tighten back toward uselessness.
In a way, his father had been proved right. Phil was strong. He could walk for miles. But one thigh would always be too weak for him to move without a limp. He had to aid it with his lower torso, hitching it forward from the hip at each step.
Now the boy who'd outlasted the knife was seventeen. He dreamed, and knew bitterly that what he dreamed could never happen. In his fantasies he saw himself as The Stag. Awake, as a virgin, a cripple, and a nerd.
Which of the two did those around him see? Did Alex Ryun see?
It was an important question. He'd thought about it a lot. Because if he'd never be anything more, he'd decided it might be better not to live.
This is an example of building a character from the inside out. We begin with physical description, but pass almost instantly into the character's central dilemma. We characterize Phil by CONTRAST. What he fantasizes is so inconsistent with how others perceive him, that the conflict is immediate, unavoidable, and essential. It's also universal -- because all of us have probably felt like Phil at one time or another.
Notice also how different this type of introduction is from the amateurish one from my first book. We get very few visual clues. We know Phil's an adolescent, he's thin, and that one leg is twisted. That's all. But when we proceed from the inside out, we don't need a lot of external details. They're not important, because the reader sees from behind the eyeballs of the character, rather than looking at the character from outside. Needless to say, this also helps you win reader identification.
Of course, that's not to say that I couldn't, if I were asked, tell you everything about Phil: that his father's a drunken, corrupt cop, that his sister works at the relief office and is getting electrolysis on the sly, that he loves to fix electronic things. And in fact, we'll introduce all these details later in the book. But the character's not DEFINED by them.
What CAN we know about a character? How CAN we go about describing one? In general, we can divide a character's features into four categories:
o General -- from environment and heredity
o Physical -- what we refer to as "description"
o Personal -- social or moral aspects
o Emotional -- mental or psychological features or qualities.
Now, here's how I deal with these specifics. General features, such as nationality, religion, and class, are important to me, because much of my fiction deals with the distinctions we make among people, and how people react, based on them. Every major character in my mainstream fiction has these specified -- usually not immediately, but in the course of the story.
The physical features are the least important to me. In many cases, these days I give no clear description of important characters. Height, somatotype, sex and race are about it. These are relevant, because they determine how people react to one another. But eye color, hair color, age, conformation of the nose -- I find myself leaving this out. A general rule: if it's important to the story, or to the way other characters perceive him or her, put it in. If not, it's irrelevant and can be dropped.
The personal features, the social or ethical aspects, are essential to the protagonist and antagonist, important to supporting characters, and nice to have but not essential for the walk- ons. In many cases personal features reflect the ethnic and religious traits we mentioned first. In other cases, they'll conflict. This can add richness to what might otherwise be a stereotype.
But let me insert a caveat here. If you're going to specify ethnic or religious characteristics, play fair. Do your research. In WINTER IN THE HEART, Jaysine Farmer is a lapsed Christian Scientist. To portray her I went to Christian Science services for six months, read SCIENCE AND HEALTH, and interviewed a practitioner. I see far too many ethnic, racial, national, gender, and religious stereotypes in journeyman fiction. This has never been good art; but in today's politically correct climate, it can also hurt you with editors and reviewers
This might also be a good place to warn you about wholly good or wholly evil characters. I have never met a wholly good or evil person. Real people are more complex, and our characters should be as well. The most thoroughly nasty person I've ever portrayed, Troy Christian, in BAHAMAS BLUE, was still capable of inspiring love in at least one other person.
And in fact, one can use this insight to create real art. Why not make your antagonist wholly admirable, wholly noble -- save for one fatal flaw. As Hamlet says:
So oft it chances that in particular men
That, for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As, in their birth -- wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin --
By the o'ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
The form of plausive manners, that these men
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature's livery, or fortune's star,
Their virtues else -- be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo --
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault. The dram of evil
Doth all the noble substance often doubt
To his own scandal.
Finally, consider the emotional and psychological features of the character. These should be directly related to his or her role in the novel. Take Dan Lenson, the protagonist of THE CIRCLE and my other Navy books. He was an abused child, and this affects his relationship to authority. His religion is never overtly specified, but he has a strong ethical system. On the other hand, he's naive; he believes what he's told, and he trusts people. This sets him up for conflict after conflict.
