Everyone—even the most predictable, average person—has something unusual at his center.
“When you pass a grocer sitting in his doorway, a concierge smoking his pipe, or a cab-stand, show me that grocer or that concierge, the way they are sitting or standing, their entire physical appearance, making it by the skillfulness of your portrayal embody all their moral nature as well, so that I cannot confuse them with any other grocer or any other concierge. And make me see, by means of a single word, wherein one cab-horse does not resemble the fifty others ahead of it or behind it. …There are not in the whole world two grains of sand, two specks, two hands or noses exactly alike.”
People can behave kindly or selfishly, with empathy or indifference. But what do these words mean? What do they look like? Does one person’s ‘caring’ resemble another’s? Of course not.
Catchall statements make for bland writing and flat characters. Consider the passage written by T.L. Blakeney in his nonfiction article entitled The First Steps Toward Everest—
“Morely was an elderly, austere, dry-as-dust little man, ambitious and determined to use the powers he had now acquired. His real interest lay in literature (especially the drier aspects of it) and sport made no claims on him. His Cabinet colleagues were said to nickname him ‘Aunt Priscilla’, and Campbell-Bannerman once spoke of him as a ‘petulant spinster’.” [Alpine Journal, 1971.]
Dry-as-dust little man, a petulant spinster whom his colleagues had dubbed Aunt Priscilla? That’s memorable, which is how the example found its way into this post. I remembered.
Had his buddies merely called him ‘Auntie’, the derision would have ended there. Aunt Priscilla, though? Aunt Priscilla is a certain aunt, an archaic aunt, a dinosaur. Aunt Priscilla is specific.
The specific in characterization refers to one person… addresses one trait of one person… identifies one aspect of one trait of one person. The specific pertains to one aspect of one trait of one person at one point in time and in one particular set of circumstances.
He’s Great, You’d Like Him…
Let’s imagine that I ask you about a friend. An image of him comes to mind. You might say, “Oh, I don’t know,” and begin listing various (general) traits.
When developing a character, don’t envision him or her as you might an acquaintance. When we think about our friends there’s so much information that we pull back and try to summarize the gist or essence of who they are. The distinctive idiosyncrasies we find endearing or infuriating aren’t on our radar. We think in global terms. We see the whole person and try to relate an understanding of him in a line of dialogue.
Our routine process of recalling others is an obstacle to good characterization. As writers, we need to do the opposite of what we would do in life. Rather than drawing back to a panoramic view, we need to drill down and zoom in. Remember, we’re attempting to replicate life. We’re attempting to paint a canvas—and that is the key to specificity.
Think like Leonardo Da Vinci honing in on the Mona Lisa.
In other words, don’t see the entire person before you, see the hairs growing from his right ear. See the toenail on his left pinkie—the brittle ridges, the hangnail, the yellowing of fungus.
Okay, maybe not the toenail, but that’s the concept. We’ll call it the toenail concept. Better yet, The Toenail Method of Characterization. You get the idea.
When developing characters, think about the minute detail that shows the larger, more general trait you have in mind.
Sad, happy, angry, stubborn, intelligent—traits are general. How is this character sad, happy, angry, stubborn, or intelligent? What is the toenail of his happiness? Whatever it is, whatever you come up with, if it’s particular and minute as a toenail, it’s a gem, and you’re on your way to creating a unique and memorial character.
Details are what distinguish us from each other. By working with a specific pallet, as contrary as it might sound, we create the everyman. We create a character that is life-like because he is not merely man or woman, Armenian or Argentinian, plumber or computer engineer or member of the Elk’s Lodge. Like us, he’s an individual. And like us, like our readers, he’s identifiable. He’s someone we can relate to.
We identify with the particular individual because he taps into our own particularness. He puts us in touch with our idiosyncrasies and oddball habits.
In the example below, notice how Joseph Conrad particularizes a faceless, nondescript character in his novel Heart of Darkness.
