A PRIMER on CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
Written by Theresa W. Bennett-Wilkes
It seems that the analysis of character is the highest human entertainment. And literature does it, unlike gossip, without mentioning real names.
Isaac Bashevis Singer Talks…About Everything, Interview With Richard Burgin in the New York Times Magazine
Characters are the lifeblood of literary writing. Belletrists who studied English or classical literature, either in high school or college learned to identify the protagonist – the main character in prose and poetry and the antagonist – the principal person in opposition to the hero of a narrative or drama. The literary world is replete with memorable characters. Some of my favorites include:
- Sula in Toni Morrison’s classic novel of the same name.
- Jo, the feisty March sister in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
- Rhett Butler, the dashing, reckless heartthrob Scarlett O’Hara couldn’t keep in Gone with the Wind.
- Miss Celie, the woman who found her dignity and reclaimed her life in The Color Purple.
- Dracula, Bram Stoker’s all-too-frighteningly real creature of the night and the day in his eponymously titled novel.
- Jean Valjean, Victor Hugo’s tortured hero of Les Miserables.
- Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s tragic heroine.
- Walter Mosley’s unconventional private detective, Easy Rawlins, made famous by Denzel Washington’s stellar performance in the movie version of Devil in a Blue Dress.
- Charles’ Dickens’ autobiographical novel, David Copperfield.
Fully realized portrayals appeal to readers and a relationship develops. Think back to the heroes and Sheroes previously mentioned. What is it about them which inspires affection, after all, they are fictive? The answer lies somewhere between the depth of their personalities and readers’ perceptions of her, him or it as credible. Once again the concept of plausibility comes into play.
Characters bring storylines to life – the plot revolves around them. How they confront the situations in which they find themselves must facilitate a sense of realism. Portrayals can emerge from any source. As they come alive, the author must allow them to introduce themselves. Whatever they are, be it human, animate, or inanimate trust their ability to define themselves. These creations have stories to tell which add meaning to the saga. Listen carefully as they reveal how their individual tales connect with the plot.
Purveyors of urban fantasy fiction should clearly describe features, and the reason, or reasons, for the existence of depictions which are animate, but not human. Emphasize the qualities most relevant to the storyline to ensure clarity and consistency. Define inanimate characters in terms of their features and functions. Take time to provide substantive explanations for their presence –. The more detail provided, the more meaningful they become. Outline relationships unambiguously.
Inditers have the right, and the responsibility, to efform an environment in which their characters, especially the non-human ones, can live while stimulating imaginations. This means allowing the visions, illusions, pictures and dreams they’ve nurtured to have free rein. A note to the aspiring writer: capture the images floating in your head and heart. Paint a canvas utilizing an imaginative vocabulary thus enabling them to divulge their true identities in their own way.
People are perhaps the most challenging characters to depict. Dispense with any concerns about what can be said. The ability to write for the enjoyment of others is a gift and as such it is intuitive. Scribes and belletrists, define your portrayals as you see them if they are figments of your imagination. A hint to the novice raconteur: when composing autobiographical, biographical, or historical chronicles about people you know, be honest… A word to the wise: when your depictions come to you, permit them to inhabit your consciousness and they’ll do the all the heavy lifting. They will tell you exactly who they are and how they should be portrayed.
Character development – like the storyline – is evolutionary. As the narrative unfolds they can change, which is one more justification for organizing a working outline. Newly minted scribes, when this occurs, take note of how these portrayals impact the plot. By learning the personalities of your creations, you’ll develop a deeper appreciation of the substance, form and fluidity they add. You might even learn to love ‘em!!!!
Dialogue is a brilliant way in which to bring portrayals to life. They can usually do a far better job of telling their stories in their own words than a physical description offered by an outside narrator. Conversation humanizes characters while enhancing the appeal of the belles letters.
Without charm there can be no fine literature, as there can be no perfect flower without fragrance.
The Symbolist Movement in Literature
“…Good evening, son. You had a visitor today. A visitor who agreed to come back for dinner, so get cleaned up. You don’t have a lot of time,” she urged with a twinkle in her eye.
