Posts Tagged ‘character development’

Character Development and Point of View

Monday, October 12th, 2009

In my two previous posts, I discussed character development in hint fiction and character development in a few short words or phrases. The following passage shows a new take on character development. The author describes two characters from each other’s point of view. This technique can be very useful. Developing one character through the observations of another character can serve two purposes–providing a portrait of the character being observed and simultaneously providing a revealing glimpse of the character doing the observing. This method also reveals a character’s own flawed perceptions and preconceived notions, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about the true nature of each character.

The unedited passage reads as follows:

She stumbled over the old man to reach the last remaining seat in the waiting room. His legs were stretched out into the middle of the room, and he moved them so slowly that she tripped over them before falling into her own seat. Sophie glared at the old man, thinking he was too enfeebled to even notice the confusion he had caused. He wore a pair of jeans, ironed so that a pale crease ran up the front of each leg. Sophie imagined that someone dressed him each morning and wondered if he even knew what he was wearing. His gray cardigan drifted mellowly over his shoulders, pooling in thick wooly piles at his elbows. His shoes looked thick and sturdy, with thick, sensible-looking soles that probably kept the man upright as he stumbled through his days. Sophie felt sorry for him, bumbling along with no clue what he was doing or who was around him. She opened her book.

The old man sniffed as the girl across from him opened her romance novel. Her chipped red fingernail polish looked cheap and artificial to him. She wore the rhinestone-studded jeans the old man often saw in the windows of the cheap stores near the library. The girl moved her lips as she read. But at least she had stopped staring at him. The old man picked up his ball-point pen and returned to the New York Times Sunday crossword he had been doing before she tripped over him.

The following is the edited passage.

She stumbled over the old man in the waiting room. His legs were stretched out into the middle of the room, and he moved them so slowly that she tripped over them before falling into her own seat. Sophie glared at the old man, thinking he was too senile to notice the confusion he had caused. He wore a pair of jeans, ironed so that a pale crease ran up the front of each leg. Sophie imagined that someone dressed him each morning. She wondered if he even knew what he was wearing. His gray cardigan pooled at his elbows. His shoes were thick and sturdy and probably kept the man upright as he stumbled through his days. Sophie felt sorry for him, bumbling along without knowing what he was doing or who was around him. She opened her book.

The old man sniffed as the girl across from him opened her romance novel. Her chipped red fingernail polish looked cheap. She wore the rhinestone-studded jeans the old man often saw in the windows of the discount stores near the library. The girl moved her lips as she read. But at least she had stopped staring at him. The old man picked up his ball-point pen and returned to the New York Times Sunday crossword he had been doing before she tripped over him.

The passage with my editing marks follows. My additions are underlined, and my editorial comments are in brackets and italicized.

She stumbled over the old man to reach the last remaining seat in the waiting room. [As the passage now reads, she reaches her seat at the end of this sentence and at the end of the following one. I’ve left only one mention of her seat, in the second sentence.] His legs were stretched out into the middle of the room, and he moved them so slowly that she tripped over them before falling into her own seat. Sophie glared at the old man, thinking he was too enfeebled senile [From what we later learn about Sophie, it seems she would be unlikely to use a word like enfeebled,” even in her own thoughts.] to even notice the confusion he had caused. He wore a pair of jeans, ironed so that a pale crease ran up the front of each leg. Sophie imagined that someone dressed him each morning and. She wondered if he even knew what he was wearing. His gray cardigan drifted mellowly over his shoulders, poolinged in thick wooly piles at his elbows. [“Drifted mellowly” doesn’t convey a clear description.] His shoes looked were thick and sturdy, with thick, sensible-looking soles that and probably kept the man upright as he stumbled through his days. [I eliminated one use of the word “thick.” Because “thick” applies to the soles of the man’s shoes, I also eliminated the mention of his soles.] Sophie felt sorry for him, bumbling along without knowing no clue [Although Sophie would probably use the term “no clue,” I think “without knowing” makes more sense.] what he was doing or who was around him. She opened her book.

The old man sniffed as the girl across from him opened her romance novel. Her chipped red fingernail polish looked cheap and artificial to him. [Nail polish is inherently artificial, so I cut this word. “To him” is already understood from the fact that the old man is looking at the girl and thinking about her.] She wore the rhinestone-studded jeans the old man often saw in the windows of the cheap discount stores near the library. The girl moved her lips as she read. But at least she had stopped staring at him. The old man picked up his ball-point pen and returned to the New York Times Sunday crossword he had been doing before she tripped over him. [I like this surprising ending to the description of the man. We learn a great deal about Sophie and about the man himself.]

