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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Learning to Write XXII

There is still more to be said about character. There is always more to be said about it. In the last couple of posts we have looked briefly at some aspects of character and how these are brought about. We touched on caricature and on how some figures in a narrative are merely there to illustrate a trait or to forward the action.

These are decisions which any writer has to make at the outset of a piece of fiction. What is it you want to achieve: will your character be someone who can take the fiction forward, or do you wish to illuminate a soul?

But it is also important to understand that character does not stand alone. When we speak about character in day-to-day life we refer to it in relation to circumstances. And it is exactly the same in fiction. The particular set of circumstances and the character with whom we are dealing interact together, producing a range of possible outcomes.

This is one of the main ways that character helps introduce tension into a narrative. Any character in any circumstance may remain unaltered. That is one possibility. Another is that the character and the circumstance may affect each other but with the character ultimately in control. Or your character may look as though he or she has mastered the circumstances only to be overcome or destroyed by them in the end.

These last two are most often presented in a fictional narrative, but they are by no means the only possibilities. A character can also be forged from conditions of struggle, become what he is by battling against odds that he can never alter. And then there is the character who is resigned to fate. Someone who is pistol-whipped by life and circumstance and who makes no real effort against them, the often infuriating but nevertheless complex, passive character.

Although the individual is always the real centre of importance, it is his circumstances that matter or fail to matter as they unfold and affect his character or prove to us the impossibility of his being affected.

Next time we can look at these differing characters and the kinds of circumstances that may weave around them in greater detail. In the meantime it would perhaps be instructive to reflect on your current reading and try to discover which kind of characters and circumstances the writer has given you.

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