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Writing the Short Story 1: Character Delineation

by The Editor   


THE successful short story of today emphasizes particularly three qualities: Characterization, Scene or Setting, and Plot. These essentials will be found to furnish the basis of every thoroughly artistic bit of short fiction in the better magazines; it follows, therefore, that the writer who wishes to reach the top must master the secrets of peopling his stories with real persons, placed amid surroundings that affect their actions, and governed by certain influences which form satisfactory plot. The purpose of this introductory article is to consider the first requisite, namely, that of the demand for appealing, flesh-and-blood characters.

The beginner creates puppets ; the problem is to convert them into people. The recipe in brief is to make them real in three ways: by describing their outward appearances; by indicating their hearts and souls by their actions; by studying their thoughts and emotions by means of words or conversations. Minor methods there are, to be sure, but none so clear, so discerning, so infallible.. Let us begin with these three.

To be real, a character must be photographed for the reader; there must be, to use a very trite expression, a pen-picture. The description, however, will be dull and ineffective if it is merely a catalogue of physical attributes. The trick is to select certain features that tell the tale, certain peculiar facial expressions, certain queer shiftings of the eye, certain habits of the man or woman.

A study of your neighbors, coupled with a knowledge of their characters, will link the external and the internal; a study of some treatise on physiognomy and expression will give you cut-and-dried rules or laws, generally recognized. From a book before us we learn that "a narrow and receding forehead, with enormous superciliary arches, invites the lowest racial characters," that "the forehead is elongated in proportion as the mind is destitute of energy and elasticity," that in mouths a projection of the lower lip indicates irritability and quarrelsomeness. And so it goes with the forehead, the eyes, the eyebrows and eyelashes, the nose, the chin, the cheeks, the ears, the teeth, the hair, the beard—every physical attribute. Here alone is a mint of suggestions.

There are two ways of describing characters.

The more artistic is to bring in a sentence of description here and there, as occasion requires, throughout the story. One of the best examples of specific advice along this line is the admonition not to say a woman is a snarling, grumpy person, but to bring in the old lady and let her snarl. Becky Sharp lives in the memory of readers of "Vanity Fair" as possessing three distinct attributes; she had "green eyes," she was colorless, and she was petite. No other descriptions were deemed necessary; none was needed. The moral is that the writer should not dwell upon a thousand and one minor points, but should discuss or emphasize only the physical features that reveal personality or individuality.

The second method is first to describe the character with some detail, and then to emphasize these attributes as the story-progresses. No better brief example can be offered than the description of Ichabod Crane in Irving's "Legend of Sleepy Hollow":

"The cognomen of Crane was not inapplicable to his person. He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at the top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock, perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about, him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending on the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield."

The second method of depicting character is by means of the actions of the story-creation. Nothing reveals the inner man like the habits he has acquired by reason of his nature, his mind and his environment. Your bold melodrama, with no appeal to intellect, makes the villain's eyes shift constantly. . That is the custom of the primitive class of villains. Here, then, is a hint. Make your character, first of all, represent the class or group from which he is supposed to spring. Place him under certain conditions and make him act as such a man must, governed by these influences. Know him so well that you can determine on the instant how a certain situation will give birth to a certain action on his part. First get your character, and then test him by imagining conditions which might confront him, and his resultant actions.

Next, strive to make your character an individual or example of a certain type. No two men are alike. Allow your character to run the gamut of emotions—pity, hate, ambition, joy, fear, anger, exultation, etc.—and work out for your own conviction how he differs from others of his class.

Here must be inserted the warning to describe not only the outward actions, but also to show the reasons and the manners. Greed or necessity may make a man steal; yet he may be clean at heart. Fear may make him pray; yet he may not know God. Loyalty may make him lie; yet he may not be prompted by the Devil.

These actions, of course, are the major signs of character. On the other hand, the real man or woman may be revealed more clearly by the minor. The shrug of a shoulder, the curl of a lip, the click of the teeth, the lifting of the eyebrows, mean more as a picture of character than pages of explanation as to the cause. Every definite act of a character may be a line in the catalogue of his goodness, his badness or his mediocre lack of individuality.