Now all this may sound complex. But take heart. YOU DON'T HAVE TO GET IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME. Since character is so intertwined with plot, theme, and setting, and since all four will evolve in the course of writing, your understanding of the character will deepen as you write. Recycle these deepened perceptions into the earlier parts of the book. Don't worry if the character, when you start out, seems thin, or unconvincing. Get the story down the first time through, and rework with each rewrite. Little by little the character will deepen.
DEVELOPING CHARACTERS FROM THE OUTSIDE IN
Now let's go in from the opposite direction -- from external characteristics INWARD, to use external actions and dialogue to diagnose the internal contradictions and feelings. I only recently discovered the unexpected power of this technique. Again, let me start with an example. This time, from the opening of THE ONLY THING TO FEAR, which will be published next summer.
"Congratulations, Lieutenant Kennedy," said the President, fumbling a little as he stretched his hands up to drape the ribbon over my head. As the others had, I bent from attention toward him, looking over his thinning hair as his fingers returned to pat the gold and red and bronze of the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.
When I straightened it was a barely discernible weight on my service dress blues. I smelled Camels and aftershave lotion and my own sweat. The air in the Blue Room was overheated in an already-warming March, 1945. I lowered my eyes to find his big freckled hand extended. It felt soft, but the grip was surprisingly strong.
"Thank you, Mr. President," I said. FDR grinned, pumped my hand -- it felt like he could break it -- and cocked his chin as the photographer's flashbulb went off. When our palms parted the somber-looking aide rolled him back and spun him skillfully around. Moved him one pace to the right, and spun him again, to face the next hero. As the wheelchair moved deliberately along the ranks Abe Lincoln gazed sadly down at us from his frame, at boys in blue and olive drab and khaki, fresh from a war even greater than his. Boys missing arms, jaws, eyes, hands, pieces of their skulls. As the aide pushed him past the one without legs the President raised a hand. The chair stopped, and he leaned forward.
Roosevelt said a few words in a low voice, his head bent confidentially. The boy chuckled. "Yassuh, Mister President. I'll bear that in mind when I get home, sure enough will."
"Stand at ease, there, you men he's already talked to," muttered a husky admiral. He glanced at his watch, then at a civilian who lingered by the door.
I relaxed to a half-assed parade rest, surreptitiously grinding my fists into my back. The pain had begun again, a dull ache that told me that it, like so many things in this late winter of the war, had dug in for the duration. I tried to ignore it, looking across the room. Past shabby furniture, through the window of the West Wing, the first green buds on the elms were visible. Beyond them was the gray pillared mass of the Treasury Building.
When I looked back the President had finished the last presentation, a posthumous Medal of Honor handed to a weeping man on top of a folded flag. He held the father's hand for almost a minute, not saying anything. Just holding it. When he finally motioned to the aide to roll him back the father's reddened eyes stayed on the flag.
Franklin D. Roosevelt's hands trembled as he leaned back in the wheelchair, screwed a Camel into an amber holder, scratched a match. He inhaled, and coughed. The smoke rose slowly, separating into layers. Some rose, others fell, gradually coalescing into a motionless haze, like fog over the sea off Cape Cod.
The ceremony was over. The line of men broke, scattering across the glossy parquet floor to waiting relatives. FDR glanced around with a sigh. "Deacon, tell Maysie I imagine these brave men are as ready for a little drink as their commander in chief. You, Lieutenant -- Joe Kennedy's younger boy, aren't you? John, that's it. Join me, John?"
"Uh, yes sir," I said, surprised. "I'd be honored."
"Bill, make sure the lieutenant gets whatever he wants. And do the same for these other brave fellahs."
He raised his voice on that last, cocking his head back over his shoulder at the far end of the room, and tired excited faces turned toward us for a moment from the little crowd of parents, reporters, senior officers. Now that the President was out of range of the cameras, flashbulbs rippled like outgoing 40mm fire at night. I noticed two men in blue suits standing against the wall, arms folded, watching everything silently. One kept his eyes clamped on me.
