We recently attended one of our favorite literary events of the year: Kathy Patrick’s annual Pulpwood Queens’ Girlfriend Weekend, a wild, wacky, charming literary event in Jefferson, Texas. Also in attendance were Pat Conroy, Fannie Flagg, Mark Childress and many other fine authors. Some of the attendees were aspiring writers, and the same question came up repeatedly: How do I write a memorable character?
When we got back home to San Francisco, we asked David Corbett, writing teacher and author of the compellingly characterized novel Do They Know I’m Running?, for some tips. Corbett’s advice on creating memorable characters is instructive for both writers and readers:
The exact nature of the curious phenomena we refer to as “characters” remains something of a mystery, but the craft of characterization is not. Though it’s a cause for celebration—or at least relief—when a character appears in the mind’s eye fully formed, this is a rare occurrence for most writers. Certain techniques are required to make the character quicken and assume clear form.
In my own work I’ve come to consider the following four qualities the crucial elements of a compelling character, i.e., a character who appears both internally consistent and yet capable of surprise.
A driving need, desire or goal: The fundamental truth of characterization is that characters want something, and the stronger the want, the more compelling the drama. For example, in A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois—one of the most memorable characters in American literature—has lost the family home. Desperate, she comes to New Orleans to find her sister, Stella, and ask to be taken in.
Desire creates conflict, the primordial goo in which character is formed. Simply by giving the character a deep-seated need, you have automatically created conflict, for the world is not designed to answer our needs and wants.
A secret: A secret is an inclination or trait (i.e., a psychological disposition to dishonesty, violence, sexual excess, etc.), or an incident from the past that, if revealed, would change forever the character’s standing in her world. Secrets tell us what the character has to lose, and why.
We are our own best source for understanding secrets. We know our own, and if we’re insightful, we understand how they affect our behavior. Blanche’s secret is that through drink and illicit sexual liaisons she became so emotionally and physically dissipated she could not hold on to the family home.
A contradiction: We all know people who are both shy and rude, cruel but funny, bigoted but protective. This complexity makes a person unpredictable. Contradictions automatically pique the reader’s interest.
Our senses are tuned to focus on irregularities—the thing that doesn’t quite fit, doesn’t make sense or is simply changing. This is an evolutionarily adaptive trait; it helps in analyzing the environment for threats. But it also attunes us to whatever is unusual in what we perceive; contradictions reveal what we couldn’t predict, the enigma, the surprise. Blanche is desperate and weak, hopelessly vain, with an alcoholic’s capacity for denial—but she is also fiercely proud and resourceful with a surprising steeliness.
A vulnerability: Nothing draws us into a character more than vulnerability. When people appear wounded or in need of our help, we are instantly drawn to them—it’s a basic human response. Vulnerability may be the result of the character’s secret—she is afraid of being found out. Or it may come from the intensity of her need or want—desire renders us naked in a fundamental way. Blanche’s desperation and need to find a safe place makes her vulnerable, as does the tawdry nature of her secrets, which threaten to shame her if revealed.
Our big thanks to David Corbett! Find him online.
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