Write it now, part 24: creating people not characters in your novel

How many times have you finished reading a book or watching a movie or something on TV and been utterly moved by the story? Because you’ve been drawn into the life of the characters.

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)
Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

Well, not characters – as Hemingway tells us, ‘characters’ aren’t what novelists should create.  Novelists should create people.

Of course, it’s easy to say that – it’s easy to write ‘you should create people’. Actually doing it – well, that is another matter. The dissonance between saying and doing gives the truth to the old adage that those who can, do; those who can’t usually teach.

As always, the way to make it happen comes from experience – from the doing. And it’s not a quick learning curve, necessarily. But I thought I’d outline some ways of starting along that path.

Think about yourself. Do you think of yourself as a cluster of characteristics? Of course not. Psychologists love to break people down to lists or classify them in arbitrary pigeonholes, but the reality is that our consciousness and the life we perceive, lead and experience is a whole thing. It is only perceived as bits and pieces from outside.

That is the difference, for writers, between a ‘character’ and a ‘real person’.

The issue, then, is not why does Character X always wear a red sweatshirt – but how that relates to the rest of them? The key word is ‘integration’. And then being able to express that in writing – which, as we’ve been exploring in past weeks, is a linear thread, not a blob of simultaneous concepts.

Novelists, inevitably, have different ways of tackling that. Hemingway set the standard – to my mind, one that has never been surpassed. Jack Kerouac had a slightly different tack to the same end

The way both did it was by expressing streams of emotion – consciousness – firmly set at the intersection between their character and the environment and events

You’ll notice I said nothing about plot. That’s almost irrelevant to character in some senses – more about that later.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: more geekery, more writing tips, humour and a few thoughts. Join the discussions.


6 thoughts on “Write it now, part 24: creating people not characters in your novel

  1. Deeping my characters so they become people has been a long learning curve for me. Layering emotions and showing how individuals react to circumstances and why was a big leap for me. I keep reading authors I admire, and keep learning from them. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to perfect this, but as long as I continue to improve I’m happy. 😉

      1. It’s a huge learning curve for any author – I’ll bet even Hemingway spent years at it before he got it right. And learning never stops for writers, not ever. It’s an astonishingly difficult skill, and if we look at Hemingway, half the trick to it was knowing what to leave out – the punctuated gaps, Very different, I think, from the notion that everything has to be somehow pushed into the story and expressed. I guess the musical equivalent would be jazz.

  2. I could not agree more. I spend a lot of time creating lists of characterizations. However, making those characterizations fit to the person with “real reasons” for them. It is rare indeed when all of my notes on a character make it into the story. I never know what i will use until the character get involved in the action.

  3. I like your way of looking at characters. I talk about writing great characters, and I talk to mine as if they are real people; but I don’t think I thought of them as people.
    Years ago I read a book with such vivid, easily-pictured characters that when I looked up from the page, I expected to see them standing in front of me. I was so disappointed when they weren’t there. The bad thing: I can’t remember the name of the book or author.
    I want my characters to be that real.

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