Well done for coming so far. That proves you’re developing as a writers. Writers stick with their writing.
You now have three characters you’ve written about – the child, the grown-up and the person in disguise.
Perhaps you based them on people you know. Or maybe you completely imagined them (everyone works in different ways). However it was, you have been getting to know them better through writing about them.
In this Lesson I’m going to give you some suggestions about characters – about ways to make sure your characters aren’t one-dimensional.
I don’t just mean one-dimensional in terms of space. I don’t mean they are flat, like cartoons. Lots of cartoon characters are far from one-dimensional. Think of Charlie Brown and his friends in Peanuts.
One-dimensional characters are flat in terms of time. We spot them easily, and know them instantly, because they don’t have history.
Write a one paragraph description of the fingernails of each of your three characters – the child, the grown-up and the person in disguise. Give at a bit of thought each time, before you start putting words on the page.
When you’ve finished the description, scroll down.
This next exercise takes a little bit of setting up. Bear with me.
We’re going to move right on. But don’t worry, the fingernails will be very useful later on. (I avoided saying ‘come in handy’.)
For this exercise, you’re going to take your adult character away from the story you’ve been writing, and get to know them in a completely different situation.
I don’t know where you’re from, or what culture you’re familiar with, so I’m going to generalise here.
Your grown-up character has just attended a wedding ceremony. A good friend of theirs has just got married. The newlyweds and their guests have moved on to the reception, or party, or just to continue the day. Your character may now be inside a church hall or outside on a beach. You know better than I do. Wherever they are, there are lots of people around then, but they are on their own when you start describing them.
What happens is this – someone starts playing some music that, when it gets played at gatherings after weddings, usually gets everyone up and dancing. At English wedding receptions, this would be ‘Dancing Queen’ by ABBA.
Maybe where you are it’s also ABBA, but more likely it’s something else. And maybe there isn’t dancing after people have got married. In which case, replace dancing with some event that most people at the party would come together to be involved with.
The exercise is this – write a description of exactly what your character does at the moment when all the other people at the wedding are getting up to dance (or do whatever else fits).
When you’ve finished the description, scroll down.
Brilliant. It’s amazing how it’s possible to invent things, with some certainty, that you didn’t know a few moments ago.
I’d now like you to get your Exercise 13 and Exercise 14, and lay them side by side.
You’ve described the grown-up’s fingernails in Exercise 13, and you’ve described them at a moment of decision in Exercise 14.
And in doing these two bits of writing you’ve created a tiny significant detail and a big significant action.
Both of them, if you included them in a story, would help the reader know your character better. But do they do this as efficiently as they can? Do they add depth?
It all comes down to Time
What you have in front of you are two ways of writing about time. The first extends back in time. It is about how a character is.
The grown-up’s fingernails didn’t just sprout in a second. They are the result of how that person has been living. Let’s say it takes six months to for nails to renew themselves completely. The fingernails (unless they’re falsies put on that morning) reveal at least six months of that person’s life.
The second way of writing about time, Exercise 14, comes down to one moment. It is about what a character does.
Now, my suggestion is this –
If you write so that what a character is and what a character does simply confirm one another, that character will be flat.
For example, let’s say in Exercise 13 you described your character’s nails as badly bitten, ragged at the edges. And, following on from this, in Exercise 14, you describe how, at the moment everyone starts dancing, your character looks nervously around, praying no-one will force them to join in.
Here, there is no gap between the tiny significant detail and the big significant action.
Let’s take a different example. Let’s say that in Exercise 13 you still described your character’s nails as badly bitten, ragged at the edges. But then in Exercise 14, you describe how, at the moment everyone starts dancing, your character rushes to the centre of the action and begins extravagantly to shake what they’ve got – calling on everyone else to join them.
Here, there is a gap – and within that gap the reader’s imagination can go to work.
Let’s take one final example. An opposite example. Let’s say that in Exercise 13 you described your character’s nails as perfectly manicured. In fact, let’s say that they are the result of a trip to the nail salon, and are glittery and party-ready. But then in Exercise 14, you describe how, at the moment everyone starts dancing, your character looks nervously around, praying no-one will force them to join in.
Again there is a gap. Time has played a part in bringing a contradiction between what a character is (party-ready) and what they do (avoid partying). Perhaps your character came to the wedding all dressed up, full of joy, but learned a devastating piece of news. That’s why they don’t want to dance.
Often, when creating a character, beginning writers will write so that all the tiny details the reader knows about them fit perfectly with the big actions they perform.
They may put a lot of effort into this. But it’s misdirected.
Short stories are all about creating gaps. Gaps of expectation. Gaps of understanding. It’s for this reason that they can be short but can expand so far in the reader’s mind.
Let’s do one more Exercise.
In Driving, your two main characters, the child and the grown-up, have just had the even worse thing happen to them. Then, in Arriving, your person in disguise has just turned up and offered them help.
For the sake of this exercise, your two characters don’t want to accept the person in disguise’s help – because they are suspicious of them.
In order to gain their trust, the person in disguise takes off their disguise. You must vividly show the reader how they go from having one appearance to another appearance.
The reader already knows that the person in disguise was laying some kind of trap for the child and the grown-up. You don’t need to emphasise that. What you need to do is have the now undisguised person reveal things to the reader about who they are. You can describe their fingernails, their hair, their skin.
Read ZZ Packer’s amazing story ‘Brownies‘.
Think about the different gaps that ZZ Packer opens up –
- between what the characters are and what they do
- between what the characters see and what they understand
- between what the characters believe about themselves and what the reader knows about them by the story’s end.
(Not yet Lockdown version from this point on. Soon will be.)