Think of a few literary or movie characters who made an indelible mark on you. Ask yourself, why do I remember these particular characters when I've forgotten so many others? What makes these characters, but not others, memorable?
Probably, you will identify certain characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, values, beliefs, and even views of the world. The characters you admire will probably have acted honorably, valorously, and heroically. Those you recall, perhaps with a shudder, feeling fear, disgust, or horror, probably strike you as evil or dangerous, as contemptible and loathsome, because of their characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, values, beliefs, and world views. While the admirable characters support others, the contemptible are usually interested in serving only themselves.
More specifically, though, how are characters sketched by writers?
Most characters are collections of personality traits. These traits are implied through the characters' actions, or behavior, including the words they speak, their dialogue. In movies and, more than ever before, in novels, behavior is the means by which personality traits, attitudes, values, beliefs, and world views are shown.
In the thriller Falling Down (1993), William Foster, an unemployed engineer, sees society as “falling down” right before his eyes. While the movie leaves no doubt that society is, in fact, in a state of partial collapse, it is also true that Foster himself is “falling down.” He's lost his job. His marriage has ended in divorce. His ex-wife, Beth, has been awarded sole custody of their daughter Adele and has secured a restraining order against Foster, who has a penchant to act aggressively, even violently, toward others, including, apparently, Beth herself. Foster has lied to his mother, with whom he stays, telling her that he is still employed. In fact, he carries an empty briefcase around town, wearing out shoe leather as he wanders more or less aimlessly until he conceives of the idea of visiting Adele on her birthday, despite the restraining order that has been issued against him and Beth's clear demands that he avoid contact with her and Adele.
At first, Foster is a likable, understandable character. He is an educated, hardworking man who plays by the rules and expects to be treated accordingly. He is courteous, polite, respectful, and dutiful—until things don't go his way. Then, he becomes aggressive, insulting, violent, and, eventually, even murderous.
Throughout the film, as Foster encounters escalating examples of the increasingly extreme societal decline he is convinced has overtaken life in Los Angeles and, perhaps the United States as well, he himself collapses further and further psychologically, and he reacts to the instances of social decline with more and more extreme behavior, ratcheting up his aggression and violence, revealing himself to be a truly unstable and dangerous man.
As his reactions to stress and what he sees as the erosion of social conventions and, indeed, society itself become increasingly extreme and violent, his behavior begins to distance us from him. We understand that he is not who we thought he was. His civility is a mask. The real man is a walking time bomb who could go “off” at any moment.
Showing what a character appears to be allows writers to reveal what he actually is, and this difference surprises the movie's audience. This same technique works not only in Falling Down but in many other movies. It also works in novels and other forms of fiction.
In addition to showing Foster's personality—his traits, behaviors, attitudes, values, beliefs, and world view—as he reacts to various incidents which confirm his belief that society is “falling down,” even as his own psyche collapses, the film shows how inappropriate, unnecessary, and dangerous his reactions are by contrasting them with those of another character who encounters similar problems as those which face Foster.
Using a foil, a character whose behaviors, attitudes, values, beliefs, and world view strongly contrasts with those of another, opposing character, is a tried- and-true means of characterization which Falling Down uses to good effect. In Falling Down, Sgt. Prendergast is Foster's foil.
Foster has “lost” a daughter; Prendergast has lost one through the girl's death. Foster's marriage has ended in divorce. Prendergast's wife Amanda suffers from anxiety, which makes her feel the need to control her environment and to order both her own and Prendergast's lives. Foster has been fired from his job. Despite less-than-ideal working conditions, Prendergast wants to remain on the Los Angeles Police Department's force, but Amanda wants him to retire to Lake Havasu City, Arizona.
Both Foster and Prendergast see a collapse of social traditions, organizations, institutions, and mores, but—and here is the chief difference between these men who, to a large degree, live rather parallel lives—Foster feels cheated by “the system” and wants what he considers to be his due, whereas Prendergast is content to prop up society and to help to protect and defend it against its threats, including Foster himself.
The use of Prendergast as Foster's foil more sharply defines the characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, values, beliefs, and world views of both the unemployed defense engineer and the detective.
One effective way to sketch a character is to show what he seems to be so that, later, you can reveal what he actually is like, and a superb way of revealing this discrepancy is to contrast the character with a foil.
