Know the characters

The writer's role as a keen observer of human life is indispensable to have a contrasting cast of characters.

April 03, 2011 02:45 pm | Updated 02:45 pm IST

Last month I used the example of Hosni Mubarak to demonstrate how you can adapt a real-life person into a fictional character. A lot of beginning fiction writers, however, do very little of that. They write autobiographically, peopling their fictional world with versions of themselves and individuals they have known their entire lives. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Some great novels have been composed that way. Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children has a number of characters based on people the author knew while growing up in Mumbai. In David Copperfield and Great Expectations , Dickens drew heavily from his poverty-stricken childhood in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. Identifying the real people behind Hemingway's characters in The Sun Also Rises became a preoccupation in the America of the 1920s. And there are those that claim Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood is a fictionalised account of the author's own college years in the 1960s.

Irrespective of where you find your characters, what is important is that the reader attaches to them. And readers tend to attach to characters that spark some emotion in them. Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice is one of the best-loved characters in fiction. She is an intelligent, independent woman seeking to make her way in a patriarchal society where women are supposed to be doormats. At the same time, she can be self-deceiving and judgemental. Her sense of self-respect and her desire to settle for nothing less than what she wants, despite her modest means and the times she lives in, makes us want to root for her. And her flaws make her appear only too human. We end up loving her despite her flaws, which is the way we love people in real life.

The example of Elizabeth Bennett further illustrates how important it is for a central character to be sufficiently complex in order to hold the reader's interest. Take her out of Pride and Prejudice and the novel is teeming with one-dimensional characters — the slimy Collins, the gossipy Mrs. Bennett, the arrogant Lady Catherine de Bourgh…You see this trend not just in Austen's novels but also those of Dickens. You won't find a more stereotypical villain than Orlick in Great Expectations . The fact these novels resonate to this day is because of the unfading appeal of their central characters.

Furthermore, whether complex or one-dimensional, you must have a contrasting cast of characters. Characters similar to each other do not etch themselves in the reader's consciousness and are, therefore, not memorable. That is true even if you set them up as doubles. In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein , Frankenstein and Walton are doubles in the sense both of them are so consumed by ambition that nothing else matters to them. But their backgrounds are radically different. Frankenstein is Central European, while Walton is undeniably British.

That said there is loads of fiction out there where all the major characters come from the same background. In such scenarios, the difference has to be created entirely through memorable physical and behavioural characteristics. The writer's role as a keen observer of human life, therefore, becomes indispensable. It is only through watching people that you absorb details that you can later impart to your characters in ways that make them memorable. If you look closely, there isn't a single person who does not possess something distinctive. If it is not there in how they look, then it will be in how they eat, speak or wear clothes. Dickens was a master at this. All his characters display distinct physical and/or behavioural characteristics. In Great Expectations, alone, there is Miss Havisham who keeps all her windows boarded, Magwitch with the unforgettable click in the throat, Mrs. Joe who is always dressed in an apron.

When it comes to translating characters to the page, I have found a routine suggested by an old screenwriter friend increasingly useful. He called it getting to know his characters. Before starting the actual script, he would construct biographies for all of them, sketching their lives from the day they were born to the moment they first appeared in his script in a few hundred words. In recent years, I have used that routine more and more. Many writers exhaust the autobiographical material at their disposal in that first novel or batch of short stories and are forced to deal with characters they do not know firsthand. Hence, getting to know your characters before actually writing about them is a big help. Not only does it clear the cobwebs in the brain, it also cuts out the rewrites that are inevitable if a character develops over the course of the writing.

Vikram Kapur is award winning novelist and short story writer.

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