Photo by MARY CELINE HARTWIG
cast and community: The character in fiction
A character is a personality that lives in a story. A character does not arrive in a story by accident. It is the author that puts a character in a story, deliberately. This implies that a character must be shaped to purpose. This is why the word ‘cast’ is important to us. The author has to set each character to a specific role or to a set of specific roles that can drive the whys and wherefores of existence in a story.
Literature is not a plant in the wild. Neither is it a plant on the rooftop. It is a plant in a garden: it is planted on purpose, watered on purpose, groomed on purpose, etc. The purpose must be matched with creativity. So, if you are hoping to cast an outstanding character in your story, it will depend on your ability to create one. Do not count on chance or an accident for your success. Be deliberate. Be diligent. Be creative.
A character can be a human being or an animal; it can also be extra-human or sub-human. Two or more or all of the aforementioned types can be featured in a story. George Orwell has combined both human and animal characters to canonical acclaim in Animal Farm (1). Amos Tutuola has achieved mixed-modes of characterisation in his novels, particularly in The Palm-wine Drinkard (2).
Both Orwell and Tutuola have employed allegory to adapt non-human characters to perform within the context of humanity no matter how stretched. This is not a new strategy. It is the strategy of the fable; and it stretches back to humankind’s earliest attempt to weave narratives, before remembered time, as old as humankind itself. Because literature is the making of ‘a universe,’ writers are careful to make characters in ‘their own image.’ The instinct is archetypal; call it the God-complex. Ask the Greeks why they made their gods/goddesses in ‘their own image.’
Let us make it bare: every writer is at liberty to cast the characters that can push a story to good effect. Any type is permitted. But each type must respond to humanity within the context of its scope and regardless of the latitude of its human conformity or non-conformity. Similarity and dissimilarity are primary motifs in the ‘being and unbeing’ of every character. For example, Grendel (3) - the monster - is not human but it earns its significance from its otherness/antithesis to humanity.
For a character to have effect in a story, it must respond to humanity and/or cause humanity to respond to it. The easier way to achieve this is to make all paths (within a story) to cross one another. Allegory achieves that intersection by making ‘man and beast’ to speak and act alike (as in Animal Farm) and by making ‘man and spirit’ to speak and act alike (as in The Palm-wine Drinkard). If a writer is sufficiently creative in the application of this strategy, the gaps in this mode of representation will be sufficiently filled by humankind’s suspension of disbelief.
A character is called a character because a character must possess characterisation. It is impossible to have a character without a personality. The query is: how logical is the personality? If a character is a welter of contradictions, it is fine as long as the author has crafted that character on/to purpose. The author has the responsibility to design the attributes of a character. That design is called characterisation: indicating the ‘make-up’ and/or the ‘making’ of a character.
Characterisation is the identity that marks out each character. A doctor has to speak and act as a doctor unless the character is sick, drunk, fraudulent or under some kind of pressure. Literary scholars called it verisimilitude. A story should have resemblance with reality or show by its internal logic why it fails to.
Identity has features: name, gender, age, marital status, ancestry, place of origin, place of abode, education and skill set, profession, fashion, public participation, travel, communication, health status, temperament, carriage, etc. Those are the features that define a character. The features must be clear or unclear to the extent of a story’s context.
There are three ways by which a character is created. Traditional literary criticism tells us that we can know a character via a narrator’s point of view, via the statements of other characters about a character, and via a character’s own utterance and action. These are strategies by which a writer can reveal characterisation. Every good writer combines all of them.
Naturally, the narrative voice is a writer’s surrogate. It is this voice that makes a writer able to primarily determine identity or characterisation. From ‘what is said’ to ‘what is unsaid,’ a character’s identity is revealed. From the ‘known’ to the ‘unknown,’ each character’s presence is defined. Every piece of information that is revealed or withheld must fit into a given character’s make-up.
It is important that characters should talk about one another. The bias or perception of one character sheds light on the identity of another character. The reliability of each character’s perception of others will be measured by the big picture. If one character represents or misrepresents another, that character reveals something about his or her personality. This is because utterance and action are processes of individuation. A lot can be known about a character on the account of what a character says or does.
A writer has to be careful to make characters speak and act in a manner that reveals characterisation. Look at the following conversation.
‘Mary and I have been married for five years,’ Johnson told the lawyer.
‘Do you have children?’ the lawyer asked.
‘Is that why you want a divorce?’
‘Not at all. I just can’t stand her tongue anymore.’
