How should a writer convey character in a novel?
To my mind, characterization is dealt with in three main ways –
1: physical descriptions and traits;
2: development through actions and interactions, and
3: internal dialogue/musings.
The first two are may favoured methods, the third I use sparingly, as it can interfere with the flow of the story.
I recently read an Amazon review of my book, Pike’s Quest, in which it suggested that there is a total lack of character development. I was shocked. Yes, SHOCKED, I tell you. I really didn’t know what the reviewer meant: most of the reviews for Pike mention or intimate the well-rounded and engaging characters that carry you along with them – for examples, see HERE , HERE and HERE.
Now, this is not me complaining about a bad review, it’s a post about developing and describing character.
I have no objection to a less than favourable review as long as it is constructive, and the one in question actually is constructive, and also very complimentary about certain parts of the book – the reviewer compliments the high standard of the writing (thank you, it would have been nicer had you read the second half of the book – you may then have raised it to three stars!) – but she just didn't ‘get’ the story and the humour, and I think she was expecting ‘high fantasy’ rather than my comic take on it. And that is perfectly fair comment. You don't have to like everything, and I've started books and decided against finishing them. But may I also add that the reviewer didn't understand my style of characterization? She had set views about what characterization should be.
Pike starts out in the story as a hapless and naive youth, whose only prospects involve melon harvesting, and he ends the story a conquering hero. He hasn’t lost his innocence, but he has grown from reluctant “quester” to reluctant hero. He did not, however, have a personality transplant. That would be unreasonable. I have known quite a few people worthy of being called heroes in the truest sense (police, military, etc) and they remain, in the most part, humble and unassuming. LIkewise, Pike has broader horizons, he has seen the world, but he is still an innocent abroad.
Shortly after the review was posted, another reviewer, elsewhere, managed to explain, inadvertently, what might have been meant: she also identified the heart and overall theme of the story.
I don’t generally go in for long drawn out sections where the characters pontificate and whine about their innermost worries and fears. I tend to put them into action and speech. Nor do I put in any unnecessary character descriptions.
For the main part, Pike is the viewpoint character. I cannot, therefore, describe him in intimate detail without stepping outside of that character. I have to describe him as other see him, when they see him.
When we first meet Pike he is seven years old. I do not provide a description of him in the narrative: there is no need. He is described adequately by Moorlock:
“... we expect our champions to be of higher pedigree and, dare I say, a little less fishy.”
The boy glared at the old man, his mouth opening and closing. A sharp lump blocked his throat, stopping his words from forming. He scratched his head, causing flakes of dry skin to fall onto his sackcloth clothing, and managed to say, “You think I’m fishy?”
“Let’s put it this way: if ever modern scholars needed proof positive that all life originated from the ocean, then that proof sits before me. On a stone. The fertility stone. At noon. On midsummer’s day. Look at the way your mouth opens and closes, like a fish: and that skin condition – fish scales, it looks to be. So, what’s your name, my pseudo-aquatic friend?”
It is highly apparent, at this stage, that at age seven, Pike is a scaly, fish-faced kid. We can assume from the words “we expect our champions to be of higher pedigree” that he may be something of a runt. This is all in Pike’s viewpoint, but Moorlock is describing what he sees.
The story quickly skips on to his sixteenth year, when Pike is expected to take up his quest. Things haven’t improved much for him:
Pike stepped into the small house from the doorway in the back wall. He’d heard the commotion but hadn’t bothered to venture around the front to investigate. Why should he? It happened so often it was obvious what was going on. He glanced over at the old woman.
“I told you not to slam that thing, didn’t I?” He scratched his chin; flakes of dried skin cascaded onto the straw-covered floor. “And I said not to speak of that creature like that. You’ll have the wrath of the gods bearing down on you.”
Here we discover that he still has that dreadful skin condition. To reinforce this, a few sentences further on:
He reflected on his Grandmother’s words. Tiddler, she’d called him. Hadn’t heard that in a while. He was always called Tiddler, when he was smaller, and he thought it to be a term of endearment. That is, until the day he met Moorlock the Warlock at the fertility stone. Since then he’d wondered about it; he wondered even more when he reached his fourteenth year and everyone except for Grandma started to call him Fish.
“I heard that all life started in the ocean.”
His mother, a thickset woman with lank, dark hair, wearing a long sack-cloth dress, a white apron and half a watermelon skin as a bonnet, looked at him and sighed. “Oh? So how did we get here, eh?
