Advanced Storytelling


Bringing a Character to Life

Read the following excerpt from the book How to Write a Damn Good Novel, by James N. Frey. (pp. 27–31)

One way a novelist creates vivid characters is through the use of straightforward narrative:

Jones was a tall, angular, lanky lumberjack with deep-set, angry eyes. His unkempt, wild, raven hair spilled down over his forehead and the veins in his neck stood out like rope. A scar, jagged and ugly, that seemed to glow in the lantern's yellow light, ran up the side of his face. He was a frightening specter indeed . . .

With straightforward narrative you may be able to create in the reader's imagination a visual image of a character, but the character will spring to life only when he is put to the test, when he is forced to make a decision and act.

Suppose three soldiers on patrol come to a cold stream, which they must cross. It's November and there's a chill wind. Not a good day to go wading. The sergeant grants them a ten-minute rest. One soldier wades into the stream and takes his rest on the other side, preferring to get it over with. Another soldier chooses to spend his rest period walking upstream to a shallower spot, foregoing the rest, but avoiding at least some of the cold water. The sergeant rests on the near side of the stream and waits until the end of the rest period to cross.

The choices these men have made are not momentous, but the way they each handle the problem characterizes them. One prefers to get unpleasantness over with, one will go out of his way to avoid unpleasantness, and the third will put off unpleasantness as long as possible. A character's response to obstacles, barriers, and conflict individualizes him, proves his characterization, and makes him real and distinct in the reader's mind.

Consider the following scene, which has been carefully constructed to put you to sleep:

"Good morning," he said sleepily.

"Good morning," she said.

"Breakfast ready?"

"No. What would you like?"

He considered. "How about ham and eggs?"

"Okay," she said, agreeably. "How do you want your eggs?"

"Sunny-side up."

"Okey-dokey. Toast? I've got some honey wheat bread. Makes wonderful toast."

"I'll give it a try."

Okey-dokey. How do you like your toast?"

"Golden brown."





He sat down and read the paper while she made the breakfast.

"Anything in the paper?" she asked as she worked.

"The Red Sox lost a doubleheader last night."

"Too bad."

"Now they're eight games out of first place."

"Terrible. What are you going to do today?"

"I don't know, haven't thought about it. How about you?"

"The grass needs cutting."

"I'll do it."

"After you cut the grass, let's go to the park, have a picnic lunch."

"Okay . . . "

What do you feel as you read the scene? Boredom, no doubt. The scene does seem vaguely realistic, but the characters are flat, dull, and lifeless because there is no conflict. We know very little about these characters, except perhaps that they are agreeable, because they have done nothing to show their colors. They have not shown us through their actions what they are inside. They are flat, dull, and lifeless because all they do is talk. They don't want anything. They are having a conversation, not dialogue. Most readers will not tolerate such "talkiness" very long. If there are no conflicts on the horizon, the reader will abandon the story. In The Craft of Fiction (1977), William C. Knott puts it this way: "The most elaborate plot in the world is useless without the tension and excitement that conflict imports to it."

Conflict is the collision of a characters' desires with resistance—from nature, from other characters, from the spirit world, from outer space, from another dimension, from within themselves, from anywhere. We see who the characters are by the way they respond to such resistance; conflict highlights and exposes them. Character, not action, is what interests readers most. It is character that makes action meaningful. Story is stuggle. How a character struggles reveals who he is.

Consider the following scene [from Charles Dickens's famous novel, A Christmas Carol], in which the two characters are not only speaking to another, but are also in conflict:

"A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!" cried a cheeful voice.

"Bah!" said Scrooge. "Humbug!"

"Christmas humbug, uncle!" said Scrooge's nephew. "You don't mean that, I'm sure."

"I do," said Scrooge. "Merry Christmas indeed! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You're poor enough."

"Come then," returned the nephew gaily. "What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You're rich enough."

"Bah!" Scrooge said again. "Humbug!"

"Don't be cross, uncle!" said the nephew.

"What else can I be," returned the uncle, "when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What's Christmas-time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will," said Scrooge indignantly, "every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!"

"Uncle!" pleaded the nephew.

"Nephew!" returned the uncle sternly, "keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine."

"Keep it! But you don't keep it."

"Let me leave it alone then . . ."

As Scrooge and his nephew each presses for his point of view to sway the other, his own character is revealed. We see that Scrooge is a tightfisted old money bag, while his nephew is something of a cheerful ne'er-do-well.

Conflict between characters takes the form of insistence versus resistance. The Ghosts want to enlighten Scrooge; Scrooge does not wish to be enlightenend.

When characters have different goals and are intent on achieveing them, conflict results. If the stakes are high and both sides are unyielding, you have the makings of high drama.

Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.