Of course not. To the writer, this is an easy question. The writer creates or sometimes recreates experience, which cannot occur without someone being there. You can have the richest setting ever written, the clearest, most compelling prose or poetry, and the most convoluted, original plot—if you don’t have good characters to pin them on, they will fall apart.
I use the term “characters” with some reservations, because what I am about to say applies to nonfiction as well. Even if you are writing about real people, you must find a way to recreate their reality for your readers in much the same way a fiction writer creates a character.
The most common problem for the beginning writer is overreliance on physical descriptions to do the job. When introducing a character or beginning a nonfiction piece, the beginner’s impulse is to always start with something akin to a police report. For some reason, physical details like the color, texture, and length of a character’s hair seem crucial, as do the color of eyes and the kind of clothing.
True, we live in a superficial culture here in the US (probably most other places, too). We put much stock in what people look like and what they wear. Look at all the fashion advice concerning what to wear to a job interview or first date. Look at all the red-carpet coverage.
But if your character isn’t going to a job interview, first date, or red-carpet event, this stuff is meaningless. Fiery red hair and piercing blue eyes aren’t character traits—they’re clichés. Some physical descriptions can be useful. For example, Jo’s long hair and Amy’s nose in Little Women are not just mindless physical traits. Jo’s hair reveals the femininity in the tomboy, and becomes a defining moment for her when she cuts it off for money. Amy’s struggles to have what she thinks of as a refined nose show her “airs.” The difference between a useless physical description and a useful one, as my word choice indicates, is that useful ones do some kind of work to reveal character or perhaps to create a plot point, like Cinderella’s slipper.
But how will a reader be able to imagine a character if you don’t provide a physical description?
That is the wrong question. The right question is whether the reader needs to imagine a particular physical appearance at all. Does it matter whether the reader is envisioning a blond or a brunette? Does it change the nature of the character or the meaning of the events you are narrating? Probably not. One of the most well-drawn characters in literature is the narrator of James Joyce’s “Araby,” and we don’t even know his name. We don’t stop to think what his hair color might be or what he’s wearing, because we know him in a much more intimate way: we hear his thoughts.
But what if you are writing about a real person? Don’t you owe the readers a physical description? Sure. There’s a natural curiosity about what real people look like that you should satisfy if possible. But don’t overdo it, and don’t let it substitute for more revealing information. Chances are, if you’re writing about a famous person, I probably have an idea of what he looks like. Do you really have to tell me about Abraham Lincoln’s hat? I think not. Don’t even tell me about your Aunt Rosie’s missing third finger unless it defines her in some way—it explains her shyness or, conversely, why she became a pianist. Joan Rivers has been giving us the minutest details of what celebrities wear for decades, and we are no closer to knowing any of them for it.
The would-be costume designers among you are incensed. It’s a good thing to think about your writing cinematically; it helps you flesh out setting and specific action. But the demands of film and print are not the same. Actors on a screen (or a stage) must be wearing something, or else be naked. And so, the good costume designer chooses something that makes sense. That works in conjunction with a particular character, time, and place. Even in the most spectacular cases of costume design, the costumes alone don’t make the character. It’s hard to imagine a film as visually striking as My Fair Lady without Cecil Beaton’s gorgeous outfits, but it’s the conjunction of the dresses with Audrey Hepburn’s dramatic personality makeover that create the character of Eliza Doolittle.
In print, however, there are no naked actors walking around (unless you put them there). We can omit physical descriptions and not even miss them. In fact, an irrelevant physical description is as distracting in print as a voice over is on film. There is a tendency now to constantly refer to Gucci this and Prada that. In some cases this is fitting. There is a culture to which designer labels are as endemic as mosquitoes and palm trees are to Florida. Lauren Weisberger could not have written The Devil Wears Prada without the specialized language of fashion. But all this name-dropping eventually starts to sound like product placement. Unless you’re writing for Vogue or someone’s paying you to sneak their brand into your story, don’t succumb to the temptation to show that you know the difference between Manolo Blahniks and Jimmy Choos.
So how do you create character?
The Barbara Walters Method
There’s a reason why Barbara Walters interviews people in their homes. It’s also why you snoop around the boyfriend’s apartment the first time you are over. Drawers full of lacy lingerie, empty cupboards, and miles of shelves displaying mint-in-box action figures from the 80’s are more than just setting. They’re character clues.
One of the most memorable characters I’ve ever encountered is Horse Badorties, from William Kotzwinkle’s The Fan Man. There are many reasons why this quirky character is so memorable, not the least of which is Kotzwinkle’s use of the first person. Horse’s voice is so unique it stays with you long after you finish the short novel. But we get to know Horse—from page one—by getting to know his pad, man, his
piled-up-to-the-ceiling-with-junk pad. Piled with sheet music, piled with garbage bags bursting with rubbish, piled with unnameable flecks of putrified wretchedness in grease.
It’s not just that his “pad” is messy; it’s the way he reacts to it that is so telling:
It’s the sink, man. I have found the sink. Wait a second, man . . . it is not the sink but my Horse Badorties easy chair piled with dirty dishes. I must sit down here and rest, man, I’m so tired from getting out of bed. Throw dishes onto the floor, crash break shatter. Sink down into the damp cushions, some kind of fungus on the armrest, possibility of smoking it.