“Can I ask who?” Sol inquired unenthusiastically. He was afraid to know, yet felt he needed to ask.
“Yes, you can ask,” his mother replied. “You can always ask.” Implied in her response was the oh-so-clear message: he could query until times got better but no answers were forthcoming…
“Sol? Man, it’s good to see you!” Jerry threw his arms around a disbelieving Sol.
“Okay, okay, please sit, and let’s eat while the food is hot. Papa, say grace, please.”
“Oh, Lord, we are so thankful to have our sons here with us, eating this meal you have given to us. Thank you for food, shelter, clothing, and companionship. Bless, oh God, the hands which so lovingly prepared this meal. In Jesus’s name we pray, Amen.”
“Good bread, good meat, good Lord, let’s eat,” Jerry and Sol injected hilarity into the moment before bursting into howls of laughter. Lou Ann shook her head, smiled, and began passing bowls and platters of food.
“Man, where have you been? It’s been four whole years, at least,” Sol asked, still incredulous.
“Workin’ like it’s goin’ outta style,” Jerry replied as he swallowed some corn pudding. He closed his eyes and chewed, savoring the taste. “Miss Lou Ann, I don’t often get home-cooked meals. This is just righteous, I do declare!”
“Well, eat up, honey chile, we’re so glad to have you here with us,” she graciously replied, sending the platter of pork chops his way, again.
“What brings you back to DeeCee, Jerry?” Horace inquired.
“I wanted to see my mamma, for starters,” he explained. “She been sick a lot since I been gone, and most times I cain’t get back here. The I band been wit’ these las’ two years is breakin’ up an’ come the New Year I’ll be wit’ a new one. I thought I would come home for Christmas. I’ll be performin’ aroun’ the area for the next few weeks.”
“How is your mother, and your brothers, and sisters?” Lou Ann asked.
“Basically ev’rybody’s doin’ good. She got two children lef’ at home now, and two of my sisters done actually graduated high school. She’s real happy ‘bout it, too. Both of them are in college an’ she’s really proud, Yessir, real, real proud.”
The four of them continued eating and talking for a while before Mr. and Mrs. Knowles excused themselves.
“We have a Christmas party to attend, so you two enjoy your reunion. There’s pound cake for dessert, help yourselves,” Lou Ann informed them.
“Good night. Jerry, don’t be a stranger, boy…” Horace added over his shoulder.
“No sir,” Jerry promised. “And thank you for dinner. It was absolutely delicious.”
“You are welcome,” the elder Knowles’s replied in unison as they exited their dining room.
“Okay, man, so what’s this I hear you dropped outta college? Have you lost your natural mind?” Jerry turned to Sol once his parents were out of earshot.
“You…you’re a fine one to talk, my man,” Sol countered sharply. “You didn’t finish high school!”
“No, I didn’t,” Jerry agreed, soberly. “And if I had it to all over again, I woulda stayed right here an’ finished. Man, I almost starved to death my first year away from home.”
“No kiddin’, man. Honest to God. When we got to New York, I needed to register wit’ the union, see, an’ they wanted me to show proof of my age. You gotta be twenty-one to get a union card an’ sing in them clubs where they serve booze. I couldn’t get no union card, so the bandleader, he let me go, man. Gave me just enuff money to make sure I would starve.”
“So what did you do? Why didn’t you come home?”
“I couldn’t come home, Sol. I ain’t had no money and my mamma didn’t need to see what bad shape I was in. I learnt how to shine shoes. I delivered newspapers; I bussed tables, an’ washed dishes. Sometimes I sang at rent parties. Finally I went to Canada, to Toronto, and I hooked up wit’ a band there. I didn’t have to worry ‘bout no union dues. I met a woman who was married to one of the guys in the band. They took me in, and for a while ev’rything was good.”
“Then what happened?”
