Character in a nutshell

Can you describe your character’s essence or their raison d’etre, in a short phrase? How about Sam Gamgee’s “Some things are worth fighting for.” Or Scarlett O’Hara’s “I’ll never be hungry again!”

Our major characters are usually so deep we need a whole novel to flesh them out. But haven’t we chosen a character because she or he embodies a specific dramatic purpose? If this is true, we should know what that is. We should know it so well, we can say it in a phrase.

Sounds hard, but bear with me. Ask yourself what does my character want or believe in their very core? What limitation do they always fear and fight against? What gives their lives meaning in their own estimation?

Although it does take many pages to define these fears and aspirations in relation to the plot, the author must know them more directly. For this reason, it may be helpful if a writer creates a visceral handle for central characters, to keep their through line clearly in view. Something the character would say.

In my notebook for a recent novel, I found the results of one of these through line exercises. I boiled down my words to one phrase for each of eleven characters. I was surprised at how quickly the essence of each important character came to me.

Here was the product of that exercise:
Kim: For the innocent.
Julian: Never again.
Martin (a teenager): I always screw up.
Antagonist: Revenge is sweet.
Rose: I have my part.
Gustaw: Fight them in the shadows.
Owen: We will out think them.
Lloyd: I got screwed.
The spymaster: My hands are tied.
Elsa: Appearances deceive.
Walter: I’ve got your back.

I kept coming back to these lines, staying focused on their wisdom and clarity. In the midst of a messy novel (aren’t they all?) wisdom and clarity can be a life line.

2 Responses

  1. I am interested in your 7 week program, having closed my dental practice of many years. I would like to transition to my writing abilities for fun and profit. I have only written a piece for last years writers contest, but its content was based on my life growing up in Brooklyn in the 50’s 60’s. So. I would be happy to pull together the needed pages, but my strength (so far) is in autobiographically based material. So, is there hope here, or should I look to other avenues, and/or can you spare a suggestion or two to make our time (if it is to materialize) worthwhile. Thanks

  2. Kay says:

    Hi Irving – In my experience there seem to be strong preferences in people for either nonfiction or fiction. They are very different endeavors, and each one takes study for basics, structure, inherent interest and marketplace. The novel seminar is a big commitment, and if you are not sure of your interest in novel-length fiction, it could be a deeper swim than you’re up for. Still, some people Do take the class when they have only just begun their first novel, so I would not discourage you if you have a strong interest. If, upon reflection you feel you may not, I would suggest exposing yourself to nonfiction classes. An excellent (if expensive) opportunity is Pacific Northwest Writers Conference. You could sit in on talks given by people in various fields of nonfiction such as memoir, the nonfiction book, and any other topics that you feel drawn to, since you might want to allow yourself to sample an even wider array of topics. Bear in mind also that Write on the River sometimes includes a nonfiction class in our seasonal workshops (3 times a year.) To tiptoe into nonfiction, just Google Nonfiction Writing and skim a few websites for an introduction to the industry and the tools and strategies of the nonfiction book. This can be an exciting process-also a bit daunting-but you may be very glad you opened yourself to the writing life. The only way to know is to strike out for the territory. Meanwhile I’ll watch for your submission, should it come.

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