Such techniques of characterization are widely used as time-tested ways of sketching characters because they are effective. By showing characters react to a variety of situations and incidents and by contrasting these reactions with those of another character who is the opposite in his or her characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, values, beliefs, and world views, writers create indelible characters who stand out as memorable individuals. Such an approach can be, and is, used in all genres of fiction, both on the page and on the sound stage.
The biter-bit plot is simple, but effective, and versatile, lending itself to all genres of fiction. At the heart of this plot, an ironic reversal results in a character's receiving his or her just desserts. A form of poetic justice, the biter-bit plot turns the tables on a typically brash, domineering, or otherwise unsavory character. This plot usually has a two- or three-part structure.
Many of the stories in Lawrence Blocks collection One Night Stands and Lost Weekends are based on the biter-bit formula.
“Bargain in Blood” divides its biter-bit plot into three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end:
“The Burning Fury”
“Just Window Shopping”
The biter-bit plot is easy to use:
For further study, read and analyze the way that O. Henry uses twists to end such of his short stories as “The Gift of the Magi,” “The Ransom of Red Chief,” and “The Cop and the Anthem.”
Over the years, writers have developed many types of fictional characters. The eight listed here are major types. Protagonists and antagonists appear in every story. The others are included frequently in many narratives.
Antagonist: The character opposed to the protagonist. The antagonist could be a rival or an enemy to the protagonist or a friend who resists the protagonist's actions because the behaviors seem reckless or harmful to the protagonist him- or herself. A short story usually has a single antagonist, but a novel may include several antagonists. In Mark Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, antagonists include Pap Finn, the Duke and the Dauphin, Tom Sawyer, and, indeed, at times, Huck himself. Every story has an antagonist, even if the antagonist is some aspect of the protagonist him- or herself. (See “Protagonist.”)
Confidant (feminine “confidante”): A trusted friend of the protagonist with whom the protagonist shares his or her secrets and to whom the protagonist may look for advice and support. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer is Huck's confidant. Huck confides in Tom that Jim has been captured, and Tom assists in the boys’ efforts to free him.
Dynamic Character: A character, often the story's protagonist, who undergoes significant change (i. e., character development) during the course of the story in which he or she appears. Henry Fleming, the main character of Stephen Crane's Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage, is a dynamic character. At first, he acts in a cowardly fashion, fleeing the battlefield. Later, however, he behaves heroically, leading troops against the enemy, and becomes a man of courage and resolve. (See “Static Character.”)
Flat Character: A character whose personality consists of only one or, at most, a few traits. (Each trait can be identified by a single adjective.) In Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Melanie Wilkes is a static character. Throughout the novel, she remains a gracious, compassionate, understanding, and loyal friend to all. (See “Round Character.”)
Foil: A character whose personality traits, being opposite of the main character's traits, highlight the protagonist's personality traits. In Miguel Cervantes's Don Quixote of La Mancha, the realistic, practical Sancho Panza's statements and actions contrast sharply with, and, therefore, underscore, Don Quixote's romantic, often delusional thoughts and behaviors.
Protagonist: The main character of a story. Huckleberry Finn is the protagonist of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Don Quixote is the protagonist of Don Quixote of La Mancha, and Scarlett O’Hara is the protagonist of Gone with the Wind. (See “Antagonist.”)
Round Character: A character whose personality is made up of many traits. (Each trait can be identified by a single adjective.) Henry Fleming is a round character. At the beginning of The Red Badge of Courage, he is a gullible, idealist romantic whose notions about warfare are based only on his reading of books that glorify battle. However, after he himself experiences combat, first fleeing the battlefield and later conducting himself with honor and valor, he comes to understand that war is far from the glamorous spectacle he'd earlier believed it to be. (See “Flat Character.”)
Static Character: A usually minor character who does not undergo change (i. e., character development) during the story in which he or she appears. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck's friend, Tom Sawyer, is a static character. An irrepressible prankster and a gullible believer of the romantic books he reads, Tom remains, at the novel's end, the same figure he was shown to be at the beginning of the novel. The Duke and the Dauphin, the con artists Huck meets on his journey down the Mississippi River, are also static characters. Two of a kind, they never change in their devotion to swindling others. (See “Dynamic Character.”)