‘Oh! I see. Tell me more.’
There can be no great story without great characterisation. The stories that have an impact on us are stories that are inhabited by a character or characters we can remember. I call it the rememberable-ness of characters. Pardon my neologism. Your character/characters must be rememberable. To know Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (4) is to know Okonkwo as a character in a contest with self, community, and intrusion. To know Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (5) is to know Michael Henchard in a contest with self, community and time. Why do you think Hardy subtitled that novel as ‘The Life and Death of a Man of Character’? Name any great story you know, there must be great characterisation in there. A writer must put memorable characters in every story.
It means that a writer must be creative and selective with his or her cast of characters. As my folks say, If chicken adds no worth to the dish, do not add chicken for the sake of chicken. A similar proverb says, Do not allow odd things into your soup pot unless oddity is your artful intention. Inspiration is a great gift to a writer but judgment is the greatest gift.
If a writer’s senses are ‘dead,’ a writer cannot create perceptive characters. The law says you cannot give what you do not have. It is a deep principle, and it governs creative writing too. Capacity is built from experience. Imagination is made rich by experience. A writer’s characters cannot be more perceptive than their creator. A writer does not have to be evil to create evil in a story but a writer must know what evil is in order to create it. Extend that rule to every other passion or situation that a writer has to create. Over and above our attempt to make a fetish of inspiration, it is ‘what we know,’ ‘how we know,’ and ‘what we do’ that makes the difference in every creative process.
The power of one is the power of all. If you cannot create your central/pivotal character/characters well, you cannot create a good community of characters. A domino effect is possible only after a writer has paid attention to detail in the making of the central character and other pivotal characters. All characters will not or may not be handled with the same depth, but they must all have sufficient depth (consistent with their roles) to hold the story together. Every character must have his or her measure of depth.
This is how a writer comes to achieve a great cast of characters in a story.
A community only appeals to us when it makes us connect to its diverse verve and passion: happiness, sadness, love, hate, anger, sympathy, fear, doubt, etc. The more diverse the elements of a community are; the more attention we pay to the community. Diversity appeals to readers. It is important for a story to have the capacity to appeal to its readership.
A writer cannot afford to create a community of characters that evokes indifference in the reader. Never. If a writer cannot achieve anything at all, a writer should make the reader angry. If a writer can make the reader cry or laugh, that is a great feat.
While you make an effort to create an interesting community of characters, do not reduce your piece to sheer affectation. Exhibitionism will make your story a circus. You have to be more subtle than that. Let me wrap my word of caution in two maxims: Be careful with salt and sugar. If you are going to serve your soup to your guest, it not your soup. Price your judgment and make it sound. Go for subtlety and balance.
One more point on the community: connection is important. A community of characters achieves impact on the basis of connection or broken connection. By the way, a broken connection is not the absence of connection. Every reader would love to see how each character fits and functions in the community of a story. Remember: If chicken adds no worth to the dish, do not add chicken for the sake of chicken.
Every element of fiction is tied to the characters in a story. Name them - Plot, Setting, Point of View, Foreshadowing, Motivation, Atmosphere, Tone, Diction, Style, Dialogue, Theme, etc. In fact, it is wrong to treat the elements as separate entities. They are a community. To know one is to know the others. Do not treat them like border posts. Make them work in concert towards the making of a great story.
When God makes a hunchback, we dare to ask Him why. And we shall ask you why you have made your characters in certain patterns. I bet that you will not always be there to answer us, so we shall hold your story accountable.
To save your story from failing the test of taste, please endeavor to be your own first critic. Writer, it is difficult for you to see yourself clearly. That is why you must be deliberate with your self-assessment. Vision and Blindness are important because there is Vision and there is Blindness. If you can detach yourself from the characters you have created ‘in your own image,’ you will see their faults and offer them redemption early enough. Fulfill your God-complex.
1. George Orwell’s Animal Farm was first published in 1945 by Secker and Warburg. It is an allegorical novel (some called it a novella) that satirizes capital and power. The cover to the first edition called the book ‘a fairy story.’
2. Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-wine Drinkard was first published in 1952 by Faber and Faber. The book has been categorized as fantasy. It is written in Pidgin English.
3. Grendel is a monstrous antagonist in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, dated AD 900-1000.
4. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was first published in 1958 by William Heinemann Ltd. It became the trigger for the African Writers Series. It is the most translated African novel.
5. Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge was originally published in 1886. It is arguably the most popular of Hardy’s Wessex novels.