(This is the first of a five-part series anchored in Journalism 101, where I learned two important things. The first was “every word must earn its right to be on a page,” and this rule applies to literary as well. The second was that each story had to contain who, what, when, where, and why. I’ll look at these elements more closely in the next five weeks—two posts per item—staring with “who.”)
Every story contains multiple “whos.” Your hero or heroine (protagonist). Your bad character (villain). Support staff (in my case, the heroine’s family). Irritants (antagonists). Each one needs to be expanded enough to be believable and relevant to their function in the story, but not so much they impede your tale’s momentum.
Your characters’ names are as important as your manuscript’s. Names either support a role and personality, or contradict it in some way. Brilliant Daniel Silva calls his hero Gabriel Allon, an obvious link to the Biblical archangel, cementing Allon’s personae. Ian Fleming named his protagonist James Bond: two strong, sturdy, steady names that allow the character to be shaken, but never stirred. In David Baldacci’s The Forgotten, Lampert is a sophisticated man whose sophisticated empire is anchored in evil.
If your imagination isn’t enough, websites can generate names based on characteristics. Although I haven’t used it (because my characters tend to spring fully formed and named), I think this is one of the best: http://bit.ly/KMvis
Again, the biggest risk with these necessary elements is overuse. I try to limit myself to one at a time, so will write “gray hair striated like Israel’s wadis” instead of “kinky gray hair, wadi-like, above green eyes.” Both the hair and eyes are important, but if my heroine is watching something, the eyes are MORE important in that passage. If I’m contrasting her with younger people, that’s the time to introduce information about her “mature” hair.
Too much physical information slows my reader down, whereas too little prevents my reader from engaging with the character. I strongly believe a reader generally wants to picture a character—and NEEDS to do so—before they can form a voyeuristic relationship that keeps him or her turning pages. But this information needs to be shared early in the manuscript, and sprinkled strategically. If I’m uncertain what a minor character should look like, I google photographs after citing the character’s tangibles: where he or she is from, rough age, education. You’ll be amazed what you can find under the “images” tab on Google.
Tuesday’s blog will cover temperament, and believability. Until then, do you have trouble naming your characters? Or how do you do it? I am interested.