30 April 2024

Character Revealed

     When this blog posts, I'll be on the road. My traveling companion and I will be returning to
the Lone Star State from Malice Domestic 2024. While there, I'll participate in a panel discussion with fellow Sleuth, Barb Goffman. Joining us are Kate Hohl, Mary Dutta, and Kerry Hammond. The panel will be talking about, "Short Stories: Quickly Connecting Reader to Character."

    (It's an odd space-time continuum bending moment. I'm writing prospectively about an event that will have occurred by publication.) I look forward to/enjoyed discussing the craft of short story creation with these accomplished writers. 

    I'm excited to learn many things from them about building character. Do they, for instance, build characters first and then allow the plot to emerge from the interaction among these individuals, or do they conceive of a plot and build characters to inhabit that narrative? Do we all do the same thing, or do our methods vary? 

    As with many seminar topics, I'd be shocked if we surprise anyone with our discussion. There are only so many ways to reveal character. Our panel will, I hope, provide an entertaining review and, perhaps, systematize the process. If we succeed, the readers and writers in the audience will be better able to think about the characters in the next story they open. 

    We might quickly run aground over the use of the word "character." We always create characters within our stories. Each character has a particular character that makes them heroic or villainous or NPCs in the vocabulary of my gamer children. To keep the conversation afloat, I'll use "character" as the word to describe the person or animal involved in the story and "nature" when discussing the qualities that make them who or what they are. 

    As writers, we have a handful of tools for developing nature. Time permitting, I hope our panel's discussion will include a conversation about them all. Some authors might rely heavily upon dialogue to show us the nature of their tale's characters. Accents, word choice, and truncated versus elaborate sentences tell us something about the people inhabiting the stories. We learn from their questions, their answers, and their non-answers. In other stories, appearance might be the tool. Physically appearance and mannerisms usually elicit our first reaction to people. The vise-like grip, the sweating brow, and the beady eyes all help draw a picture for the readers and shape their expectations. 

    Action and a character's response, or lack thereof, may tell us about the story's inhabitants. Something happens and characters change. A door opens. There is a moment of stress. The characters fight, flee, or freeze. What the characters do and how change affects them shows their nature. 

    Finally, a writer might reveal the nature of the characters through their thoughts. The monologue playing inside the characters' heads as they evaluate situations, resolve conflicts, and make decisions exposes the nature of the individuals we are reading about in stories. 

    These are the readily available tools for showing readers the characters. They are the devices for making them interesting and believable. As authors, we deploy them to make the characters worth getting to know. 

    Sometimes, however, we choose to tell readers about a character's nature. As writers, we might present nature ourselves. The advantage is economy. The writer may say that a character is stupid. In that case, the reader learns the information far more efficiently than descriptions and dialogue may permit. The downside is that, having invested nothing, the reader might not care. 

    A final alternative is to have a character reveal the nature of a fellow character. One person may comment on or think about the nature of another. This method reveals something about both individuals. The reader is called upon to decide whether her opinion agrees with the speaker or thinker's evaluation. 

    As evidenced by the previous sentence, it's worth noting that almost no story relies entirely upon one technique. A reader will need some clues from appearance, speech, or action to pass judgment on another character's evaluation of nature. 

    Thinking about revealed nature for the Malice panel caused me to look back upon "Streetwise," my story in the current issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. The story concerns the interaction between a man and his friend. The friend is currently homeless. 

    I wrote "Streetwise," with alternating points of view between the two men. At the time, I wanted to shift POV as an exercise I'd not tried before, at least not intentionally. It seemed a good technique for feeding details slowly, extracting them from the different observations and experiences of each man. 

    As the story ping-ponged between the two, each character's nature is revealed by the thoughts of the other. It's that sixth technique discussed above. The reader can measure each character's evaluation of his friend based on the revealed facts. The story is a "tell" with a bit of "show." 

    Multiple POVs and telling about the other characters are suitable only for some stories. I wanted to try it for this one. I'm honored that the kind folks at Alfred Hitchcock liked the story. I hope that the readers do also. 

    Until next time. 

1 comment:

  1. I loved your latest story, and the POV switches were very good. Thanks!


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