On Character

Katherine Longshore Reply Tuesday, March 29, 2011
"You're a role-player, you're an actor, and you've got all these different characters who you invent and who are there forever.  I must have a cast of thousands..."

So says Ian Rankin, author of the Inspector Rebus series in an article in the Guardian newspaper's Saturday Review.  The article is full of quotes by award-winning British authors from recordings done for the British Library archive, and in it, these authors explain their process, their motivation, their craft and their passion.  This week, we are talking about character so I wanted to share some of their thoughts on character interspersed with some of mine.  Their thoughts so echo my own that I got shivers -- I mean, really, I have the same thoughts as Hilary Mantel?  Imagine a fangirl swoon, if you will.

I start with Ian Rankin's words, because the last time we talked about character, I mentioned acting (though not necessarily method acting) as a way to get into character.  Even minor characters, as Rankin explains in the article.  "You just think about these people until they become real to you and you can inhabit their bodies, for a short space of time...only for a page or two, but a page or two is all you need."

I was reminded of this recently when I sent out a few pages of GIRL IN A DIAMOND COLLAR to the Muses and our friend Bret Ballou.  I wanted to get a scene just right, and sought outside feedback to make sure the characters worked well, and their motivations seemed appropriate.  Bret wrote back and one question he asked was, "What is William feeling here?"  I realized I was so focused on my narrator's feelings and reactions that I had somehow misplaced those of the character with whom she was interacting.  So I put myself in William's shoes for a bit, worked out his point-of-view, before returning to my narrator's eyes to describe what he looked and sounded like based on the feelings I had created for him.  It was a great reminder, and one I'll need often, I'm sure.  We mustn't leave our minor characters out in the cold.  We mustn't make them cardboard backdrops against which our narrators and antagonists play.  They, too, must be flesh and blood with real, achievable feelings etched in their expressions and words.

PD James echoes this in her quote in the Guardian:  "There's this duality of actually experiencing what your character is experiencing, at the same time with part of your mind thinking of the technique of bringing this alive for the reader."  Exactly.

And how do you create these characters?  How do you make them come alive for the reader?  This is what Penelope Lively, author of the Booker Prize Winning MOON TIGER and several other prize-winning novels, says:  "I'm very keen on dialogue as a way of defining character, so I often find that the notebooks fill up with passages of dialogue between a couple of character who...haven't even got names."  And she names them later when the characrters have revealed themselves.  Some of what she writes never gets into the novel, but the conversations are there, behind them.

Michael Frayn, author of the play NOISES OFF and the novel SPIES amongst others, says, "With characters, you are actually creating thier lives with them.  It does seem...as if they are speaking and leading those lives.  It's a very symbiotic relationship.  You're very much involved in leading their lives with them."  And do you, like me, find it hard to say goodbye at the end?  And I get a thrill out of being able to change the outcome of a situation.  Out of being able to help my character find the right words -- or destroy her by finding the wrong ones -- so say at the right moment.

And Hilary Mantel, author of WOLF HALL (which I think is probably the most brilliant Tudor historical ever writtten), says this:  "You have to create (characters) out of your own self...You really have to be prepared to live through them." 

I finish with Mantel's words -- they apply to character, to writing, to the very act of creation itself:  "It is just amazing what imagination can do -- what it can cause to happen in the real world, and every day I'm proving and exploring how strong the products of one's mind can be."  For a little while, your characters are real:  to you, to your reader.  They live, they breathe, their words have an effect you can't calculate when they go out into the world.

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