“It is through characters that readers come to care about and connect with literature; characters entice us to stick around and make literary meaning” (Roser, Nancy, and Miriam G. Martinez). Authors everywhere argue and debate over the characters as a literary element as an important component of literature. Most believe characters are the driving force of any story, but how the problem is, writing a character who is: entertaining, relatable, and most importantly sympathetic. The sympathetic character is a difficult character for most writers to achieve. However, there have been two sympathetic characters that all writers should strive to imitate: Janes Austen’s Emma and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The process of developing characters, and achieving the goal of creating the sympathetic character, has been studied and written about for years. Strategies like “showing your reader’s letters the characters have written” is just one of the many tried by authors to develop relatable characters (Goodman 65). A collection of strategies and ideas behind character development has been compiled in order to help new fiction writers begin their story.
What a Character! Character Study as a Guide to Literary Meaning Making in Grades K-8 is a collection of essays all pertaining to character development from different writers and teachers of English. The book begins with the preface entitled “Why Character?” In this section of the book, they argue that “characters lead students to deep, satisfying, and meaningful experiences with literature. In fact, [people] become more insightful about the human experience through the characters who tussle with critical moral and ethical dilemmas” (Roser, Nancy, and Miriam G Martinez vi).
Another significant section in this book to note is called, “Hey, Character, Where Did You Come From?” by Katherine Paterson. Paterson starts off by stating that, “where a character comes from is often a mystery – even to the writer” (Paterson 14). This seems to be a common theme among writers, critics, and people who study character development in general. Writer’s often can’t tell a reader exactly when or how they came up with the ideas for their stories and characters. But one thing that Paterson is certain of from her experience writing is that, “Characters in books have to be believable, and real people aren’t believable” (Paterson 15). She even has a mantra for when she first began writing short stories: “Somethings got to happen; someone’s got to change.”
One author who works at making her characters believable in a different way is Deborah Wiles. Wiles “believes characters come from ‘the stuff of our lives.’ She explains how she imbues her characters with qualities and feelings of her own life. . . she encourages [students] to find their own stories – because their personal stories ‘determine their own characters, and the characters they create” (Wiles 18). All of the characters that Wiles brings to life is described as being her. She develops the characters in her stories from her personality and her experiences. Throughout Wiles process for creating her characters, she develops a list of questions that must be answered before her characters come to life: What do they care about? How do they feel about the other characters in the story? She answers these questions about her characters by allowing the characters to interact with one another on the page; “It is only after I have written a story that I discover its deep themes” (Wiles 19).
Another point that Deborah Wiles makes in her essay is that these is no story without the antagonist, because there is no plot without opposition. The author needs to know exactly how their protagonist feels in order for the opposition to be real and relatable. The point of view of the author and the point of view of the characters need to be one in the same to write an effective short story with well-developed characters. In Wiles teaching she tells “students that they can use the disappointments, sorrows, and rages of their lives to infuse their characters with emotion and depth – for that’s where character depth comes from: the willingness to ‘go there,’ to tap the fear you felt, the sweetness you knew, the anger, the joy, all of it” (Wiles 24). This way of looking at developing character is radically different from those of well-known writer Ursula K. Le Guin.
Ursula K. Le Guin, author of The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination, is the winner of the Hugo, Nebula, Gandalf, Kafka, and National Book Awards. Le Guin “is the author of many short stories and more than fifteen novels, including The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and the Earthsea Cycle. She is also an honored author of children’s book, poetry, and criticism.”
In her book, The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, she includes a section entitled “On Writing” which discusses “The Writer and the Character.” This short essay delves into Ursula Le Guins guidelines for developing characters in fiction. She begins by stating: “Whether they invent the people they write about or borrow them from people they know, fiction writers generally agree that once these people become characters in a story they have a life of their own, sometimes to the extent of escaping from the writer’s control and doing and saying things quite unexpected to the author of their being” (Le Guin 235). Basically, characters in stories take on a life of their own, once they do, the author in a sense, loses control over their creation. Although, Le Guin does point out the fact that the author does need to spend a considerable amount of time pondering the character’s motives in order to understand the destiny of that character – after this stage in the developing process – the character begins to do and say things because that is who they are, not because that is who the author is, or even because that is who the author decided that character would be. Characters take on a life of their own, as long as the author is willing to remain distant from the character. Le Guin states, “In planning the story and in revising it, I do better to keep some emotional distance from the characters, especially the ones I like best or loathe most” (Le Guin 235). In order to create an authentic character that the reader can be sympathetic towards, or even begin to think is real, the author must maintain this emotional distance. If the author becomes too involved with his or her character, the character begins to reflect the needs and opinions of the author. Le Guin describes this as the characters becoming more like “puppets”; “If I’m using the people in my story principally to fulfill the needs of my self-image, my self-love or self-hate, my needs, my opinions, they can’t be themselves and they can’t tell the truth” (Le Guin 236). A character can be allowed to embody the authors experience and emotions, but the author must not confuse themselves with the character. Le Guin writes, “If I fuse or confuse a fictional person with myself, my judgment of the character becomes a self-judgement” (Le Guin 236). The author becomes the “witness, defendant, prosecutor, judge, and jury,” therefore making justice for the character impossible.
