For Sunday, December 6, 2015:
“Drama, instead of telling us the whole of a man’s life, must place him in such a situation, tie such a knot, that when it is untied, the whole man is visible.”
Rita Mae Brown says it this way: “Characters must never be explained. They must be revealed.” This makes sense. It’s all too easy for a writer to tell about a character’s life. What’s hard is to show it.
I don’t usually outline a story ahead of time, but I do start to get to know my potential characters before I start to write. I ‘build’ their biographies slowly – their ages, their backgrounds, why they’re here now – until they become invisible neighbors and friends who are always around.
When they start speaking to me, I know I can start revealing them to the page. As they become more and more visible to me, I strive to make the characters gradually more visible to each other.
Dialogue is the most effective way to do this. How do the people in my story interact with each other? What stories do they tell each other? What do they do in conflict or when something unexpected crops up – do they react or do they respond, and how? There’s a big difference! What are the consequences of each, how are others affected?
There’s almost nothing more satisfying than when the characters who people our stories start untying their own knots. This really happens, or should, and that’s when I feel I’ve heard them well. Sometimes they surprise me, sometimes they disappoint me, but always these new friends gratify me because they’ve become whole.
Sometimes when I edit books for clients, I have occasion to tell them their work has good ‘bones,’ that the potential is there, even if considerable more work needs to be done. Putting flesh onto our characters is a similar concept and process. It takes work and patience, but it’s worth it – for our characters’ sakes, for us as writers, and for the reader.