Hal Bodner is one of the funniest and most delightful authors I’ve had the privilege of working with for a guest post on helluo librorum. (And I might add, a most patient and sweet soul.)
Hal is a fascinating and accomplished gentleman. He has a Bachelors degree in Playwrighting from Rutgers University and a juris doctorate from Rutgers University School of Law. He moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles in the late 1980s and to West Hollywood a year later. Hal has had many jobs and “careers”. He was an entertainment lawyer, a scheduler for a 976 sex telephone line and the personal assistant to a television star. He has written theater reviews and journal articles. He currently owns Heavy Petting, an over-the-top pet boutique in West Hollywood. He has never been a waiter.
Hal is the author of Bite Club, a campy vampire novel set in West Hollywood; In Flesh and Stone; and For Love of the Dead. Hal is also a past-trustee of the Horror Writers Association (HWA). Hal’s most recent novel, The Trouble with Hairy, is the sequel to Bite Club and will be released at the end of January 2012, so watch for that!
Hal is here to give some tricks of the trade on how to write effective characters.
Creating Effective Characters by Hal Bodner
I wanna let y’all in on a little secret: I hate doing these Advice to Writers columns. I never know what to say.
I got shang-haied into this one by an old friend I’ll call “Sally” who is a brilliant, multiple award winning author of thrillers. It seems Teresa (our blog hostess) was volunteering as the Guest Coordinator at a literary convention not too long ago. This is a thankless job as it mostly involves wrangling all the invitees and making sure they get to where they’re supposed to be on time. Sally was one of the guests of honor and due to speak at a panel. Forty-five minutes before the panel was to start, Teresa went to her hotel room to get her and Sally was nowhere to be found.
If any of you have ever been to one of these things, you’ll know that the most interesting events usually take place in the hotel bar. Fortunately, Teresa is a pretty smart cookie and Sally’s reputation had preceded her. So, with the panel about to shortly convene, she headed immediately to where the spirits were being served and . . . viola! There was Sally, regaling a handsome young bartender with stories of how she won her first two Edgars, the Bram Stoker and, more recently, the Shirley Jackson Award.
Teresa had little problem prying Sally off the bartender. After all, there was a wooden bar separating them . . . or rather, there was a wooden bar protecting him. From what I hear, he was blond and rather beefy and Sal sometimes finds it difficult to restrain herself when she meets an attractive young man who is her “type” . . . um . . . I meant to say . . . when she meets an attractive young man who is one of her “types” as our Sal is very liberal where her preferred “types” of men are concerned.
Sal had, of course, been drinking. She’s a New Yorker and, though it was only ten in the morning where the convention was being held on the West Coast, it was already after noon in New York. In Sally’s mind, that meant it was perfectly fine to have a cocktail or two with lunch. The fact that it was far too early for lunch to be served in California was certainly not Sal’s fault, was it? She’d just have to make do with the cocktails alone.
While my old friend is capable of speaking at great length – and even appearing intelligent about what she’s saying – after downing up to a third of a bottle of vodka, on this occasion she appears to have been drinking scotch – a fair amount of scotch, in fact. Even so, the speaking part wouldn’t have been a problem. Once Teresa had convinced the bartender not to file sexual harassment charges, all she had to do was drag Sally to the panel on time.
Navigating out of the bar and up the stairs to the conference room was, however, proving beyond Sally’s physical abilities. Worse, the esteemed author had reached the point where her vocal chords were sodden enough such that the volume control seemed not to be working. An argument with a potted plant ensued. The dispute escalated into mild fisticuffs between Sally and the plant and ended only when the flailing of fists and branches was sufficient to provoke Sal into evacuating some of the scotch. Fortunately, Teresa reports she was able to maneuver the remains of the plant’s pot into position in time and avoid the con promoters being hit with a hefty carpet cleaning bill.
The rest of the story is, I’m happy to say, far too boring to relate here except to say that Sally was, as always, brilliantly witty on the panel. By the end of the weekend, she’d decided that Teresa was her new Best Friend Forever. Sal’s infatuation with Teresa had not worn off when she called me at roughly four in the morning the other day and insisted I write this column. The conversation was short and sweet and basically consisted of a short monologue on Sally’s part. “Hal, you’ve got to do something for Teresa. You simply must! She’s just fabulous and everybody reads her! Oh . . . damn. The cat just threw up on the rug. Gotta run. Kissy kissy.”
