Saturday, October 11, 2008

Advice on Characters

Hey guys,

Here are some quotes about characters from a book I love:
Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom from a Dazzling Array of Literary Lights, compiled by Jon Winokur.

Hope you enjoy them.



When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.
- Ernest Hemingway

Begin with an individual and you find that you have created a type; begin with a type and you find that you have created – nothing.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald

You can never know enough about your characters.
- W. Somerset Maugham

I always pulp my acquaintances before serving them up. You would never recognize a pig in a sausage.
- Frances Trollope

You must be very careful how you introduce your characters. The star plan is to talk about them before they appear so as to make the audience curious to see them, and sufficiently informed about them to save them the trouble of explaining their circumstance. But as some of the characters must open the play and cannot be prepared in this way, you must either fall back on the Parisian well-made play formula and begin with a conversation between the butler and housemaid or else start the characters with a strongly assertive scene, like Richard III.
- George Bernard Shaw

The bad novelist constructs his characters; he directs them and makes them speak. The true novelist listens to them and watches them act; he hears their voices even before he knows them.
- André Gide

A character is never a whole person, but just those parts of him that fit the story or the piece of writing. So the act of selection is the writer’s first step in delineating character. From what does he select? From a whole mass of what Bernard De Voto used to call, somewhat clinically, “placental material.” He must know an enormous amount more about each of his characters than he will ever use directly – childhood, family background, religion, schooling, health, wealth, sexuality, reading, tastes, hobbies – an endless questionnaire for the writer to fill out. For example, the writer knows that people speak, and therefore his characters will describe themselves indirectly when they talk. Clothing is a means of characterization. In short, each character has a style of his own in everything he does. These need not all be listed, but the writer should have a sure grasp of them. If he has, his characters will, within the book, read like people.
- William Sloane

A novelist’s characters must be with him as he lies down to sleep, and as he wakes from his dreams. He must learn to hate them and to love them.
- Anthony Trollope

Front-rank characters should have some defect, some conflicting inner polarity, some real or imagined inadequacy.
- Barnaby Conrad

I would never write about someone who is not at the end of his rope.
- Stanley Elkin

The protagonist of a play cannot be a perfect person. If he were, he could not improve, and he must come out at the end of the play a more admirable human being than he went in.
- Maxwell Anderson

The character that lasts is an ordinary guy with some extraordinary qualities.
- Raymond Chandler

A character, to be acceptable as more than a chess piece, has to be ignorant of the future, unsure about the past, and not at all sure of what he’s supposed to be doing.
- Anthony Burgess

When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away – even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.
- Kurt Vonnegut

The characters have their own lives and their own logic, and you have to act accordingly.
- Isaac Bashevis Singer

A character has his own logic. He goes his way, one goes with him; he has some perceptions, one perceives them with him. You do him justice; you don’t grind your own axe.
- Saul Bellow

Tolstoy said a great thing [about characterization]: You can tell that a marriage is on the rocks when they speak to each other rationally.
- David Mamet

“Character is Fate,” said Heraclitus in 500 B.C. or thereabouts. But “Our characters are the result of our conduct,” added Aristotle a hundred years or so later. We will find character and action even more inseparably entwined in fiction than they appear to be in life.
- Rust Hills

Naming your characters Aristotle and Plato is not going to make their relationship interesting unless you make it so on the page.
- Annie Dillard

Names are terribly important. I spend forever coming up with names. Sometimes a character doesn’t work until I change his name. In Bandits, Frank Matusi didn’t work. I changed him to Jack Delaney and suddenly he opened up.
- Elmore Leonard

If you’re silent for a long time, people just arrive in your mind.
- Alice Walker

You put a character out there and you’re in their power. You’re in trouble if they’re in yours.
- Ann Beattie

That trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills. My characters are galley slaves.
- Vladimir Nabokov

The moment comes when a character does or says something you hadn’t thought about. At that moment he’s alive and you leave it to him.
- Graham Green

By the end, you should be inside your character, actually operating from within somebody else, and knowing him pretty well, as that person knows himself or herself. You’re sort of a predator, an invader of people.
- William Trevor

If you want to know your characters better, ask yourself: “How would they behave in a quarrel?”
- Barnaby Conrad

My characters are quite as real to me as so-called real people; which is one reason why I’m not subject to what is known as loneliness. I have plenty of company.
- William S. Burroughs


Christian H. said...

Excellent list. Great food for thought. Perhaps this could grace my growing library.

The one that stuck in my head was:
"I don't write about a character that isn't at the end of his rope."

I actually like to watch characters get there by Act 2 (in the 4 act structure of course).

Though that does make a good start and is admittedly where one of my characters starts his story.

But that's not to take away from any of the other quotations. I may actually steal a few for my new "Notable Quotables" section.

Hey it's free publicity.

Sabina E. said...

the first quote by Hemingway was the best.

Mystery Man said...

Christian - Hey, nothing wrong with free publicity!

Deaf - Yeah, that's great. I love the one by George Bernard Shaw about introducing characters. That's not something you see much of in amateur, a really great introduction, ya know?


Matt said...

I was just coming here to say that the Shaw quote was my favorite (and the one with the best practical advice), but MM beat me to it.

Karen said...

Great quotes!

Jessie Sven said...

Fantastic quotes. Very inspiring~

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