Friday, October 14, 2016

Creating Characters In Fiction

One of my articles published at a writers' site.

The Pinocchio Factor
By Nancy Julien Kopp

An intriguing plot that piques the reader's interest and holds it throughout the story might be at the top of a list of goals for writing good fiction. As important as plot looms in creating memorable fiction, however, characters that show emotion and carry out the plot may surpass it in importance. No matter how good the story line, stiff and unfeeling characters will deflate a story faster than a pin pops a balloon.
In the classic tale, Pinocchio, a woodcarver named Geppetto creates a puppet boy made of wood. Geppetto's fondest wish is to turn his inanimate creation into a live boy who can love and cry and be a son to him. Pinocchio's adventures and misadventures fill the pages of this beloved children's story. We're writers, not woodcarvers. We don't want to create lifeless characters that might drag a story into oblivion.
We've all read work with characters that move the reader from Point A to Point B, but if they are wooden and show little or no emotion, we lose interest quickly. Emotion drives us, identifies us, and creates feelings of one kind or another for the characters in a story.
Readers want to see emotions in the characters they read about. Let them feel the anger, fear, or sadness in a character. More important than a physical description is to show what that character feels within. Show is the keyword here.
Consider the following two passages:
A. Jennifer felt angry.
B. Jennifer stormed into the kitchen, picked up a bowl of gravy and threw it against the wall. Body shaking, she clenched her hands into fists and searched wildly for another missile to hurl.
Passage A is short and sweet and tells the reader what the emotion is, while B shows the emotion through Jennifer's actions. The reader can relate to and feel the emotion in B. Depending on the situation in which Jennifer vents her anger, the reader may be angry and empathize with her, or the reader might be in total disagreement and feel no sympathy at all for her. The important thing is that Passage B not only shows emotion in the character, it creates emotion in the reader.
Have you ever read a novel where lengthy physical descriptions of the characters filled page after page? At the end all you have is the outer layer of the character. You still don't know what they are like emotionally. Let the reader be moved by the character's jealousy, deep love, or sorrow. Naming the emotion the character experiences isn't enough. The writer must make the reader feel what the character feels.
In Lois Lowry's Newberry Award novel, Number The Stars, a girl living in Nazi-occupied Denmark during WWII runs into two German soldiers on her way home from school. Ms. Lowry did not say "Annemarie was frightened by the soldiers." Instead, she wrote the following passage:
Annemarie stared up. There were two of them. That meant two helmets, two sets of cold eyes glaring at her, and four tall shiny boots planted firmly on the sidewalk, blocking her path to home. And it meant two rifles, gripped in the hands of the soldiers.
When a reader comes to this passage, her heart might beat a little faster. She’ll feel the same fear that Annemarie must be experiencing by seeing the soldiers through her child eyes.
In her book, Skylark, Patricia MacLachlan created characters that let us know their feelings through their actions. Consider this passage in which Anna describes a reunion with her father, whom she and Caleb have not seen in many months:
"Papa!" Caleb ran into Papa's arms, and Papa held him close. Papa picked me up, too, and my hat fell off, and I buried my face in his neck.
Instead of Anna saying "I was happy to see Papa," Ms. McLachlan shows us that joy in all three characters with a simple description.
In Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi brings Geppetto the woodcarver to life through his words and actions. When Geppetto carves his wooden puppet, strange things begin to happen, and we see his fear and frustration in the following passage:
In a few minutes it had become an immense nose that seemed to never end. Poor Geppetto tired himself out with cutting it off. The mouth was not even completed when it began to laugh and deride him. "Stop laughing I say," he roared in a threatening tone.
In real life, we often hold back our emotions. When writing, we must learn to do exactly the opposite. If you want to create memorable characters that inspire deep feelings in the reader, release the passion in you and allow the emotion to rise to the top. It's the perfect place to give your own emotions the outlet you might not have in your everyday existence. Make your characters laugh and cry, shout and stomp.

Pinocchio spent an entire book trying to become a real boy. You can create a real person in a paragraph with the right words. Let yourself go. Who knows? It could be a lot of fun! 

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