“I came back to the United States is what happened. I ended up in the Motor City. I was old enuff to be legal wit’ a band by then, and I hooked up wit’ another group. This time I knew enuff to make sure I got paid right. We toured Wisconsin, Chicago, Omaha, even went to Denver, and Indianapolis, Gary, Sioux City. Eventually I ended up in Philly, doin’ clubs and some solo acts. I watched my money real good. I met up wit’ a dude in a group – the one what’s breakin’ up now. We had a real good run together. I’m glad to be back home, though. Life on the road is rough, they don’t call it tough on black asses for nuthin’. But enuff ‘bout me, man. For real, why you quit school, man? That’s some dumb s—t man, an’ you know it.”
“I don’t wanna talk about it,” Sol snarled.
“You ain’t got to. I seen Frankie, an’ we talked a long time, ‘bout you.”
He perked up just a bit. “When did you see Frankie?”
“Aw, don’t go gittin’ all excited. Yeah, I visited wit’ Frankie – Miss Isabelle Frances Powell, since I been back. She’s my friend, too, ya know!”
“So what? So you saw her and talked to her. So what?” Sol tried his darnedest to sound nonchalant.
“It ain’t workin’ bro’, so give it up,” Jerry chuckled. “You always were slow on the uptake, Sol, real slow. Frankie told me how you quit school ‘cause she won’t marry you. I mean really, did you really think she was gonna give up singin’ for you? You really thought she would?”
He sat for a long while staring at Jerry, his former best friend, who left him behind to sing. “Yeah,” he finally admitted, “Yeah, I thought she would.”
“I thought you understood how she felt about you, but I was wrong – real wrong,” Jerry noted, sadly. “When I hear her sing, man, I know she has a voice the world wants to hear, but you didn’t get the message. I thought you understood, man. And Frankie, well, she thought you understood, too.”
“She told me she loved me,” He insisted. “I thought she meant it.”
“She does mean it, Sol, she does, man,” Jerry gazed at his best buddy. His eyes said, ‘You still don’t get it, do you?’ “She never expected a marriage proposal from you, Sol. I coulda tole you. I tried to tell you. You couldn’t let it be…you pushed her. You wanted her to make a choice: you or her music. Now, if her voice was good, but not great, well maybe then you would be ah…ah…uh…okay to ask, ya know? But Frankie’s voice, well, it isn’t just good, man. Her voice is golden. She has no business giving her dreams up for you. And you had no right to expect her to.”
“So I’ve been told,” He quietly conceded.
“So you decided to ruin your life because of Frankie? Are you tryin’ to run a guilt trip on her?”
“When did you become so wise, man? How come you know so much and I, me, I am the stupid one?” He demanded.
“See, Sol, this here is the problem wit’ you. You ain’t stupid man, no, you are not stupid,” Jerry carefully enunciated his words for emphasis. “You just made a stupid decision and you want ev’rybody to accept your stupid decision. You want ‘em to feel bad for you ‘cause you feels bad for yourself. Stupid, man, stupid, stupid, stupid. An’ ‘s’posen you was to meet a sister you like – somebody who isn’t Frankie? Then what happens?” Jerry lectured, pacing the floor. “Wow, man!”
“I really cain’t git over you, Sol…you really have lost your damn mind…man, droppin’outta college over – what happened? What you talkin’ ‘bout?”
“I met someone else. Name’s Ruby. I…well…I haven’t treated her too well, either.”
“Get outta here, Sol! Who are you? What are you – some kinda monster? What happened to my friend – the Solomon I been knowin’ since we was in grammar school?”
“Sometimes I wonder, Jerry, sometimes I wonder,” He seemed to be speaking to himself. “She works for Dr. Powell. She’s really sweet and beautiful, too. And she can really cook, too.”
“Continue, please continue,” Jerry ordered.
“I invited her to Frankie’s summer recital. The one to raise money for her trip to Europe last summer. Did she tell you about the trip, Jerry, did she?”
“Yeah, man, she did. She was all jazzed ‘bout it, too,” he replied excitedly.
“Yeah, so I, uh, I invited her to go with me, right? And she said yes. I took Ruby over there…over to Morgan College…took her to the recital, only I just couldn’t go through with it. I, uh, um, I left her there…” His voice dropped to an embarrassed whisper. He still hadn’t make amends with Ruby about his awful behavior. He kissed her, held her in his arms, and felt good about the experience. He desired her, yet he hadn’t made things right. He didn’t know how.
