Character Creation: What Characters Are Really For
You will have noticed that I take exception to deconstruction – the practice of textual analysis to find out how a story works.
It’s fascinating but creatively empty. You can’t learn to tell stories from it, because it doesn’t reveal how the author tried to reach his objective.
Through the story creation process, the author worked towards an intended (in some cases, hoped-for) effect on the reader.
More and more, I think the author-story-reader communication is like PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption: you can’t discover the author’s writing process by analyzing the manuscript.
In this post, I look at the characters of four authors:
- Mark Twain: Huck Finn
- Robert Louis Stevenson: Long John Silver
- Agatha Christie: Poirot and Marple
- Ian Fleming: James Bond
I want to examine why these characters were created, and their role in telling the story, because I think they all reveal the true relationship between character and storytelling.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Before I start talking about this book, I’m going to be mean: if you haven’t read both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, you ain’t never going to be an American author.
A lot of culture is like laying the table for a meal. There are all sorts of things you can put on the table that aren’t strictly necessary, but that almost everyone does. Like a plate. For most meals, you can serve the food eat it directly on the table.
Writing in English without having read Twain is pretty much like eating without a plate.
Sure, you can do it. You’ll still get the food in your mouth. You can imagine the rest.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (retitled “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” because that’s what everyone calls it) was first published in 1884, and is, broadly speaking, the sequel to Twain’s 1876 bestseller, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It’s a sequel insofar as the action takes place a year or two after the story in Tom Sawyer.
The character of Huck Finn is (you might be forgiven for thinking) firmly established in the earlier book. The vagabond son of a vagabond, Huck is uneducated, idle and a bad influence on the other children. But there’s a profound difference between Huck in the first book and Huck in the second.
In the first book, he’s established through the eyes of the other characters. This is important, so take the time to think about it.
Why is Tom’s book called ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ and Huck’s book called ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?’
Did Sam dream up the characters and think, “Damn, those boys oughta have a book written about them.”?
I’m pretty sure he didn’t. In fact, I’m pretty sure that he invented both boys because he needed them. Neither book is about boy’s adventures, or about the likely friendship of the most popular kid and the vagabond kid. That’s just how the books look to folks who think they’re books for children, and that suited Twain just fine.
Because his purpose, as always, was to satirize both the society he grew up in, and the society that persisted into his adulthood.
Many critics have drawn attention to Twain’s obvious love for freedom and equality, his disdain for authority and oppression, and these themes pervade. But there are features of human behavior that he hates even more. The pettiness, the hypocrisy; false piety, snobbery, mob behavior. When I re-read Huck Finn in particular, I see a lot of anger.
What better way to show that, than to reveal a society through the eyes of smart, savvy children and show those children through the eyes of that society?
In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain shows the world through Huck’s eyes, and by doing so, shows Huck. Huck is transformed from archetype to person.
This isn’t a story for, or about, a popular character from a popular book. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a diatribe about Twain’s American South, for which he needed the character of Huck Finn, and needed to pair him with Jim, and use them to reveal each other and the world around them.
This is the story serving the author, and the character serving the story. The author’s purpose is met through bringing together world, character, and events into a story that is formed by them as much as it forms around them.
First published (serialized) in 1881 and published as a book in 1883, RLS’ celebrated book was inspired mostly by the rather fanciful accounts of pirates’ lives in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates (usually known as ‘History of the Pyrates’) by Captain Johnson (almost certainly a pseudonym).
Treasure island is best known for two things: cementing the fantasy pirate and all its trappings in the popular imagination, and the character of Long John Silver.
So many films have been made of Treasure Island that it’s probably safe to say that far more people have heard of Long John Silver than have ever read the book.
There’s something very peculiar going on here, though. You could be forgiven for believing that Long John Silver is the book’s main character. But he isn’t.
The book is told in the first person, by Jim Hawkins, a young lad who is as modest to a fault as he is courageous to a fault. You might also be forgiven for thinking that perhaps everyone thinks that Silver is the main character because he has so often stolen the scene in the movies – filmmakers preferring to give screen time to this exaggerated character who brings out the best and worst in actors.
