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The Refurbished Character


Jacqueline Lichtenberg

This article was written for the N3F (National Fantasy Fan Federation) but then   published in Companion in Zeor #5, senior editor Karen Litman.  This online version was scanned and OCRd from the typewritten original and then reformatted for the web. Scanned by Ronnie Bob Whitaker,

The Sime~Gen universe was created by Jacqueline Lichtenberg and extended by Jean Lorrah and is now owned by Sime~Gen Inc.. This interview or the S~G setting may not be reused without her explicit permission. This interview copyright 1980, 2000 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg. All rights reserved.

The Re-furbished Character
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

((Written circa 1970 for N3F "Writer's Exchange."))

    Since creative writing is the one field where the ignorant have much to teach the ignorant, I shall essay an essay on how to improve one's fictional characters by re-writing.  This is an especially appropriate assignment for me because I just received my diploma from the Famous Writer's School and I could use a refresher in characterization.  (Obviously, since I haven't sold that all-important second story yet.)  It is also an especially appropriate assignment for me because my first-draft characters are invariably bland stick-figures.

    First, let us review what constitutes a fiction character.  What is the recipe for fiction characters destined for short stories and short novelettes?

    Well, fiction characters are not real people . . . nor do they resemble real people . . . but they must GIVE THE ILLUSION of being real when the reader extracts them from a page of print.  To achieve this, we select ONE DOMINANT TRAIT for our character.  If he is a main character, he may have as many as two more subordinate traits.  In a short story, he may have not more than two subordinate traits.

    Let's take an example.  Consider Howard Morestead.  He'll be our lead character.  That means the RESOLUTION of the plot must derive from some essential (dominant) quality of Howard Morestead.  Let's make Howard ignorant and proud of it.  He despises "book larnin'".  So, having discovered Howard's main trait, we already have a clue about the plot of his story.   If we now decide that our THEME is that "education is worthless" we know that the RESOLUTION of the plot will involve ignorance triumphing over knowledge. 

(I'll admit that's hard to imagine but this is an exercise in imagination, right?  And we're professionals at creating 'those crazy ideas', right??)

    Now, since Howard is a main character, he can have two secondary traits.  Let us say that he is only five feet tall.  Such an extreme deviation from normal height will (in fiction) have psychological effects on the man, so from his physical trait, we learn something of his character.  Also, we learn more of the plot.  It might hinge on something a small man can do that a large man cannot.

    Let us select a third trait for Howard.   He's short, he hates education, and he has a limp . . . his right leg being two inches shorter than his left.

 Already, Howard has progressed from a mere male into someone whom you can see in your mind's eye . . . and from that vision, you can guess something about his CHARACTER.  Therein lies the clue on how to re-write character.

    In order to write a character in first draft, you must know his basic traits.  But you can't choose those traits arbitrarily.   They must be selected with an eye to using them to propel a plot . . . to create CONTRAST within the individual and between individuals . . . and to RESOLVE the plot problem.  Now what you accomplish in re-writing is to actually put on paper those things which you've only visualized.

    Words, being capricious gods, never quite say what you wanted to say.  "Wit of the staircase" or the ubiquitous 'p.s.' is the occupational disease of writers.  So re-write.  And especially be careful to rewrite your characters.

    This means that you must study your own first drafts with an objective eye.  You must find out what your own chronic oversights are.

    Now, my problem is that I never seem to get around to describing my characters in a story.  This stems from my odd personality.   People are, to me, personalities not bodies.  I am unable to recognize people I meet in a store or at a party even if I know them very well.  I have trouble looking at the outsides of people, so when I read a story, I just skip through the descriptions of the characters.  As a result, I just skip through writing the descriptions of my own characters.

    When I re-write, the first thing I look for is the physical descriptions.  How do you write a physical description of a character?   In a short story, you don't catalog height, weight, hair color, eye colour, shape of nose, etc., etc., as you may in a novel.  You must SELECT certain physical traits which are illustrative of the personality trait you've chosen to propel the plot.   The physical traits of fiction characters are not the arbitrarily glued-together patchwork that real people are.  In fiction, short people have complexes about being short.  Tall, robust men are never 'gay'.  Redheads always have freckles, etc., etc.

