The word character comes from a Greek word meaning “an instrument meant for marking or engraving”. In modern times, it has supplanted the words personage and personality to show the sum of mental and moral quantities. A literary character is an assembled creation that is determined by the author’s intentions.
The plot developed through exposition (telling) and the scenes that unfold (showing), are really details or part details in a character’s life. The actions characters undertake should stem from their perceived nature. Building characters is an undertaking of layering details that reflect the attitudes, opinions and values that the author wishes the character to represent.
There are the two fundamental ways of crafting a character: Exposition, and showing how the character acts. Exposition is as straightforward as telling the audience what the character is like, while there four unique mechanisms for showing us how the character acts: a way of behaving, a way of speaking, an appearance, or a way of thinking.
Character actions are part of the materials that make up the plot of a narrative and give the reader a sense of what your character is like. Actions must be consistent with what we already know about the character’s inner self. Do not preform needless actions but have your character do stuff that is necessary to develop the plot or reveal meaning. Actions are related to motivation and will reveal character.
A character’s appearance is important. When we meet someone in real life, they leave a first impression based largely on how they look. This is the way you will remember someone after a first meeting. In fiction, each detail given provides the reader with tangible details to build a mental image of the character.
The amount and kind of detail given to your reader should be handpicked. Too much detail and the reader blends it all together, forgetting what the character is about. Too little and your character will have no sustenance.
Dialogue should ultimately carry the plot forward, reveal character, focus relationships, carry thematic implications, and provide exposition.What characters say is a key way to provide the reader with their wants and needs, both physical and emotional. Dialogue insists we see the character in immediate relation to another. Speech, thought in action, is the easiest way to concretize a character’s ideas. When left unsaid, like with Inner Monologue or Stream of Consciousness, there is usually no reason given for why the thoughts were not externalized, leaving the reader to infer if the character is embarrassed, deceitful, or motivated by other reasons.
Indirect Discourse is a way of summarizing dialogue that is not effective at more than an expository level. It amounts to telling the reader what has happened in a passing conversation. Take the following, for example:
James entered the livingroom and sat next to Lilly on the couch.
“Hello, how are you today?” asked James.
“I’m fine. How are you?”
“What’s the weather like today?”
“According to the news, it will be plus forty.”
“Seems hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk.”
“It’s going to be that hot all week long.”
“I’m off for the day. I have a date with Jillian today.”
James got up and left the livingroom.
Instead of wasting time with the pleasantries that don’t carry the plot forward or do anything to increase characterization, use Indirect Dialogue:
James entered the living room and sat down on the couch. Lilly and he had a conversation about the weather and then James informed her he was going on a date. James left for his date.
The reader knows the interior thoughts of a character in one of two ways: direct reporting, or presenting the flow of the character’s thoughts. There are two ways to present a character’s thoughts: Inner Monologue, or Stream of Conciousness.
This approach is direct and akin to telling, through narration, what the character is thinking. Useful for quickly filling in the reader to speed along the plot. This technique can distance your reader from the audience. There will be less emotional entanglement from your audience and the readers will sympathize less. Consider the following:
June was curious about the modern take on wind currents and Googled the topic. She knew in ancient times they attributed the wind to gods.
The inner voice presented as a soliloquy or other means of conveyance. Not quite stream of consciousness, but the mechanism to deliver it to an audience. A direct method to present the character’s thoughts with no narrative criticism or interpretation of the thoughts. Consider the following:
I know from my mythology class that wind used to be attributed to the gods. I’ll Google the topic and see what the modern spin is.
Stream of Consciousness
This literary technique allows an author to delve into the minds of their characters and bring more meaning to a character’s actions. It allows more than a physical description or mere dialogue between characters to add characterization. Consider the following:
June sat on the beach wondering where wind came from as she applied sunscreen to her pale limbs. She thought in the olden days they attributed it to various gods who blew to create currents in the air. At least she remembered that from her mythology class. Wondering what the modern context was, she picked up her phone and Googled the topic.