But look at another of RLS’ adventures, Kidnapped. The main character is another virtuous if somewhat naive young man; and the most memorable character is Alan Breck Stewart, a fictionalized version of Allan Breac Stewart, a stalward Jacobite and the prime suspect (and probable murderer) in a celebrated real life crime.
In Kidnapped, Alan Breck is portrayed as brave, honorable, competitive, a little too proud at times, cunning, loyal, a little nostalgic, and there’s a strong sense of ongoing internal conflict.
In many ways, Alan Breck is the flipside of Long John Silver.
There can be little doubt that RLS was inspired by real people and events when he wrote Kidnapped, but at the same time, he had an underlying theme, which was the disappearance of an older kind of Scotsman, the highlander – whose identity was wrapped up in his Clan and lands, in force of arms, in loyalty, in kinship; at its replacement by a new kind.
The lowlander, whose identity was defined by his sense of the politics of the wider world, by wealth and trade, by alignment, by religion, and by choice rather than duty.
As is typical for him, RLS makes no clear judgment about this. As always, he expects the reader to decide for herself (or indeed, as many assume, himself, but let it not be forgotten that at the time, when boys were encouraged to read tales of adventure, girls were not encouraged to read at all).
In both books, RLS employs exactly the same trick. He wants to write about adults, and about their behavior and attitudes. But he’s writing for children, so he selects bland, good-example, boyscout types as the main characters, as this will not offend parents and editors, and will also provide the reader with a familiar experience: that of observing adult behavior and finding it confusing, inconsistent, unpredictable, irrational.
The profound lesson in both books is that adults do not have it all worked out. That they still have their internal struggles, and that they do not always prevail in them.
Long John Silver serves this aim. He is a character of extremes, but shows that he can be affectionate, nostalgic, protective, but also less conventionally loyal and entirely unconventionally honest.
He never stops being terrifying even as he is sympathetic, just as he never lets Jim down too far even as he is thoroughly untrustworthy. Long John Silver is the most complete character in the book, and this is because he is never entirely what he seems, never fits completely in any category.
Coming back to this book has been a particular pleasure for me, for here you see a truly compelling tale that utterly demolishes the idea of protagonist and antagonist.
If anything, Long John Silver is both – he’s his own worst enemy as much when he is trying to do good as when he is trying to do ill. Jim certainly isn’t a protagonist; he’s swept along by events largely (if not altogether expertly) orchestrated by Silver.
The Great Detectives
Conan Doyle’s Holmes is seen through the eyes of Watson, his loyal friend. There can be little doubt that for the reader, the main compulsion was Holmes’ unusual character; not just his ‘unique brain’ but his behavior. In particular, the way that being super-intelligent (if you believed Conan Doyle’s mythmaking) set him apart as well as set him above those around him.
Conan Doyle was writing for a ravenous public who wanted more Holmes until the author himself was sick of it. And not for nothing; the cult of Holmes’ personality was detracting from the author’s capacity to tell his story.
I’d feel dishonest if I didn’t say that I feel Agatha Christie was a better writer. But also much more prolific, for much longer, and didn’t believe in fairies. All these contribute to her characters never getting bigger than her, even if she understood marketing well enough to let it seem that way.
The point of Agatha Christie’s country-house murder mysteries is that you think you’re being treated to the thrill of deduction, following trails of clues, the chase, the revelation – in short, a crime thriller.
But actually, the most important words in country-house murder mystery are country-house.
Agatha Christie’s success arose not from her brilliant plotting (it’s actually rather mechanical; the genius of Christie is her ability to disguise how she uses her genius), but from her depictions of the lives of the wealthy, aristocratic, famous, powerful, in short of celebrity, and her prurient depictions of their sordid and mediocre goings-on – in short, gossip.
Christie’s novels are celebrity gossip disguised as murder mysteries, and this is repeatedly lampshaded, in Poirot with reference to his reputation and in Marple with all her observations of how she is reminded by various suspects of people that she has gossiped about throughout her long life. Poirot is a celebrity sleuth. Marple is a gossip sleuth.