The third method of revealing character is by dialogue. This is not limited to the actual conversation, self-confession or soliloquy and even thoughts of the character itself, but deals also with the speeches of others concerning him. First, however, it will be well to study the talk of the character.

A man who reviles and desecrates womankind is unclean at heart; his conversation bares his soul. A man who talks in sharp, clever, poignant, bitter style may be labeled a cynic; we do not need a description of his actions or his appearance. And so it runs! Your actress talks the slang of the stage and your racing man the jargon of the track. Your God-fearing preacher quotes the Bible for argument and sentiment; your slave-minded man refers to his master's views. Your bombastic, self-centered man disgusts you with his conversation; your sap-headed, callow friend disgusts you equally in another way. And yet, in each case, this conversation has revealed the whole character. To build such a man or woman you must lay the foundations of the proper dialogue.

Your characters, of course, must talk as they live. If you use dialect, you need not label a man "Irish" or "Italian." or any other nationality. If the mistress discusses a subject with the maid, it must be perfectly clear who is speaking each sentence without the use of "said the mistress" or "said the maid." But do not make the mistake, either, of thinking the mistress will always discuss grand opera or the latest book over the breakfast table, nor that the maid talks only of her household duties. They would not be real and natural mistress and real and natural maid if this were the case.

Above all, study street conversations of every kind, attempting always to lift the veil that hides the hearts and souls of the speakers. Jot down in a note-book any especially witty or wise remark; presumably your choice tid-bit will serve the purpose of maintaining the brilliancy of your character. If you allow the dialogue to grow dull in your story, you will find that you have allowed your character to become stale and commonplace—ordinary after you have led the reader to placard him extraordinary.

These, then, are the three principal methods of making story characters into real flesh-and-blood people. A few minor hints are worth enumerating.

First, the character's name suggests his personality and individuality. There are names for fluffy-brained girls, like Dolly and Polly and Betty; there are names for sterling, plodding men, like Peter and John and August—adaptable, of course, to all nationalities; there are names for villains, like— But suit yourself; make the name suggest not one you personally detest, but one that savors of the disreputable, the wicked, the criminal. Read Dickens for your hints on this subject; but bear in mind two modern-day warnings. First, do not think every hero must be a Jack or a Montague, or every heroine a Dolly or a Marie, these and their kind are shop-worn and suggest characters other than the ones you use. Be as original in the selection of your names, therefore, as good taste and adaptation will permit. Second, do not be clumsy and amateurish in your choice of suggestive names. "Goodman" will not smack right; nor will. "Sneaker" nor "Stealward." The task is to hint at character in a name in the most delicate and subtle manner, that you may impress your reader without his appreciating that the name has any particular significance.

Second, avoid overdrawing a good or a bad character. In real life most of us are neither wholly good nor wholly bad; in your story, therefore, try not to make your hero perfect— goody-goody—nor your villain utterly steeped in crime—irredeemable. In a word, avoid the extremes.

Third, no story character is born full-grown from the imagination. He is founded upon one in real life, not perhaps upon this man alone, but upon one quality of this, one quality of that other man's, and so forth—until he becomes literally a composite of the most striking characteristics of many.

Fourth, the characters need not—in most cases, must not —be fully developed. Often the story is the crisis that makes character, that brings to the surface unsuspected bravery or cowardice or any other quality of man's makeup. The hero or heroine must be molded before the reader's eye; his or her inherent attributes must be revealed side by side with the qualities born of the opportunities of the story.

Fifth, the characters must not be crammed into a story willy-nilly, despite their protestations at uncomfortable places and misfits. Mr. Elliot Flower, best known for his character work, says: "Study the character in the making, and, if it's human, it will give you some surprises . . . develop some unexpected traits and even annoy you by doing things that compel an occasional rearrangement of your plot."

Sixth, characters may be made intensely real merely by emphasizing the sensation or impression their contact or proximity produces.

