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Writing Short Stories - Characters And Characterization

( Originally Published 1922 )



Characters Must Be Interesting.--Most People read for amusement and entertainment. It will be well for the young writer to bear this fact constantly in mind in planning who his characters will be and what they will do. What they will be will depend largely on whether his story is to be one of action of emotion, of setting, of idea, or of character. If of action, his characters themselves will be largely means to carry along the action of the plot. On the other hand, if his production is to be one of character, the actors will be chiefly concerned in being, in developing, in displaying character.

But, whether the characters are merely the means to an end, or the end itself, the writer must be sure that his characters are interesting. We like to be in the company of interesting people in our every-day life, especially in view of the fact that most people are outwardly ordinary and usually lack any 'marks of distinction. People, as a rule, do not exert themselves or go out of their way to be entertaining to others. Consequently, it is the attraction of the obliging actors who further his story that the author will urge as a reason for having his story read. So the writer must exert himself to make his characters very interesting. They must continue to act without tiring, without boring, and at all times must display tendencies of major interest, or unique tendencies of well-known characteristics. If the writer fails to do this if he is unable to make his characters much more worthy of our time and attention than ordinary people, then his story will be a failure.

If a person were taken from life and his actions reproduced just as they occurred, the narrative would be very tiring indeed. Only at very long intervals would the character engage in such enterprises, or experience an upheaval of his orthodoxies, sufficient to hold a reader's attention. Things of interest happen to the average individual only at wide and isolated intervals. In the successful story, characters must be planned in such a manner that they are constantly changing, or progressing, being acted upon by other characters, or involved in circumstances and conditions that make the story. A story character must experience in a few pages what usually occurs to an individual of every-day life in several years. Characters in stories undergo a very intensive and concentrated existence. In order that the theme of the story may be presented in the briefest and most effective manner possible, the characters must constantly be "in the frying pan," to speak in the vernacular, until the action has been drawn to a satisfactory end.

Characters Must Be of Universal Appeal.--One writer may desire to write stories of interest only to women, or to men, or the constituents of a particular trade or locality. The magazines; consciously or unconsciously, greatly en-courage this tendency. For instance, one magazine will re-quest that all stories submitted be of the "society type with a denouement of such a hidden and suggestive unravelment that the reader will think its truth has been revealed to him alone and that he has been very clever in discerning it." Or another publication will want a type of stories dealing with the life of the woman on the farm ; another periodical will want war stories; another adventure stories, and so on. If the writer has a predilection for writing certain types of stories and his characters are of a limited appeal, he will find numerous markets for his work. But his field will not be a fraction as broad or as appealing as that of the writer who treats of characters all of us can understand, imagine, and appreciate. The thinking writer will allow his character to exploit elemental themes and emotions. If he does and his story has an American setting, then it will be read and enjoyed by all Americans everywhere.

Characters Should Be Typical of Certain Traits.—The human soul, in the abstract, is made up of a great number of moral and immoral qualities, such as ambition, bigotry, love, selfishness, courage, and faith. Each character of a short story ordinarily embodies one of these abstract traits. In one story the heroine will be the embodiment of faith in her lover, no matter how badly that faith be shaken. Her forte, her reason for being in the story, is that she is faithful. Each character must possess certain traits and tendencies when he enters the action—he must still possess those same exaggerated and inbred traits when he leaves, unless, of course, the story is founded on events which cause a revulsion in the character of the main actor or actors. He must be the concentrated essence of courage—of perseverance—of fear—or of hate come to life. He must live up to the part laid- out for him in the story. There must be no wavering, no doubt as to the part he is to play.

Great characters, Whitman observes, "contain multitudes." This is, the man of courage must be, the sum entire of all courage, in all men everywhere. We must see clearly in his action just what he knows and understands fear to be. Becky Sharpe, in Thackeray's "Vanity Fair," typifies all scheming women ; and restless, grasping, unsatisfied peasants are typified in Paklom, main character of Tolstoi's "Three Arshins of Land." Now, though doubtless there are legions of women who scheme to bring about certain things during their life and to whom their own welfare is omnipresent and all-pressing, nevertheless there are no women in actual life who consistently and constantly could reveal the traits of craftiness and scheming so typified in the interesting Becky.

Real Individuals Usually Not Typical.—Very few people are typical in the above sense for the reason that their tendencies' along certain lines, such as love for admiration and fame, do not contain near all the qualities, in the aggregate, of a certain type. A man may be strong-willed, may evince it in various and unmistakable ways, but his strong-willedness is not near equal in magnitude, or variety, or consistency, to the tendencies and accomplishments displayed by all other men combined who possess this trait.