    That sounds like a recipe for cooking up a wooden stereotype . . . and it is, in the hands of an amateur.  But a professional knows that he's creating a work of art.  Just as an artist uses basic, Euclidean geometry to depict a three-dimensional world in two dimensions, so a writer uses basic traits to depict real people in words.  It's not the material you use, it's how you put it together.  That is the key to sharp characterization.  SELECTIVITY.

    Let's take an example.  Howard Morestead (a fellow I've been making up as we go along.)  We know he's short and has a limp.   A thorough, novel-length characterization of Howard would include, not only how his limp has affected his personality, but also how he got the limp.  A visual description of him designed for a short story would merely state the limp.  But, now we can underline this.  We can say that his clothes all hang askew and he always looks like an unmade bed.  Or, we can say that his wife tailors all his clothes for him and he always looks neat.  If he looks sloppy, he's one kind of person.  If he looks neat, he's another.  Which would you select for this Howard?  I'd say he'd have to be sloppy.

    Now, we can examine how he feels about how he looks.  And all of this from a mere limp!  You begin to see how characterization is at the bottom of the pyramid that is a finished story.  You begin to see why it is so important.

    So, go back over your first draft and select one sentence filled with select words that describe Howard Morestead.  Insert the sentence at the point where you introduce him.  And be sure you slip the physical description in right there, even if it means a delay in the dialog and pure ruination to your carefully contrived transitions.

    If I learned one important working habit from FWS it is the bold confidence that lets me destroy my first draft's purple prose with the blithe confidence that the third re-write will fix it up better than new.  There's no way to learn that except to do it . . . and then do it some more.  "Howard Morestead was a gnarled runt of a man.  At sixty-eight years of age, he
walked with a limp he claimed was from a civil war injury.  His watery eyes were hidden by a permanent squint so you could never tell if he was joking or not.  He looked old enough to have fought in the Civil War!"

    Now, students, go to work and re-write that paragraph until you can construct a whole story outline around it.  Ask yourself, what civil war was he referring to?  Then answer the question for your readers.

    Nobody can teach you how to improve your characters by re-writing because that depends on what you chronically leave out and WHY you leave it out. 

Only you know.  The way to learn to re-write your characters is first to learn how to write them.  When you know what ought to be there, you'll begin to see what's missing.

    For example, let's take Aturo Rose, a character I needed in a Star Trek story I just finished today.  The first draft had him talking like a gray-flannel-suited Wall Street character.  But on a Vulcan-owned, human-crewed commercial passenger liner of the UFP universe, he seemed both colorless and out of place.  I never did do much with his physical description, leaving it go with "dressed in the baggy pants and ballero of the Kiltra'ine Colonies."

    It is a very short story and he is a minor character, so I needed some way to condense his scene and yet spend more words giving him life and color.

 I decided he had an abominable accent and a plucky character that caused him to spurn the universal translator.  Now, I don't like mangling the spelling of words to indicate accent, so I mangled the syntax in such a way that I cut his wordage in half and gave him a very foreign flavor.  In the end, he says, "Good Thank Bye You," and departs.

    That was a very difficult rewriting job, but I think the effect achieved elegant economy.

    You can never tell everything about your characters.  The trick is to select traits which indicate others.  Thus you use the technique of the caricaturist or the Japanese Brush Painter.  Extract one or two traits and exaggerate them, but make very sure that they are well-chosen traits . . . traits which do more than one job in the story.

    One rule to remember when rewriting is that EVERY character, no matter how minor, must be vividly characterized.  The more minor the character, the harder you have to work to SELECT the right trait that will bring him to life and connect him into your story . . . to complete your work of art.

    Approached this way, rewriting is more fun than writing.  You discover more in your material than you realized was there and the delight can boost your spirits and send you chuckling and chortling at your own genius while you putter at mundane drudgery, eager to return to your rewrite desk.

The End?


((PS - April 18, 1978 - It's hard now to believe I ever wrote this in all seriousness, but I did.  It is a STEP in the learning process.  The fact is I still feel like a beginner in characterization, but I couldn't have gotten as far as I have if I hadn't started here . . . eight years ago!! - JL))

((PPS - Feb. 8, 2000 -- Thirty years ago now!  And here I am putting this up on the World Wide Web to be used in the WorldCrafters Guild Writing Workshop.  What will become of it in another 30 years?  The interesting thing is that new writers still need to learn these very same things about characterization.  The article is old, but the material is not. ))

From Companion in Zeor #5


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This Page Was Last Updated by JL   02/08/00 03:04 PM EST (USA)


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