Jerry didn’t let on about what he knew. Frankie shared the incident with him. She was appalled by Sol’s behavior. Jerry was stunned…this wasn’t the Sol they knew and loved.
“That’s pretty low, man,” He observed quietly.
“The sad part is I haven’t made it right, Jerry. All I’ve done is make matters worse. I went to see her one Sunday afternoon – I just took a chance. I figured it would work out just fine.” Sol was amazed – here he was talking about Ruby, yet he felt relieved to be sharing and getting this burden off his chest. “My timing was way off, though, man. Way off.”
“Her sister, Ora Nell. She was sick. I didn’t know she was so bad off – well, I didn’t know she was sick. The last time I saw her she was fine. It was pretty bad, man, pretty bad. She died a few days later. I was there when it happened.”
Jerry whistled in amazement.
“I never saw anybody die before, Jerry,” Sol paced, deeply immersed in baring his soul. The memory of Ora Nell’s agonizing death was now a vivid recollection. “I was there with Ruby. Then I left; well, I mean I took Ruby home an’ everything. That was rough. Then she asked me to be a pallbearer. I had to say yes. Then I didn’t go back to see her for a while. I just couldn’t.”
“What happened, man?”
“I went back again, just like I did before, you know?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I went back. I just figured it would be okay, ya know?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Yeah, I went back. I wanted to make things right between us. That’s all I wanted to do. Really Jerry, it…it was all I wanted to do. And everything started out okay, ya know what I mean?”
“Yeah, man, I know. You know I know.”
“Yeah, I went back. I wanted to make things right. Her sister is gone for good an’ all. Jerry, she was glad to see me, I think. Yeah, I’m sure she was. She invited me to have dinner with her. Jerry, she can burn, man. Cooks as good as my mama – sometimes better! So we’re eatin’ an’ everything and then, ‘bam! She asks me…” Sol paused. “Uh…then she uh…”
“Asked you what, man?” Jerry’s voice was tinged with impatience.
“She asked me why I came over the Sunday night before Ora Nell – when she was so sick. She asked me why I came an’ I choked man, I just choked.” Memories came flooding back.
“And she got really mad at me, and I kissed her, man. I kissed her!” Sol was gesturing now.
Jerry’s eyes narrowed. “Okay, so I missed somethin’ somewhere.”
Sol sighed deeply, then inhaled noisily. “She said I used her, treated her badly. She was upset about the recital ‘cause I didn’t apologize or nuthin’, man. Then she started talkin’ ‘bout her sister, ‘bout how she got sick an’ died. And I, I told her she was right, because she was, man, she was right.”
“C’mon Sol, you are killin’ me, man,” Jerry pleaded.
“And…um…and, er…I uh, well…”
“Well what? Well what, man?”
“I, uh…I told her I love Frankie, and I…I love – uh, I think I love her, too. I mean what I said was I thought I was in love with her, too. I think I am in love with Ruby. Man, I…this just cannot be right because I will always love Frankie. Oh, hell, there I told you. Everything with Ruby is still all messed up. Oh, God, it is so messed up,” Sol moaned. “Then she decked me – good. Knocked me off my feet.”
Jerry doubled over, shrieking in hysterics. He guffawed until he could hardly breathe. “If you ain’t the biggest fool ev-ah,” more peals of laughter…. “I gotta hand it to you, brotha, when you screw up, you really screw up. She only hit you once?” He cracked up all over again.
“Then she threw me out of her house,” Sol added mournfully.
Jerry stopped laughing and wiped his eyes. “I’m having another piece of pound cake,” he announced, “I need it…”1
The exchange between Sol and Jerry enables them to share their experiences more fully and with a wider range of emotions than through a lengthy narrative description. Each of them speaks forcefully to the pain and discomfort of their distress. Their choice of words – the phraseology, and the manner in which they express themselves – all combine to make them more human and the narrative more compelling.