Characters Must Be Typical to Impress the Reader. —It is this display of typical traits by a story's characters, that make it and them interesting. You or I may not be especially concerned in the love affair of some young High School chap of our acquaintance. But we are interested hugely in the manifestations of love taken as a whole, manifested in the person of some character evincing in the aggregate all its qualities or the potencies of its qualities. And so it is with all traits. We may not be attracted to special or trivial portrayal of types of emotion or character; but, when some particular trait is summed up in all its force and magnitude, in the compass of one person, then we are interested in its disclosure, because all of us, at some time or other during our lives, have experienced the power of nearly all elemental emotions. We are so constituted, like an intricate piece of machinery of a great many parts, that we all have many traits instead of one.

We Remember Strongly Typical Characters.—But characters, to draw attention, must possess more than unity and prominence of trait. They must, above all, be individual, so that, even after having read the story, we may remember them as very entertaining personages. The ways to individualize a character are manifold. Think of several people of your own personal acquaintance, then decide just what qualities they possess, what peculiarities and habits they display, by which you especially remember and distinguish them from other people. Each of us do certain things, have certain mannerisms of dress and speech, which characteristics serve as marks of identification by our friends and acquaintances. It is these distinguishing qualities—a lisp of speech, a manner of walking, an exclamation we constantly are repeating, a habit we !constantly are rehearsing in the presence of others —which make certain characters distinguishable from the other people of the story.

Sketching Your Characters Briefly.—The writer does not need to load his characters down with individualities; they can be made too individual, and, in, making doubly sure that each 'character will be remembered and easily identified, the writer' can cause the reader to forget the story itself. Nor is it necessary to precede the entrance of each character in the story by a long description of him. Such a tendency is wasteful, for it is by the few prominent oddities of their peculiar natures that we remember characters. Consequently, it will be incumbent upon the author to choose only those few details of a character that will fix his identity firmly in mind. The following bit of description is very brief, but it impresses an image of the Colonel firmly upon our minds.

"Colonel. Marigold was a rosy cherub with a white chin-whisker. He carried his sixty years with a slight soldierly limp, and was forever opening his china-blue eyes in mild astonishment."

The Two Methods of Character Delineation.—Characters are pictured to the reader by two sets of methods: I. Direct Delineation, and II. Indirect Delineation.. By direct delineation, we mean exposition, description, and announcements of certain characters by other characters. By indirect delineation, we mean portrayal by the character himself in significant speech; by one character's effect upon an-other, and,lastly, by the action of a character.

1. Direct Delineation: 1. By Exposition, We will take up exposition, the first in the direct methods of delineation. In this, the character's most interesting traits are sketched by the author. We secure an excellent outline of the main character, though this system lacks somewhat in effectiveness for the reason that the character does not possess the warmth, intimacy, and lifelike resemblance of moving, speaking people. The following example of the expository method is from Stevenson's "New Arabian Nights."

"Mr. Silas Q. Scuddmore was a young American of a simple and harmless disposition, which was the more to his credit as he came from New England—a quarter of the New World not precisely famous for those qualities. Although he was exceedingly rich, he kept a note of all his expenses in a little paper pocket-book; and he had chosen to study the attractions of Paris from the seventh story of what is called a furnished hotel, in the Latin Quarter. There was a great deal of habit in his penuriousness; and his virtue, which was very remarkable among his associates, was principally founded upon diffidence and youth."

2. By Description.—Next in order comes the method of description, in which the character's physical plan is sketched as briefly and colorfully as possible. As has already been said, a judicious selection of outstanding details should be chosen. Nor need all the characters be described in more than a word or two, though it is customary to have a number of identification marks for the main characters. Occasionally, however, a character is of such importance, and the physical side may have such a bearing on the development of the story, that a full and more detailed description be necessary. But, ordinarily, characters may best be described in bits and sections, as certain actions in which they become involved bring to view their tendencies and oddities. By this latter method, the reader is not taken for too long a time from the center of interest. The following example of description is from Jack London's "Samuel," a story of character:

The sunken cheeks and pinched nose told little of the quality of life that flickered behind those clear blue eyes of hers. Despite the minutiae of wrinkle-work that somehow failed to weazen them, her eyes were as clear as a girl's—clear, out-looking and far-seeing, and with an open and unblinking steadfastness of gaze that was disconcerting. The remarkable thing was the distance between them.

