Why do some writers' characters seem to spring effortlessly to life on the page, while others of us struggle and, even then, sometimes feel we've missed the mark? We look at our paper people and wonder--will these characters ever feel real to my reader? Will they be convincing enough to coax anyone to follow them through an entire short story, a novel, or (most challenging of all) a series of mystery, suspense or science fiction novels?
Too often authors think that by listing the physical and basic emotional traits of a character, they will breathe life into them. By tossing in a description at the beginning of a story or scene, we've delineated the character, created a convincing portrait, given the reader the necessary information to imagine a particular type of person. But how important is it for your audience to know that Rachel has long blond tresses, while Norma has short dark hair? What does it really tell us about Frank if we see that cute cleft in the middle of his chin, or notice that he's 6'2"? I was reminded of the deeper differences in real people, which should be mirrored in our story characters, by a whirlwind Saturday recently. Let me explain.
We, DH and I, had screwed up our calendar (not an unusual occurrence) by purchasing tickets to a 5 p.m. concert at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. on the same day we were supposed to be at a luncheon on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, 100 miles away from the city. Although the times didn't actually overlap, the 2 ½-hour drive from coastal Maryland to downtown D.C. would make for a tight schedule. As we drove across the Bay Bridge and east toward the restaurant where we were supposed to meet with 75 members of our sailing club, in this the off-season of December, it began to snow…and I got an uneasy feeling about our chances of making either venue. But we drove on and arrived in good time for the luncheon. Since my husband does most of the driving, I always take editing for my mentoring clients or a portion of my own WIP to work on as we zip along the highway. Thus, when we arrived, I was still in that writer's daze, semi-lost in my story and its characters.
This first group of people we were meeting for lunch had been sailing buddies all summer long. We knew them by first names (not always by last) and by their boat's names. Some live in Pennsylvania, some in Maryland or New Jersey. Their jobs, families, religion, political affiliations, and education are all different and no one cares. The one interest that has brought us together is a love of sailing the Chesapeake Bay. As I was a tagalong, my husband being the newly elected Commodore (don't laugh, I think that makes me First Lady of some sort), I grabbed myself a glass of wine and sat back to study folks. What was it that made each of these people unique? What would someone observing them and, not knowing anything about them, learn on first meeting each one? For me, it was a lot more than whether their hair was gray or they chose to wear blue jeans instead of a suit and tie. It was their enthusiasm and ready smile, or the tentative and thoughtful way they listened to conversation. It was the use of hands, head, and full-body gestures that marked them as different. It was the words they chose to express themselves—warm or cautious, teasing or self-deprecating, concerned or casual, cheerful or complaining. All of these subtle differences I could see using for my paper people when I needed to breathe life into them. But there was, over all and despite their individual personalities and characteristics, a feeling of relaxed camaraderie. This was an atmosphere that wasn't in-your-face, out-to-impress, challenging or demanding a great deal of concentration. I kept thinking about this—the mix of setting and characters. In another setting, how would each of them change to suit the atmosphere? The most laid back individual might spring to action in the face of an emergency, no longer speak in the same languid tones, or become so unnerved as to be unable to speak at all. So maybe character is more a matter of a mix of personality, past experience, and current circumstances?
I was looking forward now to our second people-watching opportunity of the day. At the end of the luncheon, we dashed for the car and sped through sleet and snow back toward Washington. Miraculously, we found a parking space on the street just one block from the National Portrait Gallery where the concert was to be performed. Now this is no ordinary classical music performance. This is the 21st Century Consort. Their members are drawn from some of the most prestigious musical assemblages in Washington. Many we have recognized as regulars from the National Symphony that performs at the Kennedy Center. And the pieces that are chosen are all modern, very modern. So much so that many of their composers are still living, and often appear as guests to discuss their compositions before the audience. Although I often feel at a loss for understanding the music (not having any training in that area to speak of), I feel amazingly privileged to actually see these gifted composers and hear them speak about their works. I tell my husband, "Two hundred years from now, these people will be honored as the masters. It's like meeting Chopin or Mozart!" But this time what most interested me were the people in the audience. Because, like the group of Saturday sailors we'd just left, they came from different places in this or other countries, and no doubt they had varied religious and political views, but they shared a common interest in a very select type of music. The atmosphere here was also friendly, to a point. Many people seemed to know each other and greeted one another warmly. But the conversations! (Okay, so I eavesdropped. Don't you when in a crowd? Great research.) These people spoke an entirely different language—and one foreign to me. They were familiar with the pieces being played. They spoke in technical detail about the compositions, the instruments, their personal experiences playing this music, conducting it, arranging it. And the feeling in the auditorium (and later at the reception in the garden court) was electric, challenging, hyper-charged intelligence colored with a competitiveness that hadn't been at all evident among our sailing friends.
What have I learned from this day? That the white-haired, stocky gentleman in sweater and chinos might be one type of character at a luncheon for casual sailors…and someone else entirely if he instead chose to spend his spare time at an intimate classical concert. He might love to putter around boats on a summer afternoon, but his look-alike might write a sonata. One fellow might think nothing of diving off the stern of his boat to unsnarl a line from his propeller. The other may have never set foot on any ship smaller than the Queen Mary. Characters are a complex mix of the physical, emotional, personal history, talents, manners of expressing themselves, and circumstances as well as the settings and company in which they find themselves.
All of this reminds me—"Don't settle for a simple physical description and a touch of dialect. Go deeper, a lot deeper if you want to build a believable character on your pages." I'm going to try to remember that as I continue work on this next book. Maybe you will think about it too? --Happy writing! Kathryn