I was baffled, but not by the substance of the conversation. Sal is a marvelous promoter and very freely hands out tips to all of her good friends. Rather, it was the timing of the thing that troubled me. Usually Sally wakes up around noon – my time, which meant that when she called it was only seven in the morning in Manhattan. Morning makes Sally break out in hives. Of course, she might have still been awake from the night before but, I think that’s unlikely as none of her words were slurred.
Then, the reason came to me.
Sally does not exist. It’s true. I just made her up.
But, you feel you know her, right? Just a little? Or, at the very least, you know someone like her. Now, granted, I was unable to do full justice to the character of Sally in less than a page but I hope I had you fooled. You may have doubted that the events weren’t blown out of proportion for comic effect but, I’m betting you did not realize from the start that “Sally” was entirely fictional.
That’s called creating character. It’s an art to be sure. Moreover, to do it effectively, it usually takes a little more than a page or two though, in truth, I’ve known authors (myself included) who can do it in a matter of a few lines if necessary. If we look at “Sally”, we’ll see there are a couple of tricks to creating character – and we’ll talk about those in a minute.
First, I want to assure you that everything you’ve ever learned in a creative writing class or writers’ group or weekend authors’ retreat is probably true – as far as it goes. The litany goes something like this: observe people around you and find interesting things about them; base characters on real life; give them interesting “quirks”; tell your audience how your characters feel; character is more than mere description. It all works but, for me, creating a character that way is more like having to read the instruction manual in Swedish than like having someone show you how to put together the IKEA bookcase you just bought and is still in pieces cluttering up your living room carpet.
There are, of course, some fundamentals you need to know in creating effective characters. You can, if you like, describe them physically. This is what I call creating a character “directly”. Many writers do this effectively as, to a certain degree, some character elements may be physically based. Cyrano’s deformed nose is the only the tip of the iceberg and, in itself, merely a contrivance. His character comes from how he relates to the deformity, how he reacts to other people’s commenting on it, how his perceived ugliness has created a huge insecurity and a hair-trigger temper among other traits. Too many writers assume describing the physicality is enough and either forget about the emotional impact it may have or ignore the possibility that different people may react very differently to having identical physical traits.
Alternatively, a writer may introduce a character with vast paragraphs of background exposition detailing their entire lives to date. We may read pages and pages about how little Amelia was cruelly ripped from her mother’s breast and sold into white slavery, spending her tenderest years as a scullery maid before being forced into a life of prostitution. Often, the author’s intent is to provide a rough sketch for the reader to latch on to so that the plot can move forward. The thinking is that the reader needs to be familiar with Amelia’s motivations in order to understand why she is about to do whatever it is she does.
This is a flawed thinking and, in most cases, a flawed technique. First, it may bore the reader with information that he does not really need and, very often, there’s too much exposition for the reader to fully digest anyway. It’s much better to show your audience how Amelia responds to the obstacles and plot twists that you throw in her way! If you’re not able to create believable situations to which your character can react truthfully, if you’re not able to use words to sculpt a character who leaps off the page with vitality, then no amount of background explanation is going to help you.
How many times have you read a book with cardboard characters who are fundamentally interchangeable except for some minor physical difference or distinguished only by the “roles” they play in the plot? How many times have you been forced to constantly flip back and forth to the various characters’ “introduction” pages to try and remember who is who. We’ve all found ourselves wondering, “Joe..Joe…which one is Joe? Is he the surfer with the club foot? The one who was injured in the accident? Or is he the guy having the affair with the other guy’s wife?” In cases of truly bad characterization, we may even find ourselves trying to recall whether “Joe” is the “blond one”, “the fat one” or “the dentist”!
In short, merely telling the reader who a character is directly – either by physical description or via a lengthy mini-biography of the past events which have supposedly influenced the character into becoming who they are – requires a mastery of language and story telling that most writers don’t have. Those of us who can do it may also find that we can’t always do it well; a lot depends on the specifics of what we’re writing. In short, this kind of “short hand” character development can be done, but it’s very difficult and it’s most often done badly.
Ironically, the easier method is also the more effective method. I usually refer to it as creating character “indirectly” and the technique has many wrinkles to it.