The bottles and fixings came in on a metal cart pushed by a middle-aged Negro in a white mess jacket. FDR kept talking as it tinkled closer. "Put it over there, by the window. No, you serve, Maysie, I'm a little weary just now." A large black Scottie followed the cart, came over to us and flopped down, shoving its head under FDR's dangling hand. He scratched Fala's ears absently. "John, I hope you'll forgive me for sitting down. It makes it a lot easier, not having to drag around ten pounds of steel on my legs."
"That's fine, sir. I understand."
"You don't look so chipper either. Are you feeling all right?"
"A little malaria, sir."
The colored man brought me a glass of whiskey on a tray. I swirled it absently, looking closely at the man who had just awarded me the only medal I'd probably ever get.
I'd seen the President before, with my father, years ago. The difference was shocking. He was no longer the fleshy, robust Roosevelt of the thirties, before Pearl Harbor and the War. Now his gray suit hung off his big shoulders and his cheeks were gaunt. His skin looked ashen and the graying hair, never very thick, had crept toward baldness on top. But he still looked lively, and wherever he was, that was still the center of any gathering.
"Well, you're back in one piece, that's the important thing. We're proud of you, John. Proud of every man in here today -- and every hero who's still out there."
"Actually I'm not a hero, sir. I -- "
"No false modesty, Kennedy. I read the article about you in the Post. How you saved your men after that Jap destroyer ran you down. PTs, eh? 109, was she a Higgins or an Elco?"
"She was an Elco boat, sir. One of the eighty-footers." I knew enough not to sound surprised. The President had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy back during the first go- round with Germany, and according to fleet scuttlebutt he'd spent a lot of time at sea since December of 1942.
The murmured conversations, the clink of glasses was muting behind us. Turning my head carefully, I saw the civilian ushering the others out. It was time for the man who'd just been reelected for an unprecedented fourth term to move on to the next event on a busy schedule.
He came back and looked at FDR. The President pursed his lips, then shook his head.
One of the blue men closed the french doors gently from outside.
Suddenly we were alone together, lead crystal and straight Ballantine malt weighing down my hand. I lightened it a bit and straightened in my chair, trying to keep my back quiet. For some reason I felt apprehensive. I tried to shake it off, to look eager, or at least relaxed.
The President was still talking; hadn't ever really stopped. "Did you know I had to wrestle the Navy brass to get the PT? Back in '37, I forced them to take fifteen million dollars and develop something small, fast, and heavily armed."
"Is that right, sir? I didn't know that."
"Absolutely. You know, I remember back in the old Navy days -- when I was assistant secretary, under William Jennings Bryan -- Bryan used to come tearing into the office, his back hair at right angles to his coattails, like Tom Powers used to draw him, and he'd shout: "Roosevelt, can you give me a battleship? I must have a battleship to send to the capital of Haiti -- the city with the funny name.' 'Port au Prince,' I said. 'Yes,' said the Secretary of State. 'They have cut the President of the country into four parts and they're carrying the pieces in processions through the streets. The revolutionists will kill all the white people in the country. I must have a battleship there today.'
"Well, I explained to W. Jay B. that all the battleships of the Atlantic Fleet were on maneuvers in Narragansett Bay. 'But I must have a battleship there today,' he kept saying. I explained that Port au Prince was four days' steaming distance from Narragansett Bay, but that I had a gunboat in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a few hours away. And Bryan shouted, 'Roosevelt, don't be so technical about it all. When I say "battleship," I mean a boat with guns on it!'"
I chuckled; it seemed to be expected. FDR went on. "And then boys like you took the war to the Japs -- not in battleships, but in a modern kind of gunboat. . . Well, it's only what I'd expect of a Kennedy. I respect Joe. Although we've had our arguments. What do you hear from your father?"
I remembered all the things my dad, once an admirer, had said about the President. Not just at the breakfast table in Hyannis Port, but in public. Things that had hit the newspapers, and had finally gotten him recalled as ambassador. But aloud I only said, "My mother writes. My father's not much for letters these days, Mr. President."
