College English / Literature: Lecture Two

When speaking of my Aunt Betty, my mother used to say "She's a real character." What she was referring to was the fact that my aunt was not the sort of person who might get lost in the crowd; you'd be able to spot her pretty easily. She was built like Fat Albert and had a yellow nicotine stain on her upper lip that no amount of lipstick could hide. And her cackling voice always reminded me of the wicked witch of the west. She was a real charmer. But she WAS a character.

To some extent, that's what character is all about. It's the elements that make someone unique. For example, if I write a story about a girl in high school who's popular--she's a cheerleader, she's a straight A student, and she always does what her parents tell her to do--we're not going to be very interested in her. But what if she's bald? And no one knows it? What I've done is introduced something that makes her unique.

How to Approach the Characters
I'm going to give you a procedure which may help you when you write about the characters in a story. Of course, you should have defined the central idea before you begin, but I know it doesn't always work out that way. In that case this procedure may help you figure out the central idea. So...get out your pencil and paper and your story and try this.

First, make a list of all of the characters in the story. If there are characters without names, then identify them by what they do. [Since all of the actors in a film have to get their credit, they've got to be identified, so you'll often see something like "Ugly Woman on Bus" or "Rude man in Grocery." If you saw the movie FARGO and stayed to watch the credits you saw a lot of characters with no name and one identified as "Dead Man in Field." The credit for that role was not a name; it was the symbol for the performer formerly known as Prince.

O.K. Now you should have your list of characters. Go down the list and identify the Main Character. That's the one who is crucial to the story's central idea, the one around whom the action revolves. If you don't know the central idea yet, then simply look for the character you know the most about, the one for whom the writer provided the most physical and behavioral details.

Got it? Cool. Now, if you haven't figured out the central idea yet, or you want to check to see if the idea you've got is a good one, ask yourself this question: Does the main character change? If the answer is yes, you're on the right track. But what do I mean by change?
I'm talking about a substantive change. I don't mean that the girl got a new hair style or the guy grew a mustache. I mean a change in the character's personality, or his or her way of viewing the world. In the story A & P by John Updyke, three girls in swim suits are at the check out inf a grocery store and the manager stops them and says "We want you decently dressed when you come in here." Sammy, a checker, in an effort to impress the girls, quits:

The girls don't even notice. The manager tries to get Sammy to change his mind, but it's too late for that too and as Sammy leaves the store he looks back:

That very last statement is an indication of how the incident has changed Sammy. He's a different person at the end of the story. Of course, he's not totally different, but he is significantly different. And that's the sort of change that's a clue to the central idea.

The Main Character as a Representative
Have you written down whether or not the main character changed? And if so, did you define the change? If you haven't done that, take a second now to jot down a definition of the change. For example, in A & P I'd define Sammy's change as "He's become more of an adult," or "He's more mature and less likely to act imulsively." (If the main character in the story you're working on did NOT change, don't worry. We'll address that in a little bit.)

But let's put aside the discussion of change for just a moment. (We'll come back to it in a little bit.) Let's look now at the main character in another way. See if you can define the character as a representative of a group or a type. Take a moment to write down what, if any, groups the character belongs to. What's his or her religion, race, age, gender, nationality, ethnicity, etc. Or is there some other way you can classify the character: a hippie, an alcoholic, a sports fan, a politician, a butcher, baker, etc.? Sammy, for example, is an adolescent male. In fact, we don't know much else about him. So...can you define the main character in the story you're working on?

Putting it all Together If you've got a character who changes and you're able to classify that character somehow, then you may be able to put together a central idea statement that reflects those two elements. The idea is to come with a statement of what the author is saying about the type of people represented by the main character. Here's how we could do that with Sammy. We start with the specifics of what happened in the story. Sammy acted imulsively. Now we simply substitute the group for the specific character, Sammy, and we can say Adolescent males act impulsively.

Good so far. But we need one more piece. And that's the part that completes the idea. Most often, you'll find that if you add the word WHEN to the beginning of your statement you can fill in the end with the rest of the puzzle: When adlescent males act impulsively.... What happens? What happened to Sammy? How did he change? (I told you we'd come back to that.) He matured. He grew up. So, the statement becomes When adolescent males act impulsively, they grow up.

Hold On...Not Done yet!
Sorry. We're not through. There's one more step. That statement will NOT make it as an acceptable central idea. Why? Because it's too absolute. Preachers and parents like to talk in absolute terms, but not most writers. So you need to add a qualifier. And it needs to go before the main character or before the statement of what happens. You can say When some adolescent males act impulsively, they grow up. Or When adolescent males act impulsively, they often grow up. Or any variation of those.

That last one is my favorite.

Criticizing Characters What I really mean by this is criticizing the writer. The writer created the character, so if there's a flaw, it's the writer's fault. And what kinds of flaws are there? Well, a big one is realism. Characters should be like real people; they should have multi-faceted personalities, neither all good nor all bad. They should be complex, even ambiguous.

To achieve this, the writer should not give you a simplistic description ("Everyone loved him," or "She was a warm and loving person"). Instead, you should get to know the character the same way you get to know real people.

And the writer should not use a stereotype. That's a character you already know. In the old westerns, the guy who rode into town wearing a black hat was the bad guy. The writer didn't have to create a character; somebody else did it already and the writer simply gave us something to trigger our memory.

So these are things you can legitimately cricize if you see them. But don't be too quick on the draw. The chances are good that stories you read for this class don't suffer from these shortcomings. For example, in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, James Thurber created an stereotype which became a classic. In just a couple of pages, he produced a character that everyone recognized and could relate to. The story is an excellent example of how a memorable character can be created in a very short space. But if you don't know that this story was the first time a Walter Mitty type character ever appeared, you could be led to believe that he's a stereotype.

Forget Everything I Said
How's that for an opening? I hope I didn't frighten you, but there's some truth to this. There are exceptions to what I've been telling you and there are times when you do need to put some of these things aside. For example, sometimes there isn't one main character; there might be two.

Some of the stories you'll find are about couples--siblings, husband and wife, etc. And if the story treats them more or less equally, that's a clue for your central idea. It means that the subject of the story is not a group represented by a main character, but rather the type of relationship represented by a couple--lovers, spouses, siblings, etc.

Another difference is that a main character may not change; he or she may be exactly the same at the end of the story. If so, then maybe THAT's what the story is about--how some people never change or how some things never change.

And what if you can't classify the character? In some cases, you may know nothing about the character's religion, race, age, gender, nationality, ethnicity, or not even be able to put the character into some kind of category like hippie, alcoholic, sports fan, politician, butcher, or baker. Like the absence of change, the absence of a way to classify the character may be meaningful too. Perhaps the writer wants us to see this character as representative of everyone. Therefore, the specific character is no one. The writer doesn't want us to discount the character's actions on the basis of some classification. You know, so we can't say "That's the way girls always act," or "That's how the French deal with things."

The thing to keep in mind is that sometimes the choice of the character's nationality is simply because the story is set in a certain place and that's where the character lives, so he (or she) is French...or American....or whatever. It doesn't mean anything. Usually, it only means that the writer lived there too, so that's where the characters were put. Or as Sigmund Freud was fond of saying "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

Questions? For answers, send an e-mail to Dr. Write.

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