My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
Very, very few stories can succeed without people, and even those that do usually need a narrator who is in him or herself a character in the story. Think of the “unreliable narrator”. So how are great characters, characters who come to life off the page, that stay in our memories and become people we think we know in our everyday lives – how are these paper people created?
Dwight Swain, author of Techniques of the Selling Writer (one of the best books about story creation), has written a how-to that explains many of the techniques and devices used to transform paper people into flesh and blood.
‘The core of character, experience tells me, lies in each individual story person’s ability to care about something; to feel, implicitly or explicitly, that something is important….It may be money that’s important to him, or family, or world peace, or ecology, or a vacation, or country living. What matters is what he cares about.
“Additionally, it really is inconsequential whether Individual is aware that he feels the way he does. The crucial issue is that the feeling exists to the point that it’s strong enough to move him.”
Of course , there are many many books giving advice on how to create characters. But Swain’s book is one of the best because he takes nothing for granted, doesn’t skimp on explanations, and instead takes his student by the hand and lead him or her through the intricacies of the art form. Imagine a master puppeter taking an apprentice through a warehouse of puppets and as he reveals each device or technique to make the wood and cloth seem more real, he takes down a puppet from its hook and makes the character dance before the apprentice’s eyes. This is what Swain does throughout the book. Explain and demonstrate.
Yet some may reject his teachings as “too commercial” because, for sure, Swain keeps his eyes on what works for readers and what keeps them engaged in stories; key reasons why one story sells and another doesn’t. In any case, my experience (after a long dance with this snobbiness) is that although popular fiction and literary fiction may appeal to different audiences, they both rely on excellent technique. The only important distinction to be made is between stories that work and stories that don’t.
With Swain’s help, all of us can write better stories. And this includes nonfiction writers – who can learn a lot from what makes characters on paper come alive. Knowing someone in real life and accurately setting down what they look like and what they say will not begin to create a believable person for readers. If you want to make “real” people come alive, learn the techniques of fiction writers and your characters may yet dance off the page. Some of the most interesting people any of us know are paper people, created using many of the techniques Swain’s book seeks to explain to would-be authors.
Creating Character, How to Build Story People by Dwight V. Swain, first published in 1990 by Writer’s Digest Books.