First, show your readers the character without using simple description. Instead, show them what the person does, how the person reacts, how they feel about things. Dialogue may be the most effective way to do this and, if you’re good, you can write pages and pages of nothing but dialogue without a single “he said” or other identifier and your readers will still know exactly who is speaking, how they feel about things and, in some cases, what they are doing while they speak. The dialogue trap to be wary of is this: don’t use it as a substitute way of burying your reader in all the extraneous information that you were originally tempted to put into the background exposition. There’s nothing worse than expository dialogue that goes on for pages and adds nothing to the plot or characterizations and is there only because the author mistakenly thinks the reader “needs” to know it!
Now, take a look at “Sally” who spaketh not a word. Nor was there a single adjective used to describe her physically. But, I’m hoping most of you conjured up some mental image of her slumped over the bar and flirting with a bartender half her age. Or maybe it was the suggestion of her wrestling with a ficus before throwing up on it that triggered a picture. The point is, what she looked like was not important for my purpose – to make you believe she was a real person. And I used some tricks to do it – not all of them directly related to character.
First, I blended reality with my fictional creation. Novelists do that all the time when they set a story in a real place. We use the realities to which the reader can relate as a springboard for the fantasies we wish to weave. Ira Levine’s Rosemary’s Baby is possibly the quintessential example of that technique. We see how Rosemary reacts to extraordinary events which take place in the most ordinary environment and, by seeing how she copes as things spin farther out of control, we learn a hell of a lot about her. Without the reader being witness to the strength she summons as the creepiness intensifies and when the rest of us would run screaming into the night, her actions at the end of the book when she finally sees her baby would make no sense.
To better ground “Sally” in reality, I mentioned Teresa because I assumed if you were reading this blog, you know Teresa is a real person. Second, I set my little scenario at a convention, knowing many of the people reading this may have attended one. Then, in order to set y’all up for my pulling the wool over your eyes with the fictional “Sally”, I cheated. I used the invitation for you to share the “inside joke” about how the bars at conventions are often more popular than the actual event as a misdirection. I directed your mind to remembering your own experiences at the bar at that wretched romance/horror/sci-fi convention that you once attended. Perhaps there was even a drunken guest of honor at the bar; these things have been known to happen.
I got you to buy into the scene as a whole and you never once stopped to consider that I had an ulterior purpose for doing so. I grounded the whole thing in reality and never once gave you time nor reason to wonder if “Sally” might be a fictional construct.
But just in case you were a particularly clever reader, I began exaggerating for humorous effect. Did I truly try to make you believe an award winning author beat up a plant and vomited on it after practically raping a bartender? Of course not. I did, however, expect you to reject my hyperbole while retaining a belief that the underlying character of “Sally” was either real or, perhaps, a thinly disguised version of a real person. It’s the old Victor/Victoria ruse. Toddy creates the “Count” as an obvious fraud. Everyone is so busy trying to find out who the Count really is (because no one believes he’s an actual count), that no one stops to think that he might actually be a she.
In a few more pages, who knows what we might have learned more about Sally after witnessing her antics on the panel. Would her drunken state render her boorish and insulting? Or would she be completely charming until she simply passed out face down on the podium without warning in front of hundreds of adoring fans? How about Teresa? What’s her stake in all this? Is she the long-suffering volunteer, somehow managing to overcome obstacles while chewing anti-acids the whole time? Or is she an Eve Harrington character set on ruining the great, but tragically alcoholic, writer’s fame for nefarious purposes? What happens if one of Sally’s multiple boyfriends waltzes in and it turns out he’s also Teresa’s ex-husband with whom she’s still in love?
If you know your characters, if you have them firmly in your mind, the answers to the questions I just asked will start the process that we authors refer to as “listening to our characters”. I’ve also heard writers speak of it as “letting the characters take us places.” It’s actually another little trick – and a lovely one it is too! If you’ve set them up properly, your characters will begin to react to the elements you provide and the things you throw at them in their own unique ways. Often, I find my people taking me in directions I had no intention of going!