The ocean is many miles from here: fish don’t have legs, and whoever heard of a flying fish? It’s nonsense, boy. Don’t know where you get these ideas.”
“What about me: am I fish-like?”
His mother spluttered. “Get away with you lad: fish-like? You? Nah! Well, erm … actually, and I know that as a loving mother I shouldn’t really say this … but … erm … errrr …. ackkhhhh! No, o’course not.”
“So why does everyone call me Fish?”
“Because you were my little tiddler, and now you’re all growed up!”
By now, and we’re still in chapter one, the reader should know that Pike is a runty, fish-faced youth; his skin is flaky and he has few prospects in life. We also learn that his appearance is quite scary:
He stared into the water in disbelief, his mouth opening and closing several times before his words formed. He didn’t know what the worst part was: the bulging black eyes, the trout-like mouth, or the chronic dry skin condition that caused his epidermis to crack up like fish scales.
“By the power of Adriarch the Sinner: I’m as ugly as a carp that’s had its brains splattered on a rock!”
He rubbed his chin in wonderment. Flakes of skin sprinkled onto the water, slightly obscuring the image. A small fish bobbed to the surface to devour them. Before it could sate its hunger it caught sight of Pike and darted off in horror.
Again, I, the writer, am not imposing a narrative voice onto the reader: I am allowing the character, by his actions, to let the reader know what he looks like and how he feels. Of course, I could have been lazy, and written something along the lines of
Pike spoke in a gruff voice. His fish-like face was scaly, and flakes dropped from his chin whenever he scratched it. He wore brown sack-cloth clothing, which was tied at the waist with string. His hair was lank and greasy, and he was naive beyond belief.
My God! How dull is that? VERY dull, but not uncommon. I find that in many fantasy books – be they high/epic fantasy, paranormal fantasy, urban fantasy or even erotic fantasy, this style of front-loading is very common. I’m not saying it is the wrong approach, it’s just that I don’t like it. It smacks of the author’s own voice. The author is acting like another character in the book.
To put it another way: suppose you lived in a world where there were no mirrors or cameras. You go about your daily life, farming melons and dealing with your bad skin complaint. Is there an omnipotent person outside of yourself explaining your features and describing your mannerisms? No, of course not. You might only know you have a nervous twitch when others take the mickey out of you.
The same can be said of the way new worlds are described in sci-fi and fantasy. A common (and in my view, cumbersome) way often employed by the writer to inform the reader of how the world operates is to ladle page after page of back-story and exposition upon the reader: this is often done in the voice of the author rather than through the eyes of the narrative/viewpoint character. Sometimes, these sections are as dry as a low budget documentary.
Had I employed such a device in Pike’s Quest, the premise of the story would be ruined. Explaining up-front what the New Dawn was, how the politics of the world operated, and what time period it was all set in would be ridiculous. This is Pike’s story. He is naive; he is clueless; he has no idea of what went before, what goes now and what is yet to come. All he knows is the hamlet of Ooze and the joys of melon farming! The reader accompanies Pike on his quest both for the fair maiden (not the sort you might expect) and for knowledge. His journey is the readers’ journey. The reader finds things out at the same pace as the viewpoint characters, and not before.
In a similar vein, I don’t like to write unnecessarily lengthy, introverted sections where the character, in the name of ‘character development’ is musing on his or her uncertainties in life, or the unfairness of it all, and all the “woe is me, I’ve been hard done by. Oh, what should I do?” stuff. As is pointed out in Sara Viti’s review, some books have entire chapters dedicated to such musings, but in Pike it is not necessary. As the story unfolds, the character of the protagonist is developed: he undergoes changes. My aim is to show you the character, not ram it down your throat!
If the plot calls for it (there is some small amount of it in Pike, and even more in my yet to be released thriller, Rathbone Kydd), such sections are necessary, but one should wary of overusing it and not be adversely criticised if the same is achieved by allowing characters to interact with others, thus revealing the same. For example, Pike has severe doubts about why he’s been chosen to fulfil the quest. He mentions it several times. In one section, I simply wrote:
“It’s no use me doing this, is it? I’m an embarrassment to both of you and I’m not the right one. I’m sure there’s a seventh-seventh thingy nearby who can do it.”
Why would I need to write a 1500-2000 word chapter to say the same thing?
I spend most of the book describing Pike’s journey from hapless melon farmer to hero. He grows, he changes and he succeeds. His personality is developed by his actions and interactions with others. He didn’t need reams of deep, meaningful/meaningless internal and introspective dialogue to get there!