Ursula Le Guin not only touches on the reality of fiction characters and the need for distance between the characters and the author, but she also touches on what readers need to remember about the characters the read about in stories. She writes, “The naïve reader often does not take the distance into account [distance between writer and character]. Inexperienced readers think writers write on from experience. They believe that the writer believes what the characters believe. The idea of the unreliable narrator takes some getting used to” (Le Guin 237). Readers must not always rely on the narrator to tell them about the author, because according the Le Guin, that shouldn’t be the goal of the author. According to Le Guin, authentic fiction stories are those in which the author’s point of view does not coincide with the characters point of view; “In so far as the author’s point of view exactly coincides with that of a character, the story isn’t fiction. It’s either a disguised memoir or a fiction-coated sermon” (237).
Le Guin ends her essay, “The Writer and the Character”, with a few definitive statements on her stance as a fiction writer. One, the authors point of view will always be larger than the character. The author’s point of view will be larger because he or she will always have knowledge that the character lacks. This bit of dramatic irony is necessary when developing characters. Le Guin writes, “This means that the character, existing only in the author’s knowledge, may be known as we cannot ever know any actual person; and such insight may reveal insights and durable truths relevant to our own lives” (Le Guin 239). And lastly, the difference between the author’s point of view and the characters, whether obvious or concealed, must exist. It is only when these two points of view are different, that we as the reader, can experience “discovery, change, learning, action, tragedy, [and] fulfillment” (Le Guin 239).
The Art of Brevity: Excursions in Short Fiction Theory and Analysis includes an essay by Susan Lohafer entitled, “Real-World Characters in Fictional Story Worlds: Robert Olen Butler’s ‘JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction’.” Lohafer begins this essay with several first lines. Lines from different stories (that she does not name). The first line of a story sets the stage for all that follows. Whether introduced in the first line or not, every story must introduce a predicament. She writes that, “If it is a narrative we can read in one sitting, if it shows us a fabricated world with a character at risk, if it gives us an outcome that is humanly significant, we can be reasonably sure we are reading a short story” (Lohafer 32). However, she writes that, “If there are claims to truth-value, if every assertion is marked as either factual or speculative, if differing viewpoints are contested or revised, we are likely to be reading a historical account” (Lohafer 32).
The purpose of Susan Lohafer’s essay is to explore the inroads of “creative nonfiction” within the genre of short fiction; “. . . I will be considering the effect of nonfictional characters in a fictional story world. Specifically, I will be asking whether a celebrity protagonist, trailing cloud of nonfiction, alters our response to markers of the short story” (Lohafer 33). In order to explore this question, Lohafer conducted an experiment using a class of college students and Robert Olen Butler’s story “JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction.” “Butler’s story includes a fictional visit to this very real, highly publicized event. However, the story focuses on JFK, acknowledging the historical event of his assassination but creating an alternative and fantastic scenario that goes as follows: the bullet did not kill Kennedy by destroyed the ‘editor’ to his brain, causing him to speak freely and truthfully about classified information” (Lohafer 35). In the story, JFK is taken away by the CIA and put in a secret location. The CIA tells the whole world that Kennedy is dead, while the real (alive) Kennedy is playing golf and sleeping with all of the women he wants. When Jackie Kennedy dies, they allow JKF to leave his secret hideout and attend the auction of their belongings. While he’s there, Kennedy sees several Jackie impersonators. He begins to realize how much he loved her after seeing all of the possessions that they owned together. Lohafer writes tells that, “The story ends with an interior monologue, a mediation on the human need to touch objects and bodies in order to reify memory and keep death at bay” (Lohafer 35). This particular story of Butler’s expresses the ‘yearning’ that all short stories express. This yearning “is the driving force behind the highest art and the lowest journalism” (Lohafer 35). So, the question is, “How does our knowledge of that legend affect our reading of the short story” (Lohafer 35). Lohafer began the experiment, using this story, she created a pseudostory. The pseudostory was overall 90 percent of the original text was retained verbatim (the biggest changes being the names of the characters). She gave half of the class she used for the study the original story about the Kennedy’s, the other half of the class was given the pseudostory which she refers to in the essay as the Osborne story.
The results of the experiment conducted by Lohafer turned out mostly how she expected. What she thought she would find in the results of the experiment was that the responses to the Kennedy story would be riddled with tabloid signifiers, and that the responses to the Osborne story would be more sensitive to the short story. Surprisingly, the students didn’t respond differently because of the celebrity characters. Both groups of students want to know more about the outside world (the real world around the story as opposed to the story world). What was different about the two groups was that, without the interference from the historical record and tabloid scenarios, the responses to the Osborne’s story tended to be what Lohafer originally thought it might have, the responses were more sensitive.