Both characters have been (ruthlessly) invented in order to serve Christie’s marketing strategy. Give the reader’s of pulp what they really want but are too snobbish to ask for.
Christie’s ruthlessness is amply displayed in the character of Ariadne Oliver. Mrs Oliver is a famous writer of detective fiction. She occasionally ends up involved in real murders, and doesn’t usually succeed in solving them. This is ruthless parody of the writer by the writer.
Arguably Christie’s worst book is so bad that I believe she deliberately wrote it to be as bad as possible. It’s called “The Big Four.” It reads as if her publisher told her she had to write a spy caper based on an international conspiracy of criminal master minds as that was all the rage at the time. Poirot features but is little more than guignol, in line with most of the other characters, all of whom come across as if they’ve been selected from a rack of standard caricatures.
I think it’s a mark of Christie’s strength of character and her confidence as a writer, that the characters are chosen to provide an opportunity for a story (of the kind that her public will love). She never gets over-fond of her characters.
It is impossible to imagine Christie ‘assembling a group of interesting characters and then observing them;’ on the other hand, carefully creating an ill-assorted crowd of misfits with guilty secrets and then killing them off one by one?
Nailed that one.
Everyone thinks they know James Bond. The books have gone in and out of fashion since they were first published, and the films have both helped and hindered Fleming’s reputation and popularity – in spite of the fact that none of the films has come close to showing what Fleming wanted to show.
In popular culture, Bond is trapped in an uncanny valley somewhere between the peaks of Bulldog Drummond and George Smiley – both of whom are better characters in better stories.
But Bond was never meant to be a good character, and in Casino Royale, Fleming wears his heart on his sleeve. Bond is supremely lonely. He is a character built from loneliness. He does a job that only a handful of people do; only handful of people know he does it and only a handful of people know who he is. He doesn’t like any of them. He’s emotionally immature. He has epicurean habits derived from genuinely refined tastes. But he’s a brute because that’s how you get the job done.
In 1995’s Goldeneye (Martin Campbell, he of the Casino Royale ‘reboot’), Judi Dench’s ‘M’ calls Bond a ‘misogynist dinosaur.’ But he isn’t a misogynist. He hates himself more than he hates anyone else. In fact he prefers women to men, which shows in the way that he always expects men to betray him, but occasionally he hopes that a woman won’t.
This persists into the later books, where we discover that Fleming himself is a bigger misogynist than Bond. Bond isn’t a dinosaur, either. He’s damaged goods, and that’s why the Service uses him. Fleming uses Bond as a whipping boy.
He suffers repeated humiliations, and in Casino Royale, it isn’t even Bond who overcomes the bad-guy. Bond gets out alive by good luck – he doesn’t happen to be on the SMERSH hit list at the time.
Fleming’s intent seems to be to write a series of books about loneliness, in particular, the loneliness of doing a job that no one understands, and that few appreciate. Fleming’s wartime experiences are almost certainly the origin of this sentiment.
In the books, even Bond’s philandering isn’t a compensation for his loneliness. If anything, the cliché of girls who sleep with him getting killed is more than a cliché; it’s the leitmotif. It is impossible for Bond to find even a quantum of solace. Because that’s the point. Fleming creates a character who doesn’t really deserve redemption.
On the surface, you might think that Daniel ‘Craggy’ Craig’s troubled, brooding Marlon Bondo is closer to the original. But far from it. The Craig Bond is a deliberate attempt to make him into Heathcliffe – he’s violent and nasty because he’s troubled and brooding. It’s just to appeal to the women that the studio hopes are there to look at Craig in the first place.
If anything, Moore’s Bond is closer to the truth, because the wisecracking, the casual violence, the casual sex, the aloofness, are all characteristics of a man struggling to deal with his own emotional emptiness. Remove the comic timing (such as it is) and you’re left with the terrible bleakness of Fleming’s lonely Bond.
What It’s All About
It’s probably clear that these characters have something in common.
