Writing Academy, Memoirs, Novels, Short Stories, Book Proposals

New York City Writing Coach

Gay Walley

What makes up a great character?

Typically readers attach to novels over characters. They are the most important arrow in your pouch.
A great character, or one who resonates, is someone whom we identify with. Someone, as William Faulkner said, whose “ heart.. is in conflict with itself.”
You won’t have a novel without characters. You may have an exciting plot, a revolution being stayed from becoming more bloody by some heroic actions but it will mean nothing without vibrant characters. E.B. White wrote, “Advice to young writers who want to get ahead without any annoying delays: don’t write about Man, write about a man.”
Vibrant characters are human. They struggle for whatever they are searching for. It doesn’t come easy. They have to fight themselves. Or fight the outside world. And as they struggle, we identify with or learn from them. Their challenges become ours. They yearn for love. It escapes them. How will they find it? People die. How will they go on? Characters sabotage themselves. Then they come up with a brilliant solution at the last minute. Just like we do.
Bad guys can be all bad but bad guys for some reason are always seductive (usually). That’s how the good guys get involved with them (unless it’s outright kidnapping etc but to keep the tension of a story you never really know…will the bad guy suddenly do something kind?) Bad guys can sometimes be one dimensional but the rest of the characters have to be complex and take action in their own or others interest.
People generally do not like to read about passive characters although Anita Brookner has made a whole successful career writing about passive women (as did Jean Rhys). So there are no formulas in writing but usually people want to root for someone attempting something, even if it’s as simple as getting a bicycle they’re not allowed to ride.
It is best to try, if possible, not to write about characters who are television types, people we’ve all seen before. Many first time writers think some clever banter makes for a novel and it won’t. There has to be meaning, drive, the characters have to be moving and living out from their own unique particular specific hearts and going toward something. It could be leaving home, it could be choosing not to drink and then what happens to them as they make these new efforts. The characters have to be involved in growing or, conversely, being unable to grow. But we witness their attempts.
I recommend before you start your novel that you sit down and write out your main characters and who they are. Write out what their trajectory in the novel will be. Moving toward marriage and then sabotaging it? Being a six year old who is alone in the world and has to make sense of the rich interior life he has built? What is real, he asks himself, the interior or the exterior? Write down who your characters are and what they will be going through in your novel because you will have to write a series of scenes that deliver on their emotional path. As Edith Wharton said, “In any really good subject, one has only to probe deep enough to come to tears.”
You may find as you write your novel that some characters turn out to be more important than you expected them to be. They insist on their voice and want to come to life. Those characters need to make more appearances than you originally thought. Go with it. Usually these are characters that people end up being affected by.
Your characters as you get to know then in your soul will become easy to hear. Never tell the reader who they are. Show them doing what they do. It’s fascinating how actions hold within them the back story. For example, if a woman is tentative in bed with her new lover, we know that something is going on in her life otherwise, or something did go on. It is better to show that, rather than go into a diatribe, “She had an abusive lover etc etc”. People don’t want facts. They want motion and to see how people act in situations.
As you know, you have a lot of play in a novel. A character can be an unreliable narrator, telling us one thing but doing another, or your character can be baldly honest and affect us with his or her perceptions, as in Catcher in the Rye.
Here are some ways great novelists illustrate character:
“ So when Mr. Henry arrived on a Saturday night, we smelled him. He smelled wonderful. Like trees and lemon vanishing cream, and Nu Nile Hair Oil and flecks of Sen-Sen.
He smiled a lot, showing small even teeth with a friendly gap in the middle. Frieda and I were not introduced to him – merely pointed out. Like, here is the bathroom; the clothes closet is here; and these are my kids, Frieda and Claudia; watch out for this window; it don’t open all the way.”
The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
“There was something touching about the fact that Murray was dressed almost totally in corduroy. I had the feeling that since the age of eleven in his crowded plot of concrete he’d associated this sturdy fabric with higher learning in some impossibly distant and tree-shaded place.”
White Noise, Don DeLillo
“Poor Beli. Almost until the last she half believed that the Gangster would going to appear and save her. I’m sorry, mi negrita, I’m so sorry, I should never have let you go. (She was still big on dreams of rescue.) She had looked for him everywhere: on the ride to the airport, in the faces of the officials checking passports, even when the plane was boarding, and, finally, for an irrational moment, she thought he would emerge from the cockpit, in a clean-pressed captain’s uniform – I tricked you, didn’t I? But the Gangster never appeared again in the flesh, only in her dreams. On the plane there were other First Wavers. Many waters waiting to become a river. Here she is, closer now to the mother we will need her to be if we want Oscar and Lola to be born.”
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz