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The Cannibal’s Art – Characterization (workshop outline with examples)


Characters are defined in a story on the basis of what they want.  What they want, of course, depends a lot on who they are, and so does the manner in which they go about getting it.

When you sit down to “build” a character, you need to consider two things:

1.  Who is this person?  (What are they like?  What is their background?)

2.  What do they want? (What role will they play in your story?)

I. Discovering Character

A.  Drawing from real life (or literature)

1. mannerisms

2. appearances

3. motives

B.  Analyzing the character’s function in the story

Impact of Situation on Character

Think about the person who seems to be your main character.  Now,  characters are defined in a story not so much by who they are (the  character sketches, background, etc.) as by what they want.  What they want  is of course affected by who they are, but it’s the “what they want” that  drives the story.

So think–what is it that this person, in this situation, wants?

We have, say, a boy (character).  His parents are newly divorced  (situation).  What does he want?  If he’s halfway normal, he wants his  parents back together again.  Or, in more basic terms, he wants  stability.  Now, what does he do?

That depends on his age, doesn’t it?  And on the parents’ situation–why are  they divorcing?  Where are they?  Maybe they’re in the same city, and they’re  divorcing because Daddy found a new bimbo.  If the kid’s sixteen, say, maybe  he decides to go confront the bimbo–only he finds that she’s not quite what  he thought (or what his mother led him to expect).

Maybe he likes her.   Worse, maybe he finds himself sexually attracted by her (which leads to  further complications–does she lead him on, or is it just the normal  hormonal surges teenage boys have?).  In either case, maybe the kid realizes  how strong the urge was for his father–but he resists because he knows it’s  wrong, and realizes his father’s essential weakness; that the father couldn’t resist, knowing it was wrong.  Or maybe you want to retell  _Oedipus_.

You see how complex it can get–and how different it might be, if  it’s a twelve-year-old, whose parents divorced because they’re incompatible  and his father went to live in Alaska (Mom likes the city).  Boy goes for a  visit to Dad, plane crashes, kid left alone to fend for himself and survive  in the wilderness.  Battles elements, learns about solitude and independence,  realizes what it is that pulled his Dad so strongly, manages to forgive him  and accept that he can’t come back to the marriage.

The Point here is that you really don’t need a great deal of background  detail to start with–you start with a few basic facts–sex, age, social class, and family situation, maybe–and discover the other things you need to know about this character in the course of working out the story.

C.  Building character

People always ask me about characters: where do you get them, and how do you handle them?  Do you plan them, or let them pop up ad lib?  Perhaps more importantly, if you do plan a character, and he or she just lies there like a corpse on a slab, how do you bring them to life?

The answers to these questions are of course as many and various as are the writers who ask them.  For myself, I’ve found that a lot of characters do pop up like mushrooms: Geillis Duncan, Master Raymond, Fergus, and Murphy the sea-cook, to name a few from my books who’ve done this.

I’ll be writing along, generally just slogging or writing randomly, hoping to work myself into the day’s piece, and all of a sudden this…this…person shows up and walks off with the whole thing.  No need to ask questions, analyze, or consciously “create”; I just watch in fascination, to see what they’ll do next.

Other characters were carefully constructed to serve a specific purpose, but once I began to write them, they obligingly came to life and behaved on their own.  Mother Hildegarde in DRAGONFLY IN AMBER was a “built” character–I needed someone who could decode a musical cipher, and I needed a hospital for the main female character to work in.  Fine, let’s have the abbess of a convent hospital, with a musical avocation, which saved my having to make up an extra character.

The moment I began to write Mother Hildegarde, though, I could see her, and within a couple of paragraphs of description, I could hear her talk.  (Interestingly enough, Mother Hildegarde later turned out to be a real “real” person–i.e., there was in fact an abbess with a musical avocation named Hildegarde, even though she lived in the 12th century rather than the 18th.)

Likewise, Mr. Willoughby, in VOYAGER, was a “made” character.  Simply put, I needed a way to cure sea-sickness that would plausibly exist in the 18th century.  Aha, acupuncture!  Perfectly plausible, but only if I had a Chinese person to administer it.

Now, Mother Hildegarde and Mr. Willoughby are what I call “onions”; characters who develop slowly through the addition of multiple layers of personality, rather than popping up full-fledged as the “mushrooms” do (sorry about the agricultural motif; it’s in my genes; my paternal grandfather was a farmer).  Mother Hildegarde was an onion, but her dog, Bouton, was a mushroom.

You may not know everything about an onion all at once, but rather discover it, by writing multiple scenes involving this character, or by thinking about him or her and figuring out bits of history.  The main characters of the series, Claire and Jamie, both developed in this way; even though I had a good grasp of their essential characters from the beginning, I gradually found out more about them as I explored and deduced their personal histories.