When this happens, I almost always go with the flow so I can find out where it leads. Sometimes, it opens vistas of which I hadn’t considered. Other times my characters will “take” me to a place where I emphatically do not want them to go – usually because it mucks with the plot I’ve got in mind. Then, I have a choice. I can alter the plot accordingly or, as I more often do, I can go back to the specific event which started the character down the “wrong” path and simply rewrite the event to evoke a different reaction from the character which will bring things back onto the path I prefer.
Nor is it necessary to use only one method to create a character. Mixing and matching is encouraged! Here’s an example from one of my own novels, Mummy Dearest, where I’ve woven a bunch of techniques together.
In another darkened bedchamber, the only sound was light breathing from the naked body, fast asleep, tangled in white satin sheets. Suddenly, there was an audible click from the night stand and the room’s peacefulness was shattered by a raucous voice singing, “I had a dream! A dream about you, June!”
The sleeper came groggily awake, his blond curls tousled, his blue eyes bleary. “Thank you, Ethel, dear,” Troy Raleigh murmured as he stretched out one lithely-muscled arm, grabbed the Ethel Merman alarm clock, and tapped her gently on the head to shut her up before she could tell him how swell things were.
Troy stretched languorously, yawning and emitting tiny squeaky noises of pleasure as his muscles and joints popped. He tossed aside the sheets, flipped over onto his tummy, his pert little rear end bared for all the world to see, and shoved his head under the pillows. Five minutes later, just as he was drifting back to sleep, the silence was once again shattered as Ethel belted out “There’s NO business like SHOW business!” with musical abandon, and if possible, even louder than before.
Troy shot bolt upright and grabbed the clock. “That will be quite enough from you!” he said irritably and shut it off. Then, as if to make amends for his terseness of a moment before, Troy kissed the plastic Mama Rose on her nose before replacing her carefully.
If I’ve done my job properly, in ten sentences, the reader already has a handle on the essence of this character. Moreover, I’ve not had to really tell very much by way of description other than that the character is blond, has blue eyes and is in good shape. Frankly, I find those to be the least effective character defining elements in this excerpt.
So, let’s take a look at it in greater detail. We have a naked man, sleeping on white satin sheets and he has . . . an Ethel Merman alarm clock. It’s the clock that does it; everything else leads up to the clock. It’s quirky, campy and makes the reader ask, “What kind of a guy has an Ethel Mer . . . ? Oh. I get it now.”
Further, look at some of the word choices: “tiny squeaky noises”, “flipped onto his tummy”, “pert little rear end”. There’s a juvenile quality to them mingled with a kind of cheery optimism. Now combine this with the blond/blue thing and the “lithely-muscled arm” and a picture starts emerging. I could easily have described Troy as “an overly effeminate young man with curly blond hair, an innocent yet mischievously elfin expression and a gym-toned body.” The waking up scene does the same thing, it’s much more fun to read and, if the image of that odd little clock strikes a chord in my reader, it’s a more memorable experience.
It’s true we do not know everything about Troy Raleigh but as this is the first time he shows up in the book, we don’t need to know his entire life story. We need only enough to create the most basic image of who he is in our minds at this point. The reader only needs to grasp what I call the “essence” of the character; the fill-in stuff can come later. Also, I want to confess that since Troy appears in two earlier books, this passage is tailored more towards refreshing familiarity than towards the initial introduction of a character, but the techniques are the same.
I love indirect ways of establishing character. I recall a friend who was working on a book about an assassin, I believe. His protagonist enters a restaurant, sits with his back against the wall, orders food and, when the waitress drops something, he reaches out and snags it out of midair without taking his eyes off the door. We immediately know this guy as well, don’t we? Moreover, we may even know a little something – without any specifics – about the plot and possibly why he’s in the restaurant. Our assumptions about the character may turn out to be completely wrong, but the author has given us that bit about the man watching the door and has provided our imaginations with some tantalizing clues to consider.
So, since I’m running out of space unless I want Teresa to beat me to death with a red editor’s pencil, I want to wrap up with the following advice. Always try to find external and indirect ways to reveal your characters through what they do, how they react, what they say or by the way other characters respond or relate to them. By all means, you should know what they look like and how they dress. By the same token, you’ll need to know their backgrounds. But, save the direct character development techniques as fall backs. Your job is to create vibrant characters in interesting ways and, hopefully, to leave lingering fond memories of your peeps in your readers’ minds long after they’ve read those two little words I’m about to type . . . The End.