Editing Challenge Day 9: Paint a Character Portrait

The Blairzone - 34

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

We’ve done good work so far on plot. We’ve raised important questions about story arc, suspense, and maintaining a sense of conflict. Now it’s time to delve into the second point of the big triumvirate of great stories: character.

Personally, I think I may read for character more than anything else. There’s nothing more satisfying than sinking into a deeply-realized character’s life, learning all the ups and downs and the spiky, crinkly bits of a person’s true self. It’s one of the principle pleasures of reading great writers such as Alice Munro. But remember that even writers such as Alice Munro isn’t getting all that wonderful character depth right from the get-go. It’s a process of layering and layering and layering some more, building in depth through many passes over the story. In that way, building a character is a lot like painting a portrait, passing over the same image with charcoal and pencil and oil until it feels deep enough to pop off the page.

So how do we build that layer cake for own characters? Let’s study a paragraph from a Munro story:

Fiona lived in her parents’ house, in the town where she and Grant went
to university. It was a big, bay-windowed house that seemed to Grant both luxurious and disorderly, with rugs crooked on the floors and cup rings bitten into the table varnish. Her mother was Icelandic—a powerful woman with a froth of white hair and indignant far-left politics. The father was an important cardiologist, revered around the hospital but happily subservient at home, where he would listen to his wife’s strange tirades with an absentminded smile. Fiona had her own little car and a pile of cashmere sweaters, but she wasn’t in a sorority, and her mother’s political activity was probably the reason. Not that she cared. Sororities were a joke to her, and so was politics—though she liked to play “The Four Insurgent Generals” on the phonograph, and sometimes also the “Internationale,” very loud, if there was a guest she thought she could make nervous. A curly-haired gloomy-looking foreigner was courting her—she said he was a Visigoth—and so were two or three quite respectable and uneasy young interns. She made fun of them all and of Grant as well. She would drolly repeat some of his small-town phrases. He thought maybe she was joking when she proposed to him, on a cold bright day on the beach at Port Stanley. Sand was stinging their faces and the waves delivered crashing loads of gravel at their feet.
“Do you think it would be fun—” Fiona shouted. “Do you think it would be fun if we got married?”
He took her up on it, he shouted yes. He wanted never to be away from her. She had the spark of life.

This is the opening paragraph of Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” Notice here that this opening is it not tremendously full of problem; Munro is able to get away with this more leisurely opening because she is patiently presenting a character to us, giving us a person bit by bit. And with strong writing, that can sometimes be just as compelling as plot. Do you feel like you know Fiona by the end of this paragraph? It’s an astonishing feat: giving us just the right few well-chosen details to make us feel connected to Fiona’s world, her context, her time, her family, and her spirit. It’s truly a multi-dimensional picture.

Today, look at the very first introduction of your principle character. Are you giving us a chance to understand him or her in a multi-dimensional way? Do you indicate his socioeconomic status as well as his voice? We don’t have to everything in an introduction, but we do want a process of triangulation, giving us a character from more than one angle. There are so many ways to understand human beings — through their race, their religion, their gender, their families, their quirks, their fears. Give us more than one in your character’s first scene. Then track that character throughout the story — do we get a chance to see other elements of this character’s world?

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.

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