Plotting by Theme, Part 1: Process
A great definition of theme, at least in regard to some stories, is the lesson that the protagonist learns as a result of his or her experiences.
According to this definition, the story's main character, or protagonist, is the one who learns a lesson. When writing your story, it's important to remember not to get off track and let a secondary character learn the lesson meant for the protagonist. Although such a mistake may seem unlikely, it can happen all too easily.
Ask yourself, What lesson do I want my protagonist to learn? If the main character is to learn something, he or she must first lack the understanding to be acquired. This point may seem obvious, but, again, it's easy to start off on the wrong foot by suggesting or showing (or even stating directly) that the protagonist already knows the very thing that he or she needs to learn and then forget, as you write the story, that you did so.
Make the lesson something specific, not general. For example, “I want my protagonist to learn to be a better person” is too broad, but “I want my protagonist to learn to be be humble” is fairly specific.
Think of your lesson as having three parts: (1) ignorance, (2) experience, and (3) lesson (understanding). As your story unfolds, your protagonist will undergo a transformation from ignorance to understanding as he or she has various experiences.
With this in mind, after establishing what lesson you want your protagonist to learn, identify the experiences that will teach your main character this lesson. Then determine how you will show that your protagonist has learned this lesson.
You might come up with something like this:
At the start of your story, Pete, your protagonist, is arrogant (he has not learned to be humble). He thinks that his Secret Santa, Kelly, whose parents are poor, has bought him a cheap gift, especially when he sees how small the gift-wrapped package is. He tells his friend Billy that he wishes a different student had been his Secret Santa.
In the middle of your story, Pete is humbled, first, by having Jimmy, a popular classmate, scorn the gift that Pete, as Jimmy's Secret Santa, buys for Jimmy, and, again, when Kelly gives him a better and more thoughtful gift than Pete had anticipated receiving.
At the end of your story, Pete has learned to be humble. He confesses his former arrogance to Kelly and apologizes to her, before thanking Jimmy for inadvertently calling to Pete's attention Pete's own arrogance.
Plotting by Theme, Part 2: Example
As we've seen, using theme to plot a story is an effective approach to writing fiction. Let's look at how a famous Hollywood movie uses this approach.
The movie The Wizard of Oz is a good example of theme as understood in this manner. At the outset of the film, the main character, Dorothy Gale, is shown as being disappointed in—and, I might add, unappreciative of—her home with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry.
They live on a farm in Kansas, where everything seems dull and gray to Dorothy. While it's true that she doesn't have any friends her own age, except for her dog Toto, and it's true that her aunt and uncle, like their farmhands, seem to have little time for her, it's also apparent that Dorothy, like many children her age, is self-absorbed. She doesn't seem to recognize or appreciate the hard work that the adults have to do to keep food on the table and clothes on their backs. They're living during the Great Depression. Times are hard for everyone, but, at least, they have one another.
For Dorothy, though, life on the farm with her aunt and uncle is not enough. She dreams—literally, as it turns out—of a place “somewhere over the rainbow,” where all is bright and beautiful and life is full of excitement and adventure.
A circus fortuneteller, Professor Marvel, who waits out the approaching storm in his wagon, assures Dorothy, who visits him after running away from home, that her aunt and uncle love her a great deal and are worried about her safety.
But his assurances come too late: although Dorothy hurries home, she is caught in the storm and, taking refuge with Toto inside the family's farmhouse, she is carried off to Oz by a cyclone.
As soon as she arrives in Oz, Dorothy becomes homesick. She wants to return to Kansas, to her farm, to Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, to her home. The experiences she has while she's in Oz make her more and more homesick. She meets a brainless Scarecrow, a heartless Tin Man, and a cowardly lion. She learns what it would be like to have no brain, no heart, and no “nerve.”
But she also learns to depend on and to act on behalf of herself. She becomes independent, resourceful, courageous. She defends the Scarecrow and her other companions, and she stands up to both the Wicked Witch and the Wizard of Oz himself. She matures.
At the end of the story, her experiences in Oz have taught her a valuable lesson, which she shares with her aunt and uncle: “There's no place like home.” The self-absorbed girl who disliked her home and failed to appreciate her relatives now enjoys her home and values Aunt Em and Uncle Henry.