From this essay, we know that a creative short story that uses historical characters (otherwise, characters that the author did not develop themselves), the reader will tend to be less sensitive to the story. The reader will lean towards thinking of the tabloid and what is already known about the characters. The historical background already engrained in the reader’s mind dramatically effects the reader’s response to the story.
Jack Maguire, author of Creative Storytelling: Choosing, Inventing, and Sharing Tales for Children, writes an essay on “Bringing Characters to Life.” He believes that “if your original story idea does not contain any specific characters, there are several experiments you can perform to come up with a suitable cast for your tale” (Maguire 139). The writer must choose specific qualities to center the story around and build character off of that particular quality. “If your story is a ‘quest’ story, you may want a character who is basically curious pitted against one who is set in his or her way” (Maguire 139). Characters must match the overall feel of the story and have set qualities that are conducive to the type of story that it is. “The trick is to organize your entire depiction of a particular character around a single, pervasive attribute and yet make the character believable and not flat” (Maguire 139). The character should not have too many attributes or it could be in danger of becoming overly complex. Characters do not have to be too complex in order to be well-developed. Maguire’s simple formula, or rather conditions that the writer must follow in order to write well-developed character is as follows: “live with your characters for a while before fitting them into a plot of a story, remember that a character us best revealed through his or her actions, concentrate on the relationships a character has, rather than on who or what the character is in isolation, and lastly communicate a character’s intentions, attitudes, opinions, wishes, and fears through his or her own voice. These are all very clear and simple, but they directly contradict ideas from Wayne Booths analysis of the greatest characters written.
In the Essential Wayne Booth, Booth develops his ideas of what makes Jane Austen’s Emma and Shakespeare’s Macbeth some of the greatest characters (probably ever) written. Jane Austen (to begin with) is a master of the rhetoric of narration because she creates a character toward whom we cannot react as she consciously intends for us to react. Emma’s character is riddled with faults that constantly threaten to produce serious harm, “yet she must remain sympathetic, or the reader will not wish for and delight sufficiently in her reform” (Booth 36). The goal is to make the reader laugh at the mistakes committed by Emma and her punishment. This is difficult because Austen could neither reduce the amount of love or Emma’s fault without ruining the story altogether. So, in order to retain the humor, her faults, and love, Emma has to be made the narrator for only her experiences.
What sets apart Austen’s way of developing character, with what has been previously discussed, is the reliable narrator and the Norms of Emma. The reliable narrator serves to “heighten the effects by directing our intellectual, moral, and emotional progress throughout the novel” (Booth 45). It is a very important role in reinforcing that “both aspects of the double vision that operates throughout the book; our inside view of Emma’s worth and our objective view of her great faults.” Since Emma is the narrator of Austen’s story, “We learn much of what we must know from the narrator, but she turns over more and more of the jobs of summary to Emma as she feels more and more sure of our seeing precisely to what degree Emma is to be trusted.” Emma’s character is one we can sympathize with because she messes up every chance that she gets, but it is crucially important that in all the mistakes she makes, she never ruins any other characters’ life in the novel (such as Harriot).
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Shakespeare creates a different problem than that of Jane Austen’s. Shakespeare broke his character physically, emotionally, morally, and intellectually. Macbeth’s story is what Booth refers to as the sympathetic-degenerative plot which almost always includes one or another of the following failures or transformations occur: all sympathy is lost, the protagonist is never really made very wicked, the protagonist avoids his proper punishment, or the artist makes us side with his degenerative hero against “morality.” “Any of these failures or transformations can be found in conjunction with the most frequent failure of all: the degeneration remains finally unexplained, unmotivated; the forces employed to destroy the noble man are found pitifully inadequate to make his fall seem credible.”
The first step to Shakespeare’s development of characters is that the audience must believe the main character was once a man whom we could admire with great potential. The second step, or rule rather, in developing character is allowing the audience to see the real temptation to the fall. The audience must experience the temptation as it is happening. Shakespeare also employs the use of testimonies form other characters to establish the protagonist’s prior goodness. The audience must believe in the innate goodness of Macbeth. Even when Macbeth commits murder, Shakespeare strategically wrote his story so that the audience never sees Macbeth committing such as horrible act. Had the audience experienced Macbeth’s faults first hand, it would diminish the pity the audience feels for him. “Shakespeare works almost as if he were following a master-rulebook: By your choice of what to represent from the materials provided in your story, insure that each step in your protagonist’s degeneration will be counteracted by mounting pity for him.”
There is an array of strategies and different techniques when developing characters. Some writers believe that character and authors should have completely different points of view, while others believe that the author and the characters are one in the same. Writer’s draw inspiration from a multitude of things, whether it’s people and experiences in their lives, or just a fleeting thought of imagination they turned into a short story. Developing characters requires a great deal of planning. Developing a sympathetic character requires an enormous amount of planning and working through every detail in order to predict the audience’s responses to the characters. As much as the writer may try to predict the audiences response, or write to a specific audience, the writer must always write from the heart to create truly relatable, entertaining, and well-developed characters.