One of the best books I’ve read on creating characters is Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint – part of the Elements of Fiction Writing series from Writers Digest Books.
Card deconstructs characterization with plenty of practical, specific details and advice. How can you give a villain a sympathetic side, or hint at insanity in a character? What might happen if a hero or heroine is too attractive? How can character names be distinctive and memorable? It’s all covered, with examples to show how characters can express themselves—and therefore reveal themselves—in different ways.
My favorite of these “compare and contrast” examples is towards the end of the book, when the conflict between two people first occurs on the surface. Their thoughts aren’t given, so their dialogue spells out their problems with speech tags like “soothingly” and “nervously” to let the reader knows how they feel.
Then the scene is rewritten, with what Card refers to as “deep penetration” into the characters’ minds—and it’s so much more powerful. When I first started writing, I wasn’t very subtle about my characters’ emotions, especially in scenes of conflict. But one of the ways to separate tense, simmering drama from melodrama is subtlety, and restraining what the characters show on the surface is a good way to achieve that.
Plus, sometimes readers like being able to read between the lines. It’s much more fun to figure out something the characters aren’t saying, and to catch a glimpse of what’s beneath the surface, rather than the writer spelling it all out.
The section on viewpoint is also excellent. Often on discussion boards, newer writers will ask about the difference between omniscient viewpoint and head-hopping, or how they can know what viewpoint would be effective for their novels. This book examines all those. From the Hemingway-esque cinematic point of view, where the “camera” is like a fly on the wall, to the more common third- or first-person perspective and the omniscient narrator who is almost a character in their own right, this book both discusses and shows the advantages and disadvantages of each. There are even drawings to make the different viewpoints clear.
Another thing I like about the examples is that they come from a variety of sources (that is, not just Card’s own novels), though this book was first published in 1988, so none of those sources will seem new. No references to The Hunger Games here. Also, the sections on Romance vs. Realism and Presentation vs. Representation can get a little complex, and I didn’t recognize any of the comedians whom Card mentioned when discussing humor.
But to balance out the serious stuff which makes me feel as though I’m back in an English Literature class, there’s a fun passage at the start where Card shows how easy it is to come up with ideas for characters, just by transcribing what a fourth-grade class came up with as he prompted them with questions (and threw roadblocks in their path). Each idea of theirs led to the next, and soon they had a story. Not a very complex story, but this was, to me, much more helpful and useful than lists where you can fill in your character’s favorite foods. Showing a character doing something is nearly always going to be more productive than thinking of what the character likes or doesn’t like—or, for that matter, what color her hair and eyes are.
On the whole, I’d recommend this book to any writer.
She was born in Sri Lanka, grew up in the United Arab Emirates, studied in the United States and now lives in Canada. With three romantic fantasies released by Samhain Publishing and more in the works, her dream is to be a full-time writer some day. She has a blog on writing and publishing – marianperera.blogspot.com – and likes to hear from readers and other writers. Her email address is email@example.com.
Find Marian Pereira at MarianPerera.com and check out Flights of Fantasy