"Truth. It feels cool, like water washing over my sticky-hot body. Cooling a heat that's been burning me up all my life. Truth, I say inside my head again, just for that feeling."
— Kathryn Stockett in The Help
"...and at the table next to her was a little boy in a soccer uniform sitting with his mother who told him, The plural of elf is elves. A wave of happiness came over me. It felt giddy to be part of it all. To be drinking a cup of coffee like a normal person. I wanted to shout out: The plural of elf is elves! What a language! What a world!"
— Nicole Krauss in The History of Love
See what I mean? Don't you want to know what might have happened to somebody to make her so passionate about truth that she feels it on her skin? Or why another person might jubilate over such an ordinary moment of time? In a few words whole characters have materialized in all their mystery and complexity. Wonderful, isn't it?
I read passages like these and determine to create story people just as rich. And then I look at the character creation sheets they pass out at workshops:
Questionnaires like these might help me track certain details so I don't turn the blue Toyota that drives through Chapter 6 into a green Honda by the time it arrives in Chapter 14. But by themselves they do little to help in character formation, not if what I'm after is the texture of a human soul.
Place of Birth:
For that, I might want to take my character to lunch. Sure, I'll ask her place of birth and favorite color, just to break the ice. But eventually I'll want to know about her childhood, and I won't let her get away with a simple answer. You know characters, don't you? She might answer, just peachy, when I suspect it wasn't, not living in the town she lived in, with a brother who ate salamanders on the back porch... So I study her body, searching for clues. I lift the cuff of her gabardine jacket to reveal a tiny tattoo on her wrist, a salamander swimming inside a teardrop. "Tell me about this," I say, and then wait out her silence while she looks away and studies her fingernails, till at last she tells me about the summer day when she was ten.
Once the ice is broken, any character will spill her guts if you listen. She wants the story to get out; otherwise she never would have brought it to you in the first place.
Let it go deep enough, and this gut-spilling will give you a story-tellers dream come true: characters with histories and scars, attitudes and points of view, and the little spark of something that makes us stand in wonder at their uniqueness, their transcendence.
And all of these things will lend a priceless quality to your novel: subtext. It's the way your characters say the things they say, the things they never say or always say, that tells us that there is more to this story, an untold past that the reader may never know but only guess at.
One of the best books I have ever read on the creation of story-people is Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins. Here's a bit of what she has to say:
"Understanding the use of subtexting in dialogue is particularly difficult for inexperienced writers. Often a new novelist's tendency is to use WYSIWYG conversation because he has not yet grasped how to convey meaning without actually saying it. Since novels call for at least some dialogue in the majority of scenes, a lack of subtexting presents a major problem for a story. When a novelist learns how to employ subtexting effectively, dialogue that had once been lifeless and on-the-surface is transformed into vibrant interchanges between characters, pulling the reader into the story."
I'll bet you've found some vibrant characters in your own reading. Why not share snippets from their stories that made them leap from the page?
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