Commonplace in complexion, in features, in manners, in voice. He was of middle size and ordinary build. His eyes, of the usual blue, were perhaps remarkably cold, and he certainly could make his glance fall on one as trenchant and heavy as an axe. But even at these times, the rest of his person seemed to disclaim the intention. Otherwise there was only an indefinable, faint expression of his lips, something stealthy—a smile—not a smile—I remember it, but I can’t explain. It was unconscious, this smile was, though just after he had said something it got intensified for an instant. It came at the end of his speeches like a seal applied on the words to make the meaning of the commonest phrase appear absolutely inscrutable. […] He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness. Not a definite mistrust—just uneasiness—nothing more. You have no idea how effective such a… a… faculty can be. He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. […] He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going—that’s all. But he was great. He was great by this little thing that it was impossible to tell what could control such a man. He never gave that secret away. Perhaps there was nothing within him. Such a suspicion made one pause—for out there were no external checks. […] He was neither civil nor uncivil. He was quiet.
Such a distinctive wallflower—a smile is not a smile, and the commonplace is not common. We know this look Conrad paints it so vividly. We’ve worn this expression. While each detail is decidedly vague, Conrad’s choices and the manner in which he depicts their vagueness is specific.
The First of Their Kind
The two excerpts we’ve looked at should give us hope in our potential to create winning characters.
We’ve already seen how to reveal them through—
Now we need to ensure that what we reveal is the first of its kind.
How do we bring to life first-of-its-kind characters? Simple. We copy other writers who have done just that.
Of course, I don’t mean copy. He wouldn’t be the first of his kind if we lifted him from someone else’s pages. I mean to learn from, model after, etc. Successful creators of memorable characters draw from specific traits and portray these traits in specific and unique thoughts, gestures, words, and behaviors.
Let’s look at a few examples.
Anne Tyler’s Macon Leary from Accidental Tourist is anal. Pretty general, but after he breaks his leg, Tyler’s Macon refuses to let anyone sign his cast. How messy and disorderly! We’re beginning to see anal, but not clearly enough for Tyler who is determined to show us exactly how anal anal can be. Putting a bottle of liquid white shoe polish in his hand, she has Macon white-washing the scuff marks off his plastered leg. That, fellow writers, is the left pinkie toenail of anal.
Charles Portis tosses up the right pinkie toenail in The Dog of the South. From Ray Midge’s unique behavior, we get a pretty good idea of why his wife left him.
I ordered a glass of beer and arranged my coins before me on the bar in columns according to value. When the beer came, I dipped a finger in it and wet down each corner of the paper napkin to anchor it, so it would not come up with the mug each time and make me appear ridiculous. I drank from the side of the mug that a left-handed person would use, in the believe that fewer mouths had been on that side.
If that’s all we were to learn about Ray Midge, we’d have enough information to take out a sketch pad and draw the man. I can just see his two feet side-by-side, perfectly parallel and nicely perched on the front rung of his stool. A little paunch, a slouch to his shoulders. Brown hair, what do you think? Mousey brown. He erects his posture, squares his shoulders, and takes a nervous glance left, then right before turning face-front and lowering his gaze to the napkin.
He’s a man we’ve all seen before, and yet, I’ve never witnessed anyone with his queer ticks, have you?
“I think I chipped my favorite tooth,” Dupree McCall says. It’s a toenail, courtesy of Pat Conroy, from his novel Beach Music. One line of dialogue and it plants in us a solid appreciation of Dupree’s laid-back charm.
T.S. Garp, from John Irving’s The World According to Garp, you could say, is toenail from the soles of his feet to the uppermost hair on the crown of his head. When he comes upon the victim of a sexual assault, we get another look at his capacity for compassion. Here’s “nice” in Garp’s comedy of errors style.