I have writer friends who do this formally–give characters a history, before they even begin writing scenes involving them.  Michael Lee West–who’s one of the best “character” writers around–often draws up extensive genealogical charts for her characters, including generations of people who never appear in the story.  She also says that she knows what kind of peanut butter her characters prefer–smooth or creamy.

Beyond mushrooms and onions, though, are the Hard Nuts (onions, mushrooms and nuts; this is beginning to sound like an exotic recipe for turkey stuffing).  These are the  most difficult for me to animate; the characters whose function in the story is structural–they’re important not because of personality or action, but because of what role they play.

One example of a Hard Nut is Brianna, the daughter of the main series characters, Jamie and Claire.  She existed in the first place only because I had to have a child.  The fact of her conception provides the motive for one of the major dramatic scenes in the second book, but it didn’t matter at all who this kid was or what she was like; the fact that Claire was pregnant was the important factor.

Still, once having created this kid, there she was.  I couldn’t just ignore her.  Her existence–rather than her personality–dictated quite a bit about the structure of the third book, and thus, the second as well; I decided to use her as an adult, creating a “framing story” for the main action of the second book.  Here again, though, it was her existence as a structural element that was important, rather than the girl herself.  That is, I needed a grown daughter to whom the heroine would confess the secret of her past, said confession leading to the future events of the third book.

But who the heck was this character?  And having created her purely for plot purposes, how was I to give her a personality?

Well, there are various ways and means of giving a character reality, none of which necessarily work all the time, but all of which may be worth trying sometimes.

II.  Drawing Character

A. Dialogue

1. Characteristic idioms – crystallization of attitude


Scarlett O’Hara – “Fiddle-dee-dee!”  and “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

Uriah Heep – “Very ‘umble, sir.”

Oliver Twist – “Please, sir, may I have some more?”

Sherlock Holmes – “Elementary, really elementary.”

Bilbo Baggins – “Oh, water hot is a noble thing!”

2. Dialect – use with caution

3. General attitude – “makes speeches” vs. “pithy one-liners”


“My Gawd,” said a drawling voice somewhere above me.  “That’ll be the biggest dawg I believe I’ve ever seen.”  I turned to see a gentleman detach himself from the front of a tavern, and lift his hat politely to me.  “Your servant, Ma’am.  He ain’t partial to human flesh, I do sincerely hope?”

I looked up at the man addressing me–and up.  I refrained from expressing the opinion that he, of all people, could scarcely find Rollo a threat.

My interlocutor was one of the tallest men I’d ever seen; taller by several inches even than Jamie.  Lanky and rawboned with it, his huge hands dangled at the level of my elbows, and the ornately beaded leather belt about his midriff came to my chest.  I could have pressed my nose into his navel, had the urge struck me, which fortunately it didn’t.

“No, he eats fish,” I assured my new acquaintance.  Seeing me craning my neck, he courteously dropped to his haunches, his knee joints popping like rifle shots as he did so.  His face thus coming into view, I found his features still obscured by a bushy black beard.   An incongruous snub nose poked out of the undergrowth, surmounted by a pair of wide and gentle hazel eyes.

“Well, I’m surely obliged to hear that.  Wouldn’t care to have a chunk taken out my leg, so early in the day.”  He removed a disreputable slouch hat with a ragged turkey feather thrust through the brim, and bowed to me, loose snaky black locks falling forward on his shoulders.  “John Quincy Myers, your servant, Ma’am.”

B. Use of “body language” in expressing character

“In the event, it was unnecessary to starve them out; Jamie stamped down the hill a few minutes later and without a word, fetched his horse from the paddock, bridled him, mounted, and rode bareback at a gallop down the track toward Fergus’s house.  As I watched his departing form, Brianna stalked out of the stable, puffing like a steam engine, and made for the house.

“What does nighean na gallagh mean?” she demanded, seeing me at the door.

“I don’t know,” I said.  I did, but thought it much more prudent not to say.         “I’m sure he didn’t mean it,” I added. “Er…whatever it means.”

“Ha,” she said, and with an angry snort, stomped into the house, reappearing moments later with the egg basket over her arm.  Without a word, she disappeared into the bushes, making a rustling noise like a hurricane.

I took several deep breaths, and went in to start supper, cursing Roger Wakefield.

Physical exertion seemed to have dissipated at least some of the negative energy in the household.  Brianna spent an hour in the bushes, and returned with sixteen eggs and a calmer face.  There were leaves and stickers in her hair, and from the look of her shoes, she had been kicking trees.”

