The Four A’s of Fiction: How to show, not tell, an authentic character
The Four A’s of Character: How to show, not tell, an authentic character
Flat. Only when describing stomachs and pancakes is that a good word. A flat soda is tasteless; a flat line is lifeless and a flat tire goes nowhere fast. For fiction writers a flat character empty of flavor, verve or movement can derail the best plot or drain the color from the most vivid descriptions. Fiction is a world set for characters who have their whole being in the words you write about them. They are the meaning makers. But how do you give depth to a character without exhausting your word limit or stalling the timing and flow of the plot? Fill in the four A’s.
Age. Whether you do elaborate research into the time and historic surroundings of a character, or jot notes on a napkin about how old they are when they enter your story, you should know how their characteristics that fit their age. We don’t always like it and placate ourselves by telling people it’s just a “state of mind”, but age has a lot to do with how and why we act the way we do. Our age dictates our clothing and how we wear it, our thinking and our desires. Don’t just tell your readers a character’s age. Show them by using language a person that age uses, describing physical abilities or appropriate mindsets and economic development for the time.
Two men are in a bank when a robbery occurs. One is twenty two and the other fifty seven. What’s the difference? The twenty two year old is still in his immortal age and may act courageously with thoughts of being rewarded as a hero and without the hesitation of fear. He looks for an opportunity to jump out and tackle the gunman. He’s wearing sneakers and is ready to spring into action. The fifty five year old would like to be a hero, but he can’t help thinking of his wife, and whether his life insurance policy is in order. He too fantasizes about jumping to tackle the gunman but knows his knees would never be able to spring him across the room and his floor shoes have stable non-bouncy soles. Later, the wide-eyed young man tells the police officer taking his statement it was a “rush”. The older relates with tired and drooping shoulders that it was “truly frightening.”
Not only the physical age but the generation one is born in, and the country and culture of that generation, say volumes about a character. An eighteen year old single female in America maybe independent, but that same woman in the third world could be considered a spinster. Showing when a character doesn’t match their age can also give clues to their personality. A sixty year old woman wearing a bikini and driving a sports car may reflect someone alive with passion. A thirty year old man who says words like “persnickety” and collects postage stamps may be a little on the serious side. Acting our age, or defying it, all say something about the people on whom our stories rely.
Appearance. We are a visual, visceral culture and we use our eyes more than most senses to give us information and spur our imagination. We don’t just want people to “read” our characters, we want them to see them. Every person has a signature style that reflects their personality, their lifestyle or even the kind of afternoon they’ve had. Show your readers the context a character is coming from with descriptions that engage the senses. The temptation in the 7,500 words or less market is to use dialogue as a short cut to description, however a few well chosen appearance cues can convey so much more.
Sally rushes into her college class after her bus breaks down and she had to find two connections plus walk three blocks to arrive. You want the reader to know she’s going to make a big mistake in class because she’s so harried. You could write:
“Wow,” Warren remarked as Sally plopped into her seat. “You look frantic.” Or you could write:
Sally plopped noisily into her seat panting heavily from the run. Her sweat stained silk blouse and the shock of jet black curls cascading across her face contrasted the perfect Palmer handwriting of her homework
Readers still get the idea Sally is frantic, but they also see her energy cascading, and her normal appearance altered, therefore its not unexplainable when she does something wildly out of character. Readers can now enjoy the scenario instead of pondering why Sally would do something so stupid.
Appearance is more than hair color, clothes and body type. Its strength is found in the nuances. Are blue eyes cloudy or brilliant? Are her hands small or are her fingers stubby? Use one or two descriptive words regarding your character’s particulars and you begin shading not just how they look but who they are. Make sure your descriptive language also matches the tone and setting of the book. A plump woman working in a truck stop in Kentucky is not “Rubenesque” and an English aristocrat who accidentally gets wrapped in a phone cord is not “hog-tied”. Offering visual cues to a character’s looks, attire, and style create indelibly vivid pictures for your readers to enjoy.
Academics. Identification with characters comes from a sense of commonality. Even if we are very different from them, it’s the common experiences we share that allow us to embrace and imagine them. One of those great commonalities is school. Whether you are six or sixty, rich or poor, a doctoral candidate or a high school dropout, you have had some experience with school. Showing a character’s academics is a good way to give us clues about their past and present situations.
Showing someone’s academic history can be as easy as diploma on a wall, or a tassel in the rear view mirror. TV’s lovable husband “Ray Barone” on the sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond” seemed too stupid to be a sportswriter who made enough money to solely support a family of five. However, he was consistently shown wearing college sweatshirts, just to reinforce that idea that he’s not uneducated, he’s just an “everyman”. Showing someone’s lack of education can be done best through the way they speak, the grammar they misuse, or their inability to understand something that is “common knowledge”. A character who doesn’t understand the education system may say, “When I get out of this dump of a town I’m going to Houston. I’d like to be a astronaut.” They may not know the difference between a medical doctor and a Ph.D.
Lacking an education doesn’t make a character dumb, nor does having a diploma make them super-smart. Complex characters often have a difference in their school experiences and their common sense. A wise, articulate grade school dropout or a myopic cant-see-the-forest-for-the-trees collegiate give us characters who flesh out the role of school in our culture more fully. School leaves marks on us, mentally and socially, and should be a part of a character’s fully developed persona.
Accomplishments. The difference between flat and full characters is dimension. A flat character lives in a nondescript apartment with empty white walls. A full character lives in a third floor walk-up with overstuffed furniture and so many pictures of his girlfriend and her cat you can’t find the light switch. A flat character enters the story having no history or no future other than its purpose in the narrative. A full character has lived before the story and will live afterward (unless they die as part of the plot). Full characters, like real people, are a conglomeration of accomplishments.
Lois Lane, famous female reporter for the Daily Planet in the film “Superman Returns” has to ask how to spell “catastrophe” (she tried it with an ‘f’). Can a good writer make such a glaring error? Then you learn she has won a Pulitzer Prize for her article on Superman’s absence. She’s not a bad writer; she’s distracted by the hero’s return. Her accomplishment shades the comic moment and provides context to the character. Show a character’s penchant for remembering by making him the former winner of a spelling bee or give a sense of discipline and leadership to someone by reflecting on her time as a drum major for her college band. It can be done as quickly as showing a trophy on a shelf, or a reminiscence about old time.
Lack of accomplishment also says something about a character that can explain or fill their lives. Not everyone wins the spelling bee. Not everyone graduates from college. What does it say about a man whose yearbook is marked by the only award he received in high school — a perfect attendance ribbon from 10th grade? How do we feel about a dictatorial executive in an office who tells you she ran track and got as far as the Olympic try-outs but had a leg cramp at the wrong time? Accentuating the near misses and frustrations show a character’s humanity and maybe offers insight into their motivation as well.
Characters don’t exist to do things so a plot can happen. Events occur in the lives of characters that act and react in ways connected to societal habits and patterns. Providing them the surroundings that connect them to the human experience helps readers see people not plot hooks. Fill their lives with the four A’s and keep your story from falling flat.