“Where did he go?” Garp asked her. Then he changed his tone, trying to convince her he was on her side. “I’ll kill him for you,” he told her. She stared quietly at him, her head shaking and shaking, her fingers pinching and pinching the tight skin on her arms. “Please,” Garp said, “Can you tell me where your clothes are?” He had nothing to give her to wear except his sweaty T-shirt. He was dressed in his running shorts, his running shoes. He pulled his T-shirt off over his head and felt instantly cold; the girl cried out, awfully loud, and hid her face. “No, don’t be frightened, it’s for you to put on,” Garp told her. He let the T-shirt drop on her but she writhed out from under it and kicked at it; then she opened her mouth very wide and bit her own fist….
Garp began to cry. The sky was gray, dead leaves were all around them, and when Garp began to wail aloud, the girl picked up his T-shirt and covered herself with it. They were in this queer position to each other-the child crouched under Garp’s T-shirt, cringing at Garp’s feet with Garp crying over her—when the mounted park police, a twosome, rode up the bridle path and spotted the apparent child molester with his victim.
And remember the beggar, born optimist Fermin Romero de Torres from Carlos Ruiz Zafon The Shadow of the Wind? By my estimation, he’s the king of uniquely specific characters. While his past as a high-ranking spy remains suspect with Daniel and his father, he tells Sr. Sempere—
“…if fate hadn’t led me into the world of international intrigue, what I would have gone for, what was closest to my heart, was humanities. As a child I felt the call of poetry and wanted to be a Sophocles or a Virgil, because tragedy and dead languages give me the goose pimples. But my father, God rest his soul, was a pigheaded man without much vision. He’d always wanted one of his children to join the Civil Guard, and none of my seven sisters would have qualified for that, despite the facial-hair problem that characterized all the women on my mother’s side of the family. On his deathbed my father made me swear that if I didn’t succeed in wearing the Civil Guard’s three-cornered hat, at least I would become a civil servant and abandon all my literary ambitions. I’m rather old-fashioned, and I believe that a father, however dim-witted, should be obeyed, if you see what I mean.”
Sophocles and Virgil catches his new friends (and us) by surprise, and not a month after emerging from their bathtub, the ex-beggar has Daniel and his father speechless.
His sleuthlike instincts, which I had attributed to delirious fantasies, proved surgically precise. He could solve the strangest requests in a matter of days, even hours. Was there no title he didn’t know, and no stratagem for obtaining it at a good price that didn’t occur to him? He could talk his way into the private libraries of duchesses on Avenida Pearson and horse-riding dilettantes, always adopting fictitious identities, and would depart with the said books as gifts or bought for a pittance.
Fermin not only knows his literature, but he’s quite the mathematician, too, as well as something of an inventor. After he has a breakdown one evening, though, Fermin’s landlady calls Daniel and his father to his apartment.
Fermín was naked, crying and shaking. The room was a wreck, the walls stained with something that could have been either blood or excrement—I couldn’t tell. Dr. Baró quickly took in the situation and gestured to my father to lay Fermín on the bed. […] Fermín moaned and thrashed about as if some vermin were devouring his insides.
“What are these scars from?” I asked. “Cuts?”
Dr. Baró shook his head again, without looking up. He found a blanket amid the wreckage and covered his patient with it. “Burns. This man has been tortured,” he explained. “These marks are from a soldering iron.”
And so, there’s more to Fermin than meets the eye. In his case, there are toenails upon toenails, and we give him more credence when he protests (in a logic and language uniquely his)—
“That’s money stained with the blood of innocent virgins. […] For the life of God, I hereby swear that I have never lain with an underage woman, and not for lack of inclination or opportunities. Bear in mind that what you see today is but a shadow of my former self, but there was a time when I cut as dashing a figure as they come. Yet even then, just to be on the safe side, or if I sensed that a girl might be overly flighty, I would not proceed without seeing some form of identification or, failing that, a written paternal authorization. One has to maintain certain moral standards.”
Where Angels Dare Not Tread
Unique characters are memorable. They win us over by doing and saying things that ordinary folks wouldn’t. So ask yourself: What is the most outrageous thing my hero could do? When people act in ways that are unexpected, dramatic, and full of consequence, we have a ball reading about them.