Monday, May 27, 2013

The Art of Building Characters That Linger

I'm always impressed when a character from a novel stays with me. Surprised and impressed, because I read. A lot. Due to sheer volume, it's rare that a story or character stands out, but there are a few that linger.

One is from Stephen King's novel THE STAND. (An awesome book, in my opinion, one I re-read regularly.) THE STAND is about the end of the world as we know it, owing to a nasty virus under military control that gets out of hand and devastates a continent. Perhaps the world. (This is, after all, Stephen King.)

The uncut version is a book of massive proportions with an impressive cast of characters. Of all these folks, the one who stays with me is the baddie, Randall Flagg, the dark man, the Walkin Dude.

The detail that anchors him in my mind? His cowboy boots. King builds this link beautifully. He locks down Flagg's image by obliquely comparing him to Jim Morrison, the singer from The Doors who died under mysterious circumstances in 1971. Through Flagg's actions and reactions, and the reactions of characters to him, King reveals Flagg's diabolical nature and the depth of his evil. All of this comes home every time King references Flagg's boots:

"...rundown bootheels clocking against the paved surface of the road..."

"...the worn heels of his sharp-toed cowboy boots clocking on the pavement..."

"He rocked along, his feet easy in the boots, which were comfortably sprung in all the right places. His feet and these boots were old lovers."

I see the worn heels. I hear the steady clocking. When King references the boots, I know exactly who and what I'm dealing with, even without reference to a name. I'm hooked.

There is an art to building a character that lingers. It is a balancing act that incorporates description and characteristics, and the revelation of personality over time. I don't believe there's a right or wrong way to go about it. The sketch might be minimal - a hint of appearance here, a peculiar gesture there - or it might be rich and full of physical detail with layers of shading that take us deep into the character's inner life.

In the Cass Elliot crime series, I hope to provide just enough physical description that a reader can form a picture of a character in their minds, and use a single detail to help the reader come back to that character as the story progresses.

The baddie in the series at the moment is the old man. (No name, yet, but sharp readers will figure it out.) Just those two words - old man - conjure an image. Instead of his physical description, I use a pipe to anchor him in reader's minds.

Cherry-scented tobacco, the clack of yellowed teeth against the pipe stem, the ritual of lighting the pipe, the glow of embers in the bowl. Through his use of a violent killer called Hitch and his ruthless treatment of those who displease him, readers come to know that what could be perceived as a grandfatherly appearance is a well-entrenched facade. Kindness or cruelty is always accompanied by the mention of his pipe. Other characters love or hate the sound, smell, and sight of that pipe. Hopefully, readers do, too.

What about you? As a reader, what causes you to grow attached to a character? To remember them long after the pages of a book are closed, or to hunger for the next installment in a series? As a writer, what tools do you use to build characters that linger?

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photo credit: Shavar Ross via photopin cc

1 comment:

  1. Gae-Lynn, you are so right about the details bringing a character to life. Sometimes it's just one, like those boots. In the Jennifer Weiner book I just finished, "Run Away Home," one of the character's sons plays a minor role. Yet his whole story comes clear when she tells us that, even at only six years old, he insists on wearing a hat all the time, usually a ski cap, no matter the weather. His insecurities, which tells us so much about his mom and dad and the instability of a seemingly stable marriage, become crystal clear whenever we see the boy in that hat.
    An art, as you say. Choosing just the right detail, or details, to resound with a reader and embed that character in their mind for longer than it takes to read the book. Great post.