Character Is . . .

Often we read about painters or novelists who listened to a certain kind of music while they worked on a given project. It helps get them in the right frame of mind. For example, I understand that Matthew Cordell listened exclusively to early-20th century Hungarian circus music while doing the drawings for Mighty Casey. And you can almost hear it in the work:

For me, that’s true with what I read. When I was writing Bystander (Feiwel & Friends/Fall, 2009), I was determined for it to be true and accurate, reflecting current research and the realities of today’s schools. But I also wanted the book to have an unputdownable quality, tension running through the pages. It wasn’t a research paper; it was a story. So I focused my outside reading on thrillers and police procedurals (not my usual fare), just to be steeped in that sensibility. Within those genres, I prefer character-driven tales as opposed to puzzle boxes that emphasize plot twists and complexity. I was blown away by Richard Price, I liked the way Ian Rankin unfolded his John Rebus tales, and then there was my latest discovery, Michael Connelly. Who I think is really, really good.

After I finished Bystander, I again opened up the scope of my reading. Even so, I picked up a collection of essays, Writing Mysteries. Michael Connelly has a brief one in there, titled “Characterization.” Connelly has a clear style, and he doesn’t act like he knows any mystical secrets; he talks plainly about what he’s learned along the way, and what has worked for him.

He makes a couple of points I thought worth repeating:

Character is defined by quality not quantity.”

As a visiting author in schools, I’ve attempted a few writing workshops and, at least, some in-depth discussions about “writing.” On the central topic of characters, we’d talk about the usual things, “Show, don’t tell,” and so on. We’d sometimes begin with a blank character and I’d encourage the students to build their character by adding details. It often took a while before our discussion got somewhere. Amidst the random jewels, I’d get a list of boring details: She has brown hair, her name is Mary, her eyes are blue, etc. Details, surely, but dull as bathwater. Clutter, not character. For they were not telling details. Connelly writes: “Your life as a writer must be the pursuit of the telling details of character.”

“Character is conflict.”

Connelly writes: “You should endeavor when you write to put obstacles in the path of your characters at every turn and at every level of their lives.

Further along this same point, Connelly credits Kurt Vonnegut for this summary advice, and writes: “Make sure on every page everybody wants something, even if it’s a glass of water. Or words to that effect. What he was again saying is that character is conflict. All persons are defined by their wants and needs. Their desires.

Character is need.

And maybe that’s where I am, thinking that’s the question I learned today. What does my character want? What does he need? Because there’s one thing I’ve believed for a long time, and that’s this:

Character is story.

Figure out what your character wants, insert conflict, obstacle, and you have the makings of story. It begins with character.

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