Please send me your thoughts or comments about this post. I would love to hear from you.

Quick Character Development

Monday, October 5th, 2009

In my previous post, I discussed the possibility of character development in a piece of hint fiction, defined as having a word count of 25 or less. The 25-word limit seemed sufficient for the two types of character development I discussed–establishing three-dimensionality and showing character change throughout a story. Character development is certainly possible in hint fiction.

In this post, I now argue that character development is even possible in fewer than 25 words. Careful word choice and believable dialogue both contribute to character development. Examine the following examples, where character development happens in fewer than 25 words.

Example 1:

Dale held the beer bottle to his lips and spit. “That ain’t my truck.”

In fourteen words, the reader learns a great deal about Dale and the kind of person he is. This type of character development serves to round out Dale’s personality but does not show any character change.

Example 2:

“Well,” Priscilla blinked. “I have my maid do it for me.” She set her teacup down with a gentle tinkle and smiled stiffly.

This twenty-three-word example also serves to develop a well-rounded character. As in Example 1, dialogue and action combine to establish character.

Example 3:

The room suddenly seemed smaller and shabbier than he had remembered it. Jonathan wondered how he had ever thought it elegant.

In twenty-one words, this example demonstrates an interior shift in character. Although there is no dialogue, the character’s thoughts indicate a significant personality change that will be important in the story’s development.

Example 4:

“Hello, Charlie,” she said, leaning in for the kiss he usually gave her.

“Hello.” He turned his back to her, repulsed.

This twenty-one-word example shows character change through dialogue. Although the example contains very few words, the reader witnesses a significant shift in the behavior and emotion of the male character.

Thus, character development is possible in very few words–even in fewer than 25 words. Dialogue and careful word choice are important to character development. Writers who choose both judiciously can develop character quickly and efficiently.

Please send me your thoughts and comments about this post. I would love to hear from you.

How Many Words Do You Need to Develop Character?

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

In a recent tweet, writer/editor Robert Swartwood made an interesting observation about character development in the new genres of short, short fiction. He mentioned a horror anthology seeking submissions for stories of 500 words or less. The anthology editors said that character development would be impossible in so few words. Robert Swartwood countered that character development is certainly possible in 500 words and that even hint fiction—a genre he himself created and with a word limit of 25—allows for character development. Of course, Robert Swartwood continued, we must all agree on the definition of “character development.”

I believe that character development is of two types, and both are possible in the 25 words of a piece of hint fiction. I also think character development of at least one type is possible in a shorter piece, although that will be the topic of a later post.

As I understand it, the term “character development” can refer both to 1) the action and descriptions that establish a character as realistic and three-dimensional and also to 2) the growth and change a character undergoes throughout the course of a story. The first type of character development is, perhaps, more static than the second. But in either case, the idea is to create a well-rounded and believable character.

In hint fiction, character development is severely limited by word count and by the fact that, by definition, hint fiction merely hints at character (as well as plot and conflict). Hint fiction can have a meaningful title (not included in the 25-word limit), which can be a big help in character development. As the following examples illustrate, character development of the first type—merely creating three-dimensionality and believability—does seem entirely possible in 25 words or less, although showing character might take away from creating plot. Character development of the second type—showing character change throughout a piece of fiction—might also be possible, although this character development relies heavily on plot.

The following piece of hint fiction shows character development of the first kind. Although we learn what Lucretia is like at the particular moment the story describes, she undergoes no change throughout the piece. The title contributes to characterization:

Bully

One tableful of drunken wedding guests sat together the entire night. Lucretia was among them, snickering.

“Hey, Dottie,” Lucretia called mockingly. “Come talk to us.”

In this particular example, one might argue that plot has given way to character development. In order to establish Lucretia as a bully, little happens in this story.

Character development of the second type is more difficult in a piece of hint fiction. In general, character change in hint fiction probably comes across through plot, rather than through a character’s emotions. The following shows plot-dependent character development. Once again, the title contributes:

Redemption

Dwight cocked his pistol and walked into the bank. He chose the youngest teller. A child waved at him. Dwight put the safety back on.

Developing character and showing character change are both possible in hint fiction. However, the first might tend to take the place of plot, and the second might tend to rely very heavily on plot.

Please read my next blog, in which I explore the possibility of character development in less than 25 words, and leave your comments about character development in short fiction. I would love to hear from you.