Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Characters: Paper, Cardboard, Flesh and Bone?

By Chester Campbell

You won't get any argument that characterization is one of the key elements of a mystery novel. But how far should you go to make your characters come to life? Some writers use elaborate computer programs to  give all the details of a character from birth to the present. That's a bit more than I need to know. I want to know his basic background and how he got to where he is now. I'll come up with some of his personal traits in advance, but a lot of that stuff will make its way into the story as events unfold

It's like dealing with a close friend. You know a lot of the basics, but you don't know how they'll react in a specific situation until it happens. Of course, when you're writing, what the characters do must come out of the way you've portrayed them. Unless you're depicting somebody who's mentally unbalanced, they won't be doing something totally off the wall.

With your major characters, you want to make the reader feel  they're encountering real people with all the hopes and desires and fears and fervor of people they know. That requires giving such characters the background neccessary to convey those feelings.

People talk about cardboard characters, but just how much do we need to know about all those who are merely walk-ons? I'm reading John Sandford's Heat Lightning. He's a real pro, and I've been noting how he handles minor characters. There are two Indian cops on the reservation, for example. Sandford doesn't give us any information about their parents or their early life or where they live, except on the "res." We know a bit about how they look. One is older, one younger. But from their speech and actions we can tell  all we need to kow about who they are and what they're doing. They become flesh and bone.

Those cardboard caracters we hear about are just names and faces on the page. They don't come alive for us but are more like talking heads on TV. They have their moment of glory and then disappear.

Sometimes we throw in a bit part to dress up a scene or give a little variety to the landscape. I'd call them transitional characters. In my Greg McKenzie series, I liven things up a bit by having Greg's wife get onto him occasionally about keeping his weight down. In my current WIP, I use a flouncy waitress to stir the pot. She makes only a brief appearance, but I try to make her unique. I don't think it's necessary to go into a lot of background about such characters, though.

How do you feel about what makes characters tick? What makes you remember one character and forget another?


Bill Kirton said...

I agree with you all the way Chester. The characters have to be real or it doesn't work. What I don't admire is the cheap way of characterising someone by giving them a behavioural tic - sitting with their feet on a desk, eating sweets all the time, smoking a weird brand of cigarette. It's lazy characterisation and I don't think it works because the tic takes on an identity of its own.

Chester Campbell said...

Thanks, Bill. Unless it's handled deftly, I agree the behavioral tic can get out of hand.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I don't care for a lot of exposition because it slows down the action. I'm even skimpy with description for the same reason.I bring my characters to life through their actions and dialogue.

Beth Terrell said...

Chester, I just finished HEAT LIGHTNING and am now reading ROUGH COUNTRY, also by Sandford. I agree that he does a wonderful job with characterization. His protagonists, Virgil Flowers and Lucas Davenport (the prey series) are both complex, multi-dimensional, and very real