What’s a Novel without Characters?
Last week, I was talking about how I write a novel. Today, I want to talk about characters. After all, what’s a novel without characters?
Character Vs Characterisation.
In his book on screenwriting, Story, Robert McKee discusses the difference between character and characterisation, a concept that confounds many. Characterisation, he says, “is the sum of all observable qualities of a human being.”
So: age, height, sexuality, choice of vehicle, speech style, dress sense, personality, behaviour, job… And so on.
Many people, particularly new writers, think such things show a person’s character. They don’t, they are their characteristics. So, what makes a character and, more importantly, how do you show character when writing a novel?
My rule here is to never write something like, ‘Oh, Tony? Yeah, he’s a dodgy character,’ and leave it at that. Show Tony is dodgy (whatever that means), show him doing something so the reader imagines for himself how dodgy Tony must be.
Yeah, okay, but how?
Robert McKee, one of the gurus of screenplay writing, says: ‘True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.’
He also says the pressure is essential, and that reminded me of a writing truism. In this case, it was said best by Syd Field in his work, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting
“All drama is conflict. Without conflict, you have no action; without action, you have no character; without character, you have no story; and without story, you have no screenplay.”
For screenplay, you can read novel, play, musical, story…
How do I show character?
All this theory made me think about my characters and how I set about creating them. I shall be honest here, sometimes I don’t think about a character before I write him/her, I just let them write themselves as I go. In other cases, I sit and consider the character beforehand, and at other times, I imagine someone I know, put them in a story-appropriate costume and setting, and write them doing what I think that person would do. Later, as I go through the drafts of a novel, I pay more attention to whether that character would actually do whatever it is I have them doing. I ask myself, would they say that? And more importantly, would they choose to do that? Sometimes, they just do it, and they’ve made a decision and shown character before I realise what I’ve written. That, for me, is when I know the characters I am creating are real.
Here are some examples of how I show character in The Clearwater Mysteries. Some of these examples were planned, others just happened because I was being led by the characters I was creating.
At one point in ‘Deviant Desire’, Silas and Fecker take Clearwater and Thomas into the East End to see the sites of the Ripper murders. Archer (Clearwater) is looking for clues and becomes increasingly aware of the life Silas has been living. He is also falling in love with the Silas. Seeing how he lives, the squalor and the danger, Archer, being an impetuous romantic, offers Silas a new life and declares his love for him. They happen to be at a Ripper murder site, in the dark, with a mob of vigilantes fast approaching, all of which are designed to add the conflict, drama and tension to what should be a romantic scene.
On hearing a handsome, wealthy man, a viscount, is offering him a way out of his hellish existence, and knowing that he has feelings for Archer, what does Silas do? In a classic romance novel he might swoon into the man’s arms and say, ‘Take me away from all this,’ but this is a Clearwater novel. Silas simply says no, tells Archer to run before they are caught, and disappears into the night.
That rejection defines his character. He’s not weak, he’s not swooning, he’s taking himself out of a ‘dream come true’ situation because he can’t cope with the idea of being loved. That’s his character or part of it, and we learn from that scene that Silas is insecure about love, but strong when it comes to his convictions.
In book four, ‘Fallen Splendour’, we know that James is handsome, a ‘jock’ by today’s standards, literate and loyal, and we know he was bullied when younger, but these are characteristics. So, we need him to show character. Cut to the scene where Inspector Adelaide has taken Silas from Clearwater House and thrown him in gaol, Archer and Fecker are away, Thomas is at Larkspur, and two strangers, the Norwoods, have come to look after the house. James is alone, and because of the way Adelaide behaved, he suffers a flashback to his bullying. He crumples by the door thinking all is lost but, hs anger at Adelaide unlocks an inner strength. Refusing to be put down, bullied and trampled over, and does something about it. The conflict of the scene, the arrest, brings out the best in James. He chooses not to give in, chooses to seek help, and so his character develops from servant to friend to businessman.
Archer, Lord Clearwater
Of all the characters, Archer is the one most driven by outrageous, character-defining decisions, mainly because he can. The fifth richest nobleman in the country, he has the resources to do whatever he wants. He could give his life over to pleasure if he wanted, as so many rich landowners did. He could spend his time at any one of his homes and evict those families who rent his property if he fancied using it for himself. He could attend balls and galas, the theatre and dinners simply to socialise, and he could treat his servants like shit as his father treated them, and treated Archer.
He has more money than any of us can dream of, and yet chooses to use it for others. He sets up a charity to help who we’d now call rent boys, which, in 1888, was a fairly dangerous thing to do as it could invite all manner of negative speculation. Archer doesn’t care. He treats his staff well, is constantly trying to promote them and make them his equals if not friends (his fatal flaw), and he chooses to see the best in people (another flaw which nearly leads to his death on a few occasions). We get from that that Archer is a kind man, but it’s deeper than that. Like Silas, he needs to be loved, but for different reasons, and although it would be easy for him to throw money at people to make them happy, he doesn’t. His charity is also a business concern, his fundraising galas are also social manipulation, he gathers influential friends and knows how to play the political game while choosing to fill his house with staff we’d call gay or gay-friendly. In other words, in a time and place when being gay was punishable by two years in prison with hard labour, he chooses to tread a dangerous path and risk losing everything including his title, by protecting other gay men.
Some of Archer’s character-making decisions are made under great pressure. Examples: Knowing the Ripper’s identity and that the man is dangerous, he opts to accept his invitation to a potentially fatal confrontation (twice). When faced with a bland, legally correct and society-expected speech in front of 2,000 people at the Lyceum Theatre, he sets it aside to speak from the heart. (That’s book nine, you’ll have to wait for that.) Those are but a few examples.
Today, Tom is interviewed exclusively at the MM Fiction Café.
These interviews are an excellent way for a writer to stop and think more deeply about the character he has created. In this case, it’s Thomas Arthur Payne, and I was attending more to his characteristics than his character choices.
Thomas begins his fictional life as Clearwater’s footman, later, his butler and, at the end of book nine as something else (no spoilers!). Tom’s interview is accompanied by a drawing that I had commissioned (left), and I’ve posted it here so you can get a rough idea of how I see him. The drawing is pretty accurate except I notice the artist gave him an earring, which he would not have worn, and his cheeks are a bit chubby, but that was her interpretation of my description and everyone imagines characters in their own way.
Check out Tom’s chat with Josh at MM Fiction Café, and you will learn a few things about him that you won’t find in the books.
There is a line in a film, and I can’t remember which one, where someone says, ‘History judges us not on what we choose to do, but on what we choose not to do,’ and that also works when putting together a character. Ultimately, choices, or choosing not to make them, define character, particularly decisions made under pressure and during conflict because, as Syd Field says, “All drama is conflict. Without conflict, you have no action; without action, you have no character; without character, you have no story.”
[Currently, Saturday morning, European time, the Fiction Café server is having an issue. You may need to check back with it later to read the interview.]