C. Physical Description:

1.       Vivid detail

2.Physical details that embody attitude

3.   Impressions, as alternative to straight description

(Inclusion of narrator’s viewpoint)

Physical description.  This tends to be easy for me; I “see” people very easily.  Other writers have told me that they deliberately visualize popular actors or people they know as the original basis for their characters (I was actually kind of appalled when I heard this, only because it would never have occurred to me; it seemed rather like body-snatching.  Still, whatever works <g>).

Some writers write out the physical description of the character, separately from the story itself–rather like a police description of a suspect.  This description may grow to involve more than the purely physical, including things like mannerisms and incidental characteristics–this person bites her nails, sunburns easily, smokes like a chimney–but only mentholated Super 100′s–is so overweight her thighs are chronically chafed, etc.


1.       “As he turned back to his work, he saw a young woman, just coming down above the quay.  She was the sort of girl called “bonny”–not beautiful, but lively and nicely made, with something about her that took the eye.

Perhaps it was only her posture; straight as a lilystem among the hunched and drooping backs around her. Or her face, which showed apprehension and uncertainty, but had still about it the brightness of curiosity.  A darer, that one, he thought, and his heart–oppressed by so many downcast faces among the emigrants–lightened at the sight of her.

She hesitated at sight of the ship and the crowd around it.  A tall fair-haired young man was with her, a baby in his arms.  He touched her shoulder in reassurance, and she glanced up at him, an answering smile lighting her face like the striking of a match.  Watching them, Roger felt a mild pang of something that might have been envy.

2.       “Still talking, the woman took off her jacket and dropped it over a chair.  The back of her blouse was transparent with sweat, and I could see the thin line of her bra through the cream silk, white against the shadow of her skin.”

3.       “You did say you were sorry.  What is it that you’re sorry for?”  Intent dark eyes bored into mine, body motionless, voice sharp but not threatening.  I would have admired her technique under other circumstances.

I took a deep breath, and told the truth–as much of it as she was going to get.

“A friend of mine’s dead,” I said.  “That’s what I’m sorry about.”  I waved a hand at the desk, and the empty shoe.  “Could you–can somebody take that away?  Please?”

She flicked a calligraphic eyebrow at me, but her face relaxed a little.  She picked up an evidence bag from the credenza, put the shoe inside, and gave it to one of the minions outside.  Then she sat down again and gave me a charming smile.

The caramel eyes rested on me with the sort of speculation Herman the bugman might have employed on a nest of roaches–not revulsion, but a sort of deep professional anticipation that I found disturbing.”

D.  Animating Corpses – How to Bring Flat Characters to Life

1. Notable idiosyncrasy

2. Exotic Background

3. Back-story

4. Ask the other characters

5. Psychological analysis

Along these lines, you may wish to develop a character by supplying him or her with a striking idiosyncrasy of some kind.  Mr. Willoughby began to assume a personality for me when I purchased an interesting book on a remainder rack, titled THE SEX LIFE OF THE FOOT AND SHOE.  This went into every variety of foot-fetishism one could imagine (and several that would never have occurred to me), including a section on foot-binding and Chinese attitudes toward the “lotus foot.”  Having a Chinese man, I couldn’t resist the notion of letting Mr. Willoughby be a foot-fetishist, with the concomitant notion of a strong attraction toward women.

You can also develop a character by supplying him or her with an Exotic Background.  If a character comes from a different culture or society than you do, or than your main characters do, you can sometimes understand them or round them out by reading a bit about social customs, fairy tales (you learn as much about people from the stories they tell, as from their more “official” histories), or other cultural attributes from the culture they come from.

You can tell the character’s “back-story.”  That is, what led this character to his or her involvement in the situation where you’ve placed them?  Even though this information may not be included in the story you’re writing, knowing it may give you substantial insight into the character.  (And then again, some of us write the backstory and can’t keep it out of the main story, which is one of the things that leads to 1000-page books)

Conversely, you can learn about the characters by the way the other characters regard them.  Brianna finally began to come to life for me when another character, watching her in church, thought to himself, “Though capable of the most tender expressions, hers was not a gentle face.”   Aha! I thought.  At last I know something about her; she doesn’t have a gentle face.  And from that, I began to deduce why, and the conflicts that might underlie someone ungentle but capable of tenderness.

I once heard a talk on character development in which the author advocated using a standard pyschological test to figure out what your characters were like, and get a grip on them before writing.  This doesn’t appeal to me for some reason (possibly because it isn’t something I’d do to a real person), but it obviously works very well for this writer.

And finally…you can just live with a character for awhile, put them in different situations inside your head (not story situations, necessarily; just things like, “Character A cuts his toenails.  Does Character B offer to help, watch closely, turn away in disgust?”), and gradually get a feel for them.

I’m sure other writers have favorite methods of developing characters, or have tried some of these with varying success.