Seventh, remember that characters must have distinct connections in thought-appeal with the reader. Between the hero or heroine and the reader must be established a bond of sympathy if the latter is to follow his or her career with breathless interest. The villain must irritate in such a way as to be thoroughly disliked. Too many young writers do not seem to consider that the appeal of the character to the reader establishes to a very great extent the gripping power of the story. The reader lives with the hero; the latter's friends are his friends, the latter's enemies are his enemies. The goal is to make the situations as vitally interesting to the reader as to the principal character.

The next step is a consideration of the characters that are utilized in the average short story. Two there must be; if the tale is of love, these two will be principals, or hero and heroine. Minor characters must enter to afford comparison and contrast and to thwart the smooth action of the narrative and make plot. These divide naturally into two classes: Specific persons, mentioned by name; and the general crowd or mob that forms a background. About the principal character or characters the others must revolve, always secondary. It must be made clear, also, just how each character serves, whether he is strong or weak, incidental or absolutely essential, appealing or repulsive.

In brief, these are the rules of character delineation. None of them is infallible; all of them do no more than hint at the possibilities of pursuing these and other methods. Read simply as an article, these instructions will produce no appreciable gain on the part of the writer. They must be supplemented by two studies; by a thorough, systematic search through printed fiction for various methods of character delineation and for characters obviously produced by one or another of these rules and suggestions, and by a conscientious, untiring practice in actual writing.

Books or stories that may be profitably studied include: "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," by Washington Irving, for a study of direct character description; "Mother's Revolt," by Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman, for a study of character development; Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables," for a study of how Jean Valjean reveals himself; many of Dickens' novels, for both direct character descriptions and some of the most vivid portrayal in the realms of fiction; "The Scarlet Letter," by Hawthorne, for a study of character affected directly by environment; stories like "Rip Van Winkle," those about Van Bibber and Sherlock Holmes, etc., for accuracy of description; "The Cask of Amontillado," by Edgar Allan Poe, for character actuated by dominant mental qualities. In addition to these specific citations for particular purposes, the writer should study the better current magazines and books of the following standard and nature: "The Vicar of Wakefield," "The Mill on the Floss," "Middlemarch," "Pride and Prejudice," "Silas Lapham," etc. There is no end, indeed, to examples of good character delineation.

Finally, a study of printed instructions can not make an author; he must apply what he has learned, must cultivate the ability to do himself what he has been shown others have done, and must practice long and faithfully to learn to put on paper what is in his mind. As no story can be written without characters, this topic has been discussed first. To aid the writer in creating real people instead of puppets for his fiction-world, the following helpful exercises are suggested:

1.  Select some short-story masterpiece, read it carefully and discriminate minutely the characters, describing each in a paragraph and attempting to picture by means of comparison and contrast.

2.  Write a character sketch of some person you know, presenting the external appearance by description and the traits of mind and character by exposition.

3.  Describe as concretely as possible specific characters of the following types:

a.  A person whose interest centers wholly upon self.

b.  A young person with the vices and virtues of old age.

c.  An old person with the mind of youth.

d.  A person whose nature and training are at variance.

e.  A woman in a prosaic situation whose love of mystery and romance is counterbalanced by no sense of humor.

f. A mind big but untrained.

g. A mind of limited capacity glutted by over-training.

h. A person whose over-enthusiasm generally defeats its own end. This will subdivide into the qualities of happiness, revenge, generosity, etc.

4. Write several character sketches based upon a study of physiognomy, and expression, describing external appearances with the view of showing qualities of character or disposition. 5. Describe an incident that brings out a trait of character.

6.  Describe a character presented under the influence of a strong emotion by a study of facial expression, dialogue and action.

7.  Write a short-story showing the development of character.

8.  Write a story showing the conflicting elements of a character. Study "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

9.  Write a story with two sharply contrasting characters, using the points of difference to make each stand out more vividly.

10.  Write a story of child character. Attempt to get the childish point of view. Bear in mind that sympathy and delicacy are the requisite qualities.

11.  Write a half-dozen anecdotes illustrative of character.