Far from being shocked or upset by his mess, or even, as so many messy people are, oblivious to it, Horse enjoys the surprises his pad offers, and the possibility of smoking them. We know immediately the sort of person this guy is.
You don’t have to stick to people’s homes. Someone’s car, a desk at work, even the spot they choose to sit in a classroom can reveal character. The interaction between people and places is one of the most versatile tools at your disposal for showing character. Which brings me to my next point.
The Guinea Pig Method
People react not only to places, but to events. There’s an old writing myth I don’t think anyone’s been able to confirm about the existence of something called a “plot wheel.” Mystery writers would spin this wheel, and wherever the pointer landed, the event written there would be the next plot point. Sort of like the old board game Life: get married, win the lottery, switch careers, that sort of thing.
This is the wrong idea about how to create a good plot, but it does have its uses. People’s true natures come out when faced with an unexpected event. The event doesn’t even have to be catastrophic: think of Mr. Smooth on the perfect date, all good manners and pulling out chairs, holding doors open. Then give him a flat tire and watch him turn into a sweaty, cursing mess who berates his date for living on Pothole Place. Aha, we say. In the case of nonfiction, look for similar defining events. Sometimes these events are obvious—to go back to Abraham Lincoln, it’s as difficult to imagine him without the Civil War as without his hat. But defining events can also be the summer vacation that turned into a lifetime’s work in marine biology, or the childhood move to a different city that turned into a reading habit.
Always have your characters doing something. This is where your cinematic imagination will do you good—not by helping you envision what your characters are wearing, but what they are doing. The incessant doodler, the guy with his chair tipped back and his head resting on the windowsill, and the girl in the front row taking copious notes in tiny handwriting are all attending class, but each is different. This kind of detail-oriented action is more subtle than event reaction, but it can add personality as long as you don’t go overboard. If your character is jingling his keys, whistling a tune, and scratching his head, he might be having a seizure.
Perhaps the best kind of action is interior action, especially when it contrasts with exterior action. I used this contrast all through “Mesh and Lace,” a story about a waitress facing her ten-year high-school reunion. Most of what happens in that story stays inside the main character’s head. Outside, she’s waiting tables, dealing with her family, and having normal, banal conversations, but inside she’s questioning her whole life. Here is a scene that will hopefully make the point. Isabel, the main character, has still not decided whether she wants to go to the reunion when she finds out she will have to work that night:
“Isabel,” she says, as I walk up the driveway, “you’ve got to do me a favor. My brother in Jersey is getting married next next-weekend and I need you to do Saturday night—will you?”
I get a little pang somehow. It’s the night of the reunion. “Can’t Cary do it?”
“Cary’s already working on Saturday night.”
I really can’t say no to Sarah. How do you say no to someone who takes care of three kids she’s not even related to for three hours, five days a week? “Okay,” I say.
“Okay,” is all she says to Sarah, who is her coworker, neighbor, and sitter, and it seems—from the outside—that she’s not bothered at all by this development. Her thoughts, however, not only indicate an ambiguity that she’s not fully aware of, but also show her character: uncertain, somewhat afraid to look too deeply into her own feelings, but yet ready to do her job without hesitation. It’s the push-and-pull between Isabel’s exterior circumstances and her interior struggle that helped me develop this idea.
There are many other ways of putting round people on a flat page, but these two—setting and action—always work. Another classic way of capturing someone’s personality is through dialogue. That’s great if you can pull it off, but not many people can. Unless your character is witty or sarcastic, it’s difficult to reveal character through dialogue. It’s also difficult and potentially offensive to write dialect, which is a very popular way of making people sound like they belong to a particular ethnic group or region, or to show they are under or over educated. Stephen King loves it, and recommends it in his otherwise very good book on craft, On Writing. Here is the scene he holds up as an example:
“I don’t know what they say,” Mistuh Butts replied. “I ain’t never studied what thisun or thatun says, because eachun says a different thing until your head is finally achin and you lose your aminite.”
“What’s aminite?” the boy asked.
The boy in this scene is not the only one wondering what aminite (appetite) is; so am I, and plodding through phonetically rendered dialogue is so cumbersome a project that it sucks me right out of the story, making me think not about what is being said but rather wondering how it sounds. Capturing the nuances of syntax and diction is one thing, and if you’re a regional writer with a good ear, you can try it. But attempting to phonetically render dialect is a mistake, and often says more about you than about your characters. A better way to use language for characterization is to write in the first person, where the entire piece is basically the narrator’s voice. Compare the passage I quoted earlier from The Fan Man to the “Mistuh Butts” passage above; one is full of personality and humor, the other feels forced.
Dialogue has a much stronger role in character creation in poetry. The slick, choppy mantras of the pool players in Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” is a classic example. But you can also use setting and action to bring to life a person’s whole existence in just a few lines, as Martín Espada does in “Jorge the Church Janitor Finally Quits.” The truth is these methods do not necessarily take center stage as you are writing. When you’re writing, you’re writing. When you’re revising, however, and you know that something’s not quite right, someone’s lying there flat on the page and you can’t find the valve you can pump air into, it’s good to know where to look.