Define and describe a setting complimenting the personalities populating the story. This feature facilitates stronger connections. Be sensitive to this reality: authors, writers, scribes, inditers, belletrists – we don’t live our lives in vacuums and neither should our characters. Show them as active and involved in various aspects of the saga. Nuance lends itself beautifully to creating balanced portrayals. Even when there’s no dialogue, depict them actively involved in an event, or experiencing a situation – reacting or responding to their circumstances.
“…Another ten years would pass before Winston came home. In April of 1998, Ruby and Sol celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary quietly. Winston was unaware of how difficult the past six months had been for his parents. H never bothered to do better about keeping in touch. Sol buried his brother-in-law, Peaches’ husband right before Thanksgiving. New Year’s weekend, Peaches died in her sleep in Atlanta. While Ruby and Sol were burying her, Lulu suffered a stroke. The deaths were rough enough, but Lulu’s illness terrified her parents. Ruby just could not conceive of her firstborn child being so critically ill.
The day after their anniversary, Ruby told Sol Ora Nell was visiting her. Thunderstruck, Sol asked, “Are you sure?”
“Yes, Sol,” Ruby replied gently, “she visits me every night, lately. She does not talk to me; she just stands near my side of our bed, looking at me.”
Ruby Ella Knowles was eighty-five years old and in reasonably good health and full possession of her faculties. She seemed calm as she shared this information with Sol. “I love you, Sol, you know how much I do. I have loved you dearly for over sixty years and if I had to do this again, I would not change anything. Nothing Sol, do you hear me? Absolutely nothing. You made my life complete and I cherish you.”
“Yes… yes, sweetheart, I hear you.”
Ruby left the room. Sol immediately called Vibby to confide in her.
She listened patiently, “Okay, Daddy. Everything will be fine, please do not worry.”
Lulu was the only one of their children who still lived fairly close. She and Ernest never left Baltimore. Vibby was about four hours away by car. She called Lulu, Frankie, E.J. and Winston. “I think we should prepare ourselves as best we can. Ora Nell died in 1937. If mother is seeing her, something is definitely going on.”
Sol looked for Ora Nell each night but did not see her.
“Sol, I know you are looking for Nellie but you cannot see her yet. It isn’t time. When it’s time, you will see her,” Ruby explained softly, as she lay next to her husband. Sol took her hand and squeezed it.
“Don’t leave me, Ruby. Please sweetheart, don’t leave me,” Sol choked back tears, but Ruby did not answer him. “I cannot live without you Ruby.”
A few evenings later, Ruby and Sol retired together at their usual time. They kissed each other and Sol held her in his arms. Later he was awakened by something – it was not a noise, it was more like a presence. Their room was filled with a bright light but it did not hurt Sol’s eyes. He could not tell if he was sitting up or lying down. Then he saw her. Ora Nell had Ruby by the hand…a young, beautiful Ruby. She was looking toward Sol, smiling, and Nellie was pulling her away. He blinked and swallowed. They were gone. Sol looked down at Ruby; she was smiling peacefully, her eyes closed. He kissed her before breaking down. The love of his life – the center of his universe was gone.”²
Don’t shy away from graphic or explicit passages describing violence, sex, or other actions central to the plot. Writers are the vessels through whom the story is being told. Note to the ambitious scribe: you aren’t in control and your aversion to – or fear of whatever these characters do is something you’ll have to confront and the sooner the better. The more real their roles are the more engaged readers will be. Neophyte inditers: love your creations – even if you don’t like what they do. Treat them with respect and do your utmost to develop them as fully as possible. Trust your intuition and instincts no matter how venal, perfidious, fickle, or despicable they seem to be. Those layers add flavor, intrigue, titillation, and substance to your saga. They’ll come alive, vividly – if you’ll grant them the right to do so – and emerge from the pages of your work as either lovable or totally disgusting – the people we love to hate.
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
William Butler Yeats
The Wind Among the Reeds:
He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
- Bennett-Wilkes, Theresa W., Winston and Ophelia: A Love Story (for Men), Copyright March 2011, Holly Tree Publications, LLC, High Point, NC, manuscript in pre-publication.
©September 2015 by Theresa Bennett-Wilkes. All rights reserved. Previously published on www.afterwriterdreams.com