It is a lucky man or woman who has the width of an eye between, but with Margaret Henan the width between the eyes, was fully that of an eye and a half. Yet so symmetrically molded was her face that this remarkable feature produced no uncanny effect, and, for that matter, would have escaped the casual observer's notice. The mouth, shapeless and toothless, with down turned corners and lips dry and parchmentlike, nevertheless lacked the muscular slackness so unusual with age. The lips might have been those of a mummy, save for the impression of rigid firmness they gave. Not that they were atrophied. On the contrary they seemed tense and set with a muscular and spiritual determination. There and in the eyes was the secret of the certitude with which she carried the sacks up the steep steps, with never a false step or overbalance, and emptied them in the grain-bin.

3. By Speech. —A still more effective means of describing characters is to put their qualities in the mouths of other characters, who may be discussing the talents or singularities of the first. This manner of displaying character is unusually forceful; the author is temporarily in the background and the characters themselves, while discussing the faults or abilities of another, may unconsciously bring to light their own personal attributes. Following is an extract from Jane Austin's "Sense and Sensibility":

"I desire you will do no such thing. Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humored as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference."

"They have none of them much to recommend them," replied he. "They are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters."

II. Indirect Delineation: I. By Speech and Its Implication.—In moments of stress and emotion, people are rather apt to speak before they think, and from this tendency of human nature we have the warning, "If angry, count ten before you speak." But, if everyone counted ten before they spoke, we might have difficulty in discovering just what people thought of each other and things in general, for it is in moments of emotion that a character is roused sufficiently to speak his mind—to give the key of his feelings—without restraint and without care. In such moments, the things characters say come directly from the heart without reserve —words that have hitherto been sternly suppressed rush forth tempestuously and lead rapidly to a crisis.

We learn also from the word-grouping itself the manner of a character's feeling. If his emotion be that of anger, he will chop his sentences off quickly, while, if his feeling is that of hatred, most likely he will speak deliberately, slowly, clearly --with dynamic emphasis. The following passage from Stevenson's "Markheim" is a conversation in which character is strongly brought out, both by the speeches themselves and the manner of speaking:

"Yes," said the dealer, "our windfalls are of various kinds. Some customers are ignorant, and then I touch a dividend on my superior knowledge. Some are dishonest," and here he held up his candle, so that the light fell strongly on his visitor, "and in that case," he continued, "I profit by my virtue."

Markheim had but just entered from the daylight streets, and his eyes had not yet grown familiar with the mingled shine and darkness of the shop. At these pointed words, and before the near presence of the flame, he blinked painfully and looked aside.

The dealer chuckled. "You come to me on Christmas day," he resumed, "when you know that I am alone in my house, put up my shutters, and make a point of refusing business. Well, you will have to pay for that; you will have to pay for my loss of time, when I should be balancing my books; you will have to pay, besides, for a kind of manner that I remark in you today very strongly. I am the essence of discretion, and I ask no awkward questions; but when a customer cannot look me in the eye, he has to pay for it." The dealer once more chuckled; and then changing to his usual business voice, though still with a note of irony, "You can give, as usual, a clear account of how you came into the possession of the object?" he continued. "Still your uncle's cabinet? A remarkable col-lector, sir !"

And the little pale, round-shouldered dealer stood almost on tiptoe, looking over the top of his gold spectacles, and nodding his head with every mark of disbelief. Markheim' returned his gaze with one of infinite pity, and a touch of horror.

"This time," said he, "you are in error. I have not come to sell, but to buy. I have no curios to dispose of; my uncle's cabinet is bare to the wainscot; even were it still intact, I have done well on the Stock Exchange, and should more likely add to it than otherwise, and my errand today is simplicity itself. I seek a Christmas present for a lady," he continued, waxing more fluent as he struck into the speech he had prepared; "and certainly I owe you every excuse for thus disturbing you upon so small a matter. But the thing was neglected yesterday; I must produce my little compliment at dinner; and, as you very well know, a rich marriage is not a thing to be neglected."

There followed a pause, during which the dealer seemed to weigh this statement incredulously. The ticking of many clocks among the curious lumber of the shop, and the faint rushing of the cabs in a near thoroughfare, filled up the interval of silence.

"Well, sir," said the dealer, "be it so. You are an old customer after all; and if, as you say, you have the chance of a good marriage, far be it from me to be an obstacle. Here as a nice thing for a lady now," he went on, "this handglass—fifteenth century, warranted ; comes from a good collection, too ; but I reserve the name, in the interests of my (customer, who was, just like yourself, my dear sir, the nephew and sole heir of a remarkable collector."

