Brian’s (single) mom was a most devoted mentor of her only child. She’d made sure he’d attended the very best schools, never failing to deliver or collect him on time in crisp, clean shirt and creases. If he wanted, say, an Airfix kit, a magazine, a book, he only needed to hint as much and it arrived.
And now, at thirty-five, Brian still enjoyed her ministrations with a cosy, passive acceptance each time she visited. And visit she often did. Brian wasn’t anything like the type to take risks – took after his mother in that respect – so fate scarce ever had opportunity to throw any substantial spanners into the workings of his ordered life. At five seven, slim and with sandy brown hair, he blended into the background in his threads of beige and grey. But fate had recently introduced him to a homeless teenage girl, and she had taken residence on his sofa – he just hadn’t been able to say no, could never say no, or even, ‘Hey! you short-changed me, barged in,’ or whatever.
And Mother was due to call round.
This is an example of a narrative summary that attempts to inflect characterization (apologies for the standard of prose, I wrote it on the fly). Okay, so we get that Brian’s a chip off the OCD block and still under his mommy’s thumb, but, aside from the mischievous element of the teenager’s presence when his mother visits, do we really care about Brian? We are being asked to care about a summary, in effect.
The example also tries to dump as much info as it can – lighting all the fireworks at once – we have the whole novel to reveal whatever school Brian went to, if pertinent, or anything else. And if you give your character a well-defined and comprehensive narrative description at the outset, it can tend to ring-fence any deviation from this model later on. But if you depict the character bit by bit, via scenes, he can change with the flux of the story.
You meet someone at a party in real life – do you give each other your CV? No, you find out a few fragments and form opinions as the evening progresses. If you meet afterwards, you learn more – and this is how it works in novels. Don’t deny your readers the delights of gradual discovery.
Much better that we are introduced to Brian in a scene that reveals his character – and that of his mom (and new friend if we choose the right scene).
For example, we could open an early morning scene where Brian comes downstairs to answer the phone in the hallway (he only gets calls from his mom) and finds himself scrambling to grab the handset before his self-appointed lodger answers the call. We could set some ‘No, Mom – Yes, Mom – No, I didn’t forget’ phone monologue or have Mom contribute to the dialogue; the call ends, followed by Brian suggesting to the teenage Lolita that she ought to go out for the day, thus delaying the inevitable revelation to his impending mom. After Brian’s polite-but-awkward suggestions continue to fail (to a bemused Lolita) and we wait for the ring of the doorbell, we have experienced a more palpable characterization than in the narrative summary above.
You will notice, that the ‘show and tell’ principles illustrated in the previous article are adopted here – and you will see this occur all the way through the other components we will deal with.
Exposition in dialogue
We have to exercise restraint when injecting exposition in dialogue. Are the characters saying things to each other for their own benefit or that of the reader?
“I say, James. Do you remember that newspaper report by The Globe after the murder?”
“Kind of, Rupert. Refresh my memory…”
[followed by newspaper report exposition masquerading as dialogue]
Characterization in dialogue
When devising your characters you need to make sure they have their own unique voice, vernacular and idiosyncrasies in their dialogue and keep them consistent – right down to which words they contract (“I’d” is a contraction of “I would”) and the kind of things they would say. So when you come to edit, ask: would Brian really say that?
Characterization in scene form
A useful way to tell your readers about a character is by allowing the reader to infer their traits as they follow a scene (much more gratifying for the reader).
Take Brian’s mom, for example; we could tell the reader in flat narrative that she is obsessive compulsive about bacteria and also an anorexic, but why not have her show this in a scene: she arrives for dinner wearing disposable gloves, proceeds to clean her cutlery and glass with alcohol wipes, and hardly eats a morsel during the meal.
Characterization using other characters
We can also describe a character by using the actions and appraisals of other characters around him.
Let’s make Brian unpopular in the workplace to all but the newly-appointed office junior. We can have other office workers warn the new girl that Brian tells the boss everything, that his nickname is “toenails” because he’s so far up the boss’s ass, that’s all you can see of him. You get the idea.
If your character has extraordinary physical traits, such as a wooden leg, the sooner you tell the reader the better. The same goes for appearance, though many authors choose to rely on a scant framework of physical description, allowing the reader to make their own models of the players, which can prove a valuable aid to immersion.
One debut novel I read recently (from a huge celebrity million-copy best seller overnight author) did not disclose that a primary female character was probably of African origin until a third of the way into the story! The revelation meant I had to stop reading, and construct a new appearance for the otherwise well-drawn police officer (and go back and see if I had missed the character colorization). One wonders if the editors were too much in awe of the author to give him the tough love he deserved.
When opening chapters, have you ‘told’ us stuff about your characters that you could reveal as the plot unfolds.
How much background info of the characters have you provided, and is it really useful, other than as a character map that should never be placed on the page.
Do the characters talk to one another for their own benefit, or is it for the reader.
The subject of characterization needs volumes to do it justice, but I hope I have conveyed the general principles.
Self editing 4 fiction #8 ~ Master of the Beat
Self editing 4 fiction #9 ~ Sophistication