"Rose is a rare one, Joe's a lucky man. Eleanor's a wonderful woman, but it's not easy being the chief assistant to Joan of Arc." I grinned sympathetically as he went on, the cigarette holder familiar from a hundred newsreels trailing smoke across the closed-in air. No question about it, the rumors I'd heard of his being a dying man were way off base.
Through the doors both of the blue-suited men were watching me now. One had a pencil-thin moustache like Ronald Colman's.
FDR's mobile face sobered. "I was sorry to hear about your brother. A Navy Cross won't make much difference to your dad, but it was all I could do."
I looked down at my hands. Joe Jr. had died flying B-24s in a mission they still hadn't declassified. All I knew was its name: Project Aphrodite. I couldn't think of anything to say.
"George tells me, General Marshall I mean, that things are just about over in Europe. We've almost closed this chapter of human evil. Finished for good with Hitler, Tojo, all the dictators who feed on hate and ignorance and fear.
"But there'll be more. We've got to put together a mechanism to stop them before they get too powerful. Or we'll have to do it all over again in twenty years. Stalin and I can deal. Whatever Winston thinks. You've met Winston, I believe?"
"I thought he was rather rude the first time we met, back during the Great War. But we've grown close over the past years. Where'd you meet him?"
"In '39, sir, in England. While I was writing the book."
"Why England Slept. And a damned good book it was."
"You read it?"
"Sure I did. I thought it was perfectly splendid, too. That's when you met Winston, eh? I remember when he was here in '44, and somebody -- Hap Arnold, I think -- asked him if he wanted water in his whiskey. 'Water! Do you know what happens in water?' he said. 'Fish fuck in it!' Broke us all up." He frowned at my glass. "Don't care for scotch?"
"I'd never say so in front of Fala, sir."
He threw back his head and guffawed. "I love it. I love it! Not in front of Fala! But where'd it come from? I never heard old Joe crack a joke in his life . . . So, what's the next duty station? Or are you waiting for orders?"
"Neither, sir. I'm medically retired, effective next month."
"Is that right? How old are you, John? Wait a minute, I should remember. You were class of 1940."
"And you were . . . 1904?"
"Close, '03. Groton?"
"Class of '40. My God! Anyway, that'd make you -- "
"You know, at your age I was representing Duchess County in the New York State Senate, District 26."
"That's the kind of thing my father says." I stopped myself. But too late; FDR was saying, "Well, he's right. The war's interrupted everything, but it's not going to last much longer, if a couple of things we've been working on . . . What do you plan to do with yourself? Afterward?"
"I haven't decided yet, sir." I hesitated. "I'd like to do another book. I think I might want to be a writer."
"No political ambitions?"
I glanced up to find him examining me with those shrewd, good-humored, deadly eyes. "I'd never run against you, sir."
He threw back his head again, and the hearty haw-haw echoed through the empty room. "Well, it's good to know I'm safe for a fifth term. But seriously, as soon as the war's over I'm through with politics. I'm going home to Hyde Park, see if I can make the place pay. We'll need fresh blood in a few years. Why not a war hero, another Harvard man?"
I said, "I'm not my father, sir. Or my brother. Maybe I'll just try a novel."
"I love Mark Twain," said the President, swerving deftly where he sensed resistance. "I took the term 'New Deal' from Connecticut Yankee, did you know that? I learned a lot about writing speeches from old Sam Clemens."
I smiled. He tossed off the last of his drink and pushed his chair away from the desk. As if on some unseen signal, the colored man was there, whisking the glasses away, carrying the ashtray off to be emptied. The President sighed, tapped the ash off the nearly finished Camel, and laid the holder across the ashtray. His hand searched across the desk, dropped to a paper; I saw the marking MOST SECRET at the top. "Again, congratulations, Lieutenant. If you're in town for a few days, come back for a chat. Come to dinner. Thursdays are best. If you can stand sweetbreads, that is. My least favorite part of the cow, but Eleanor likes them."
Taking that as dismissal, I got up, wincing as my back reminded me who was boss. "Thank you, Mr. President."
