Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

Month: December 2016

From the Forge: Creating Complex Characters, Part II

There are two general methods of characterization—Indirect and Direct. The Indirect method consists of the author telling the reader the character’s background, feelings, values, and so forth. This is that bugaboo all writers are warned away from—“telling” instead of “showing,” the author interpreting the character for the reader. Over-using the indirect method of characterization will result in the First Deadly Sin of writing, monotonous prose. There are, however, times when the Indirect method is useful. With it, the writer can move freely in time and space and can communicate a lot of information quickly.

Just remember, because it is telling and not showing, a little goes a long way. Readers want to be pulled into the scene, to experience the story with the character.

So most of a writer’s work in characterization occurs through the Direct method. There are four generally recognized ways to characterize directly—appearance, action, speech, and thought.

Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, says that “appearance is especially important because our eyes are our most highly developed means of perception” and that “it is appearance that prompts our first reaction to people.” The accumulation of concrete particulars in a person’s appearance—not just hair color, but hair style—not only gives the reader something to “see,” but also reveals something about the character. It may be unkind to judge a person by his/her appearance, but the fact is appearance says something about who we are.

BUT a story is not just what characters look like. It is, more importantly, what characters do. Action is what drives a story. Action causes and reveals conflict, which is the heart of any story. Action causes and reveals change, which is essential to character development. What characters do reveals who they are more powerfully than any other descriptor. Characters make decisions and re-act to forces acting on them. And their reactions become the catalysts for further actions in the story.

And remember, even when a character does nothing in response to a stimulus, the lack of action is itself a response that reveals something about who the person is. Burroway says, “In fiction as in life, restraint, the decision to do nothing, is fraught with potential tension.”

In the next From the Forge column, we’ll look at the remaining Direct methods of characterization—speech and thought.



I’ve started reading a very engaging book about emotional truth, emotional belief, and its validity. The title pretty much describes the contents–Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity can still make Surprising Emotional Sense, by the well-known British writer Francis Spufford. The book has been hailed widely by critics as a refreshing and challenging treatment of the subject, and it has been denounced by others, mostly for Spufford’s free use of profanity.

I’m enjoying it, including the profanity, and I’m sure I’ll be posting on it later. I’ll just share the last lines of the first chapter as a teaser.

He calls the book “a defense of Christian emotions–of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity. The book is called Unapologetic because it isn’t giving an ‘apologia,’ the technical term for a defense of the ideas.  And also because I’m not sorry.”

Nuff said for now.

Create Complex Characters

This is the first in a series of posts on creating complex characters.

Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction: a Guide to Narrative Craft, says that “your fiction can be only as successful as the characters who move it and move within it . . . . we must find them interesting, we must find them believable, and we must care about what happens to them.”

A complex character exhibits conflict and contradiction. Burroway says, “Conflict is at the core of character, as it is of plot.” A complex character’s conflict will be not only with the world or with other characters. A complex character is in conflict with herself. This is where contradiction comes in. Each of us at times exhibits a particular human characteristic, and at other times exhibit its polar opposite. As Burroway puts it, “All of us are gentle, violent; logical, schmaltzy; tough, squeamish; lusty, prudish; sloppy, meticulous; energetic, apathetic; manic, depressive.”

One of the most common recommendations given to writers about creating well-developed characters is to build a character bio sheet, listing physical, emotional, intellectual characteristics, preferences, dislikes, habits, and so forth. The idea is to build up a reserve of details from which you can draw as you write the character into the narrative. Such a list helps you understand your character’s motivation and gives you the concrete particulars that help you dramatize a scene.

I would suggest that any character bio sheet should include a consideration of contradictory tendencies the character might exhibit. Choose three contradictory tendencies and make lists of specific ways in which these contradictions are exhibited. For example, if we take Burroway’s first example from above—gentle, violent—it might look like this:

Our character, Larry, is a fifty-year-old man, balding, thin, brown eyes, with calloused workman’s hands. I’ll keep the lists short for the sake of space.

Gentle Larry                                                               Violent Larry

Combs granddaughter’s hair                             Pounds fist on vending machines

Cuddles with the cat                                               Kicks the cat off the porch

Holds wife’s hand before sleep                         Aggressive toward co-workers

Works in flowerbed                                                 Yells at other drivers on the road

A middle-aged working man who combs his granddaughter’s hair is a lovable character. That the same character pounds on the vending machine and kicks the cat off the porch is a bit disturbing. But it is also very human. We are all clusters of contradictory desires and motivations. We may all admire the gentle Larry, but we will identify with, more deeply sympathize with, the complex Larry who does all these things.

Making these “contradiction lists” serves a practical purpose for your narrative. It helps you to show, and not tell, the complex nature of your character. You may not use everything in your lists, but your understanding of the contradictions inherent in the character make her more complex and more interesting.

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