They have all been created with the purpose of telling a particular story.
The story has been created in order to achieve a specific effect on the reader, even if it is just to play on the reader’s aspirations, in order to get the reader to buy more books.
In fact, take any “classic” or “great work of literature” and you will find that the author has created the characters as part of the story. It’s curious how when you ask schoolchildren of almost any age, ‘what is this book about?’ the answer will begin with ‘it’s about a wo/man, boy, girl…’ because of course we relate to a story through its characters, what they experience, how we feel about them, and how we feel about what they experience.
In a way, that’s the reason it’s a story.
The author wants to communicate something to you about human experience:
- that being human isn’t limited to those who are white, educated, respectable
- that individual people aren’t either good or bad, but an internal conflict of good and bad
- that people enjoy mystery and crime, but what they really want is celebrity gossip
- that loneliness exacerbates peoples internal problems
It would be very easy for these educated and highly articulate writers to write a 500 word monograph on the topic they have chosen, and you would understand exactly what they were thinking. But would you feel it? I doubt it.
To convince you, they have to show you the truth. They do this by creating characters that seem realistic to you. When these characters take decisions and actions, you find them believable. If you believe that Bond would kill this mook but spare that one, then you would believe it of a real person.
As a result, the author can show you a complex network of human interactions all of which develop and demonstrate the human experience that the author wants you to understand.
It is a common experience of writers who are studying writing, to be asked to do character creation or character development exercises. You write ‘character sketches’ and congratulate each other on how much curiosity a character sketch inspires.
These are useful exercises, but should not be done in preparation for writing a book. They will teach you to recognize characters who will compel or inspire the reader. But they won’t lead you to the story you want to tell.
At worst – and it happens all the time – it will lead to stories that are an ego-trip for the character (not even the writer!).
You might think, especially since software for writers usually includes templates for “character sketches” or other “character management” tools, that coming up with a cast of characters beforehand, carefully fleshing out their backstories and describing their foibles, flaws and physical appearance is the proper – or at least usual – way to proceed.
I’m drafting this post on Scrivener. When I write stories in Scrivener I have a folder for characters. It contains a card for each major character.
What To Do
Character Management is what to do.
You should have a list of characters. Under each character there should be an outline.
No character should have a card unless at least one scene they have appeared in has been written.
There shouldn’t be anything on the card other than information that is present in the scene that you have written.
Enough with the abjurations! Do this:
- Start writing your story.
- Put their name
- mention any characteristics that appear in the SCENES YOU HAVE WRITTEN
- mention any characteristics you expect to appear later on
- You shouldn’t need to do this for main characters!
- characters knowing each other
- characters not knowing each other
- a character who knows something significant about another character
- what scenes/chapters/events they appear in
- what they have said to or about the main character(s)
- what has been revealed about their general attitude to the main character(s)
Character management is mostly about continuity. If you know you don’t need to write down any of the information in the previous section, then you don’t need to write down anything about your characters outside what is in the manuscript.
Because characters are part of the story. They aren’t something the story is built around, or even about. The reader learns everything he needs to know about the characters from the story.
But also, the reader learns everything you want to tell him from the story. So the characters have to be more than a good match for the story. They have to be integrated with it.
Jenga characters. Remove them and the story collapses.
Your purpose in telling a story, the reason why you write in the first place — whether it’s educational, high-minded and literary, or just sound marketing — is communicated to the reader through a story that creates its characters who create the story.
You can’t create the characters and then the story any more than you can create the story and then the characters. You can decide what general type of story you want to write and you can even select the genre.
To some extent, you can decide what the major incidents and events might be. But for the rest, you have to develop the story.
Please note: Some of these links are affiliate links, and I earn a small commission (at no cost to you) when you use them to make a purchase.
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates
- Treasure Island
- The Adventure of the Speckled Band
- The Mystery of the Blue Train
- At Bertram’s Hotel
- Casino Royale
- BULL-DOG DRUMMOND His Four Rounds with Carl Peterson, and
The Female of the Species
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy