What does it mean to say that a character in a book is real? I mean, they’re obviously not real, just words on a page. But one of the ways we talk about characters in literature is how much they seem like a real person. As with everything we read, the character is created entirely inside the head of the reader, who takes the words and puts them all together somehow, to mentally picture someone.
Because the reader is using the words the writer provided, the writer and reader are actually working together to create the character. Sometimes fiction writers make it easier, but there are other writers whose characters never seem to acquire much depth. We could also ask whether or not it matters if a character becomes real.
Sometimes, no, it doesn’t really matter. Some books exist just to tell a story for entertainment, with no other purpose, and for those books, while the reading may be more fun if the characters are somewhat real, in the end, the story is what matters, and the characters are only tools to help tell it. Also note that since character development is a cooperative enterprise, with writer and reader working together, for some types of books, if the reader has to work too hard, they may feel the book is less entertaining.
I don’t write those kinds of books (i.e., the kind that sell easily), such as romance, thrillers, spy novels, detective novels, and so on. I never made a choice not to write such books, I just write what I write. That’s not who I am.
When I’m writing, it matters A LOT whether the character seems real. In fact, that aspect of the book matters more to me than anything else about it. I want my characters to remain in the reader’s mind afterward, almost haunting, as if these people I’ve created were someone you really knew. I’m not sure whether I actually manage to do this, but that’s what I want.
I’m finishing up a book right now (called Birds Above the Cage), and I find myself using a technique I’ve used on the last couple of novels. When the book is “done” in terms of the story, I then go through it once for each major character, looking only at sections that have that character, and I focus on character development. This time I also tried something new, kind of eccentric. I went on the web and searched for photographs, choosing one that I thought represented each major character, and I downloaded those photos. From time to time I’d look at the pictures to give me a sense that I was writing about a real person.
So at the moment I’m working with Lily. Something I did this time was scan quickly through all her sections of the book, making notes on things I said about her: she doesn’t like coffee, she reads Newsweek, etc. Now that I’m going back and reading her sections more slowly, I keep looking at that list, to see whether I can use any of it, to reinforce something I’ve already said.
That’s not enough, however. When it comes down to it, I simply have to read a scene and stare at the computer until blood is running from my eyes, thinking, “What else can I do here?” For this kind of writing, good enough is not nearly good enough. There are various “sets” of approaches that I can use: (1) thoughts of the characters, which is very useful, but I want a fuller sense of the person in space as well, (2) physical appearance and motions, like frowning, brushing back the hair, walking quickly, and so on, but it could be easy to overdo this, (3) the setting as it relates to the character, like piano music she left lying on the table, a bag of oranges she just bought, photographs hanging on the wall.
Here’s a small example from about an hour ago. Lily gets a phone call from her estranged father, who she hasn’t talked to in years, and he gives her some astonishing news. I wanted to enliven the scene a bit physically, have more than just lines of dialogue, so I had her suddenly stand up in amazement from a chair where she was sitting. That gave a little physical motion to the scene, and it also said something about Lily’s emotional state, that she would be provoked into that action.
I was also going to have her look out the window and notice something outside. I had in mind seeing a chipmunk run by, as she sees a chipmunk much later in the book, but then I thought that under the circumstances of the phone call, she would have such a strong emotional reaction she probably wouldn’t notice anything around her. To stay true to her psychology, therefore, I ignored the outside.
Doing this kind of writing, for me at least, is extremely challenging. It’s hard work, and I keep thinking, “I want a nap. I want a glass of wine. I want a cookie. I want a hug.”
Anything but sit here working on this book.