The Last Word
For the storyteller, it's a matter of character
Call him protagonist, hero, main character or what have you, he or she is the character upon whose shoulders the story rests. Every ninth-grade English composition student knows that and can probably sort out character development through the course of a story. Without a character, you have a nice travelogue or a philosophy book.
What makes a character so real, unforgettable, or compelling enough that a reader plows through 600 pages of text? How does a writer make a character that fulfills this criteria? I use the verb "make" deliberately. A writer, like a bread baker, makes up the dough of characters out of specific ingredients, kneads in the components of plot, and lets the story rise. The main ingredients are physical attributes, motivation, and an array of nuances that demonstrate the character's personality. The leavening, just to continue the bread-making metaphor, is conflict.
If the author is depending on a wardrobe change to suggest character development, then there is probably something lacking. However, in Sena Jeter Naslund's new novel, "Abundance," a novel of Marie Antoinette, she certainly does describe the Queen's vast wardrobe and frequent changes of clothing. But Naslund is such an exquisite writer, that she is able to parlay the excesses of costume in the French court of the 18th century into a character flaw in a frighteningly naive young woman.
A reader recognizes a good character. Good, not in the sense of personal morality, but good in the sense that the reader agrees that this person exists, is three dimensional, is alive enough to be concerned about; that the character is reasonably visible in the mind's eye. Not that a character's physiognomy should be described in such detail that the reader has to struggle to keep his face in mind, but enough to hint at what he looks like. After all, a well-developed character goes far beyond his physical attributes and the story is his, we need to care about what happens to him. In the novel, "Thanksgiving Night," by Richard Bausch, his character, Oliver Ward, has a physical tic that has his head shaking 'no' when he doesn't mean it. This shrapnel-induced quirk forces a reticent carpenter to explain himself to strangers all the time. The tic serves a dual purpose: as a physical description - how the other characters see him - and as a way to demonstrate this character's sense of self. Bausch uses Oliver's tic as a much more dynamic characteristic than if he'd just given him blond hair.
Physical description aside, it is how a character tells his story, no matter first or third person, that defines him. Some characters are untrustworthy, telling their stories by withholding key information until the end; others lay it all out there without artifice so that the reader knows what they're thinking, and can anticipate certain outcomes. Then there's action - which, if my mother is correct, speaks louder than words. But, of course, it's all words, words on paper. A character that slips into a bar is a different person than the guy who bangs open the saloon doors and stands there assessing the situation.
There is a thin line between compelling and caricature - that point when a character is too exactingly written that the reader thinks no one could ever behave in such a fashion. I have personal prejudice toward characters that weep too much. I just read a book, by someone whose work can be very good, if a bit uneven, where all of the characters, were on the edge of their emotions for the entire book. Nobody goes around on the verge of tears, or in tears, or thinking about the past all the time, and it had the effect of neutralizing a reader's compassion. A relatively simple story that, to me, was not really believable. On the other hand, in "The Time Traveler's Wife," by Audrey Niffenegger, we are completely on board with the notion that Henry time-travels. No questions asked, all disbelief willingly suspended because Henry is such a great character, totally compelling in his affliction because he has adapted his life to accommodate sudden bare-naked arrival in his own or someone else's past.
To create a believable, soulful, and, above all, interesting character, a writer has to pay attention to the details, allow that character to grow, celebrate the humanity of the imaginary with realistic and appropriate action, reaction and words. A good character is one whose actions take him beyond the person he thinks he is, and a good author is one who takes him there with the reader along for the ride.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at susanwilsonwrites.com.