I didn't intend to, but I found myself saluting. I didn't like what he'd done to Dad, but somehow this gaunt, crippled man inspired respect.
"Oh, you damn reservists," FDR said. "You know the Navy don't salute indoors."
As the butler ushered me out I glanced back. For a moment the light of the setting sun shone around the man who sat there. He'd already lost the transient spark of gaiety, slumped forward in the wheeled chair, mouth sagging slightly open, cigarette smoldering in the tray. In the failing sunlight the smoke looked red. The paper dangled forgotten in a hanging hand. He was staring up at the portrait of the assassinated President.
Now, this is a long passage, but it's worth a close look. Because it contrasts, and not by accident, the two ways of developing character.
In this opening scene, Kennedy's the point of view character. We hear his thoughts, about his father, his brother, his bad back, and so forth. We hear his reactions to FDR, thus defining both of them in still another way. Kennedy speaks in first person: he is the "I" and the "eye." He tells us what his conflicts are. His back is a problem; he has what he thinks is malaria; the world thinks he's a hero, but he doesn't; others want him to go into politics, but he doesn't; he dislikes Roosevelt, but respects him. We construct Kennedy from the inside out, first defining his problems, then adding external plot to play off them.
On the other hand, in introducing FDR, we worked the same way an actor works: from the outside in. Given the external manifestations of the character -- in this case, let's list some of them, of Roosevelt --
o gaunt looking
o Harvard accent
o External props -- cigarette holder, glasses, cape
o cares of office, politics, war
o anecdotes he tells
o his need to monopolize conversation and direct people
o his handicap
o his illness.
-- now, given these, we have just constructed a convincing scene with absolutely no access to the man's internal thoughts.
This technique works especially well, I think, in historical novels. But it WILL work in any type of fiction, especially for characters you don't want to make point of view characters -- for whatever reason.
This, by the way, is exactly how actors operate. The actor must INFER what kind of spirit and motivation inhabit action and dialogue. It's like a paleontologist finding a fossil shell, and trying to reconstruct the creature that once inhabited it.
When I mentioned the topic of this speech to a friend of mine, he said it reminded him of Laurence Olivier. So I looked up Olivier's book ON ACTING. He says:
Usually in finding a character, I'm afraid I do it from the outside in. I know modern thinking decrees that you should do it from the very inside out, and that may be right, but it's not my way. I paint a portrait of the man in my mind's eye as if I were oil-painting it and say, "That's the man."
This technique is especially valuable to beginning writers, because it lends itself to drill. Take a scene in history and fictionalize it. The characters already exist -- all you have to do is to create the illusion of reality, using those external elements that belong to that character. For example, the anecdotes I used in the FDR-JFK passage were all told by FDR at one time or another, though not to Kennedy; thus, the scene is entirely fictional, but still true to reality -- it MIGHT HAVE happened, though it did not. Gradually you'll find yourself gaining insight into what the character will do or say next.
Now, whichever method you use -- inside out, or outside in -- remember that character development is a process of discovery. You will NOT realize your characters fully on the first draft. By the time you write "THE END," though, you will have spent enough time with them that you can then revise them into consistency, richness, depth, and fascination.
THIS IS IT
And -- that's it. Those are the two paths to characterization, plain and simple. There's more to it, but precious little you can learn by listening to me or anyone else. A Chinese philosopher once said, "I hear, and I forget; I see, and I remember; I do, and I understand." Ninety percent of a writer's skill is learned alone, trying to do the best you can, over and over, till it's as good as you can do -- and you'll find that's just a little better every time.
CONCLUSION: THE REWARDS
Finally -- try to love your characters. Even the least lovable of them. The surest way to the reader's heart is to forget about what's fashionable or what's selling, and to write the kind of book you always wanted to read but could never find. So be patient with your characters -- limited and flawed as they may be. Keep on working. With time and experience, they WILL improve!
David Poyer is possibly the best known writer of American sea fiction alive today. His most recent book is THAT ANVIL OF OUR SOULS (Simon & Schuster, July 2005). Check out his work and career advice at the Home Page location below.
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