The dealer, while he thus ran on in his dry and biting voice, had stooped to take the object from its place; and as he had done so, a shock had passed through Markheim, a start both of hand and foot, a sudden leap of many tumultuous passions to the face. It passed as swiftly as it came, and left no trace beyond a certain trembling of the hand that now received the glass.

"A glass," he said hoarsely, and then paused and repeated it more clearly. "A glass? For Christmas? Surely not?"

"And why not?" cried the dealer. "Why not a glass?"

Markheim was looking upon him with an indefinable expression. "You ask me why not?" he said. "Why, look here—look in it-look at it yourself! Do you like to see it? No! nor I—nor any man."

The little man had jumped back when Markheim had so suddenly confronted him with the mirror; but, now perceiving there was nothing worse on hand, he chuckled. "Your future lady, sir, must be pretty hard favored," said he.

"I ask you," said Markheim, "for a Christmas present, and you give me this damned reminder of years, and sins and follies—this hand-conscience! Did you mean it? Had you a thought in your mind? Tell me. It will be better for you if you do. Come, tell me about yourself. I hazard a guess now that in secret you are a very charitable man?"

"What are you driving at?" the dealer asked.

"Not charitable?" returned the other gloomily. "Not charitable, not pious, nor scrupulous; unloving, unbeloved; a hand to get money, a safe to keep it. Is that all? Dear God, man, is that all?"

Throughout all this conversation, Markheim's words are replete with a certain significance. Their meaning can be better understood when it is known that Markheim is a rogue who has several times previously disposed of stolen goods to the dealer. The expression of his face when he speaks of his errand marks him as telling a falsehood. His horror, too, when the dealer presents the glass, displays plainly that he has come on no pleasing errand; very plainly he sees in the mirror the picture of an intended crime, while his words imply plainly his conflict of soul. Still farther on, his endeavors to find some good qualities in the dealer by eagerly asking if he is pious' or charitable, disclose that Markheim is desperately striving to stave off the execution of some horrible act.

2. By Action.—It is a truth universally accepted that action speaks stronger than words. What a person does is what he thinks, for our muscles first must have the authority of our will; before they can move in the execution of some scheme hours or days of planning are required.

The action of the characters, then, may be very suggestive of their worth and thoughts, particularly those actions done in secret and under stress of emotion.

3. By Effect on Other Characters.—Again, we may know characters by their effect on some other person or persons. I may have met, during my travels, some remarkable man who has left a decided imprint and impression upon me. I may tell other people of the effect this individual had on me. I may defend him in an argument in which he is involved, or I may speak of his force of character, showing consciously or otherwise, how it left its power fixed upon me. The piece following, from Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," will illustrate aptly :

"'You don't know how such a life tries a man like Kurtz,' cried Kurtz's last disciple.

"'Well, and you?' I said.

"'I! I ! I am a simple man. I have no great thoughts. I want nothing from anybody. How can you compare me to—?'

"His feelings were too much for speech, and suddenly he broke down.

"'I don't understand,' he groaned. `I've been doing my best to keep him alive, and that's enough. I had no hand in all this. I have no abilities. There hasn't been a drop of medicine or a mouthful of invalid food for months here. He was shamefully abandoned. A man like this, with such ideas. Shamefully! Shamefully! I—1—haven't slept for the last ten nights.' "

Sympathetic Treatment of Characters.—Just as the writer must tell of those phases of life with which he is acquainted, and just as he deals with those emotions and scenes which are nearest to his fancy, so must his characters carry out unmistakably his philosophy of character. If the writer is an admirer of some particular trait of human character, then one of his chief story-actors should embody that trait. Otherwise, the chief actor—hero or heroine—will not be true to the part set aside for him; his actions will fall flat, because they will not seem to come directly from the heart, and nothing he says or does will ring true. It is important, therefore, that the writer use only those characters who will carry out his own ideas along certain lines. If a writer sets down a story in a state of mind antagonistic to all the world, then his villain is very apt to appear in a relatively good light; for the writer will be in sympathy with him and will sketch the heroine or hero indifferently or even sarcastically; or the writer may even make a hero, all unconsciously, of course, out of his villain.

Where to Obtain Characters.—There should be no difficulty in securing characters suitable for any and all emergencies. We need never be perplexed as to just how a character should conduct himself under certain conditions, for we have merely to place ourselves in his place and ask just how we would act. Of course, characters may be. secured by observation of one's friends, acquaintances, and the types one meets on the street, yet such observation serves merely as a starting point. Many very interesting characters there are in every locality, but the points of interest in any particular character can be only the suggestion for a story character. As has already been said, no person could be taken bodily from a real life and put down into the fabric of a story; simply because people are only casually representative of types.

