What do we ask of our characters? What do we want them to be?
The answers to those questions aren’t nearly as simple as human. Or flawed. Or loving. We need them to breathe.
The arena in which we play out their lives is a fascinating one, when you think about it. Having 300 pages (less, actually, if you subtract the space required for plot and for other characters)to express what is essential, notable and memorable in 30, 40, 50 years of a created person—and to do it with such limited space—is a remarkable demand made upon the writer.
Many writers take shortcuts. One of the first I learned about is the convention of how the character is described. This description is offered, to often, in excessive detail, jammed into a single page or a couple of paragraphs. Worse, and lazier, is the observation of the character him/herself in a mirror. Awkward, graceless devices, these. They announce to the reader an unconfident impatience to get on with it. Seeing passages like these is enough to make me put the book down and never pick it up again.
The art of character is the art of complexity—and of presenting that complexity effortlessly. “After Joe’s wife died, he was never the same” is too little and too obvious. Complexity in character is like quirkiness in humans: It pervades everything. It may be carried on the shoulders of a trait or a habit or an action or a tendency, but it is a lifetime that reveals itself over the life of the work, the life lived between title page and postscript.
How well we know our character going in determines how vibrant that character will be on the pages. This is not to say that characters don’t open secrets to us as we transcribe them…McGill in The Spiritkeeper, in her final choices, was a total surprise to me. Terry Marsh in Everything had no idea who he was at the start of the book, which made the challenge of making the journey through not-ness an intriguing one.
Characters have journeys—call them arcs. As writer, we unwind the gifts of those journeys through the tale, even if the many of a character’s stations of the cross never make it to the page. Characters are a kind of haiku. They are distillations that draw crystal clarity from muddiest thinking. They are a kind of unique-yet-universal shorthand.
They are the embodiments and examples of the complex simplicity that makes us us.
Any wonder that great characters are so tough to reveal?