But people, taken as a whole, have the same traits, experience the same emotions and temptations, only in each one of us certain features of character are accentuated. No two people are exactly alike, yet each individual, dormant or other-wise, possesses qualities belonging "to all mankind. Consequently, the writer himself is the best field of study. Look into your own heart and ask yourself how you would react to certain conditions of environment.

Observation, both external and personal, is an excellent method of securing characters, but perhaps the best method of all is the use of the imagination. We have all seen enough of life to know what is and what is not reasonable. Granted, there-fore, that a character is placed in certain circumstances, we have only to exercise our imagination, our memory, and our reason to extricate him to our own satisfaction and the delight of our reader.

Appropriate Names for Characters.—The point of chief importance in devising names for characters is to use only those appellations applying to the condition and character of your personages. Your hero and heroine, if placed in a story of action, will require names in reasonable accordance with the qualities they typify. If, on the other hand, your story is one of character, your actors should be endowed with names in harmony with the traits which they embody. The name Priscilla brings up the picture of a simple, pure, and dainty maiden, while the name Betty suggests a harum-scarum, jolly-good-fellow among girls. Of course, if the ludicrous is to be portrayed, a comedy character might be known as Homer or Raphael.

Delineation Other than That of Character.—Description of character in its various phases has already been treated of above. It will be my purpose now to deal with description of places, sounds, and the like. The writer should first impress ,upon his mind the fact that all description should be, essential to the progress of his story. If a certain place has an important bearing on the development of the story, if it radically affects the course of action, then let it be described by all means, for the clear silhouetting of its details will assist the reader in securing a firmer grasp of the story. But description for description's sake alone is futile as well as dangerous.

Logical Description.—In describing a scene, the writer should deal with the locality in a systematic manner. I may emphasize the device of first describing the main features of a piece of landscape—its outlines, such as the towering peak of some mountain, then the low-hanging bank of clouds, thrown into gorgeous colors by the rising sun. Then, as a closer observation is brought on the scene as the sun rises, I may sketch in tersely and graphically lesser details, beginning either close at hand or far away and drawing near.

Description Appealing to All the Senses.—It should be remembered that description is more than that of place. There is the bringing to the reader's mind the breathing, pulsating, living side of nature. It includes the rumble of the distant thunder—the patter of rain—the roar of the seas —the call of the gull, and a multitude of other sounds and smells and feelings. Thus a man whom the hero of a narrative meets may very suggestively be described by saying that the hero dropped his hand quickly because of its soft, clammy feeling.

As has already been said, two characters may interpret the same scene differently, according to their state of mind. Herewith is presented an excellent means of characterization. A view of one person's emotions may be secured by having him paint a scene optimistically, while another, in different mood, gives the same scene in diametrically opposite terms.

Making Description Swift and Sure.—The author should aim to insert his description by a gradual process in which the most important scenes are dealt with as the action proceeds. In this manner even elaborate pictures may be sifted in by sure, swift, and hardly noticeable touches.

Point of View in Description.—+What we mean by point of view in description is that scenes and sounds and smells should be described from the point of view of the hero or other main personage, for it is in him, his doings and reactions to the setting, that the reader is interested, and it is through his eyes that the reader will visualize the story.

The writer should aim to tell his pictures in the concrete, in terms of his own life and experience. He may do this best by appealing to the reader's senses, to his ears, his eyes, to his sense of feeling, to his smell ; for it is through our senses that we are most acutely attuned to life.

Following are two excellent examples of description, brief, yet powerful and suggestive:

* '* The two, sleek, white, well-bullocks in the court-yard were steadily chewing the cud of their evening meal; Old Pir Khan squatted at the head of Holden's horse, his police sabre across his knees, pulling drowsily at a big water-pipe that croaked like a bullfrog in a pond. Ameera's mother sat spinning on the lower veranda, and the wooden gate was shut and barred. The music of a marriage-procession came to the roof above the gentle hum of the city, and a string of flying-foxes crossed the face of the low 'moon.—Kipling, 'Without Benefit of Clergy."

I raised my eyes and I shall never forget the spectacle I saw. The greater part of the smoke had risen and hung like a canopy about twenty feet above the redoubt. Through a bluish haze one could see the Russian Grenadiers behind their half-destroyed parapet, with arms raised, motionless as statues. It seems to me that I can see now each soldier, with his left eye fastened on us, the right hidden by the levelled musket. In the embrasure, a few yards away, a man stood beside a cannon, holding a fusee'.—Merimee, "The Taking of the Redoubt."

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