Last week I promised a bit on what goes on in the most engrossing of books, and I think I’d like to tackle characterization first. If you’ve read Anna Karenina or Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, what do you remember the most? Probably Anna’s difficult affair with Count Vronsky in Tolstoy’s epic work, and in Tartt’s, it would be Theo Decker and his sleazy pal, Boris, right? But what of the laundry list of other, probably less memorable characters?
Think of your book’s primary characters the way a painter would approach an art project (since we’re talking about The Goldfinch anyway). How does a painter accentuate the most prominent aspects of an art piece? Google Titian’s Diana and Callisto, for example, for a more expanded view of the above art piece. Every picture tells a story, and Titian drew from Roman Mythology in this one, Diana discovering that her maid Callisto has become pregnant by Jupiter.
Notice what Titian does with this? Diana is the prominent one, more nearly facing the viewer, and one of four who are presented with the most light. Callisto is to the left, in the shadows of others presenting the maid to Diana. Notice how the others are turned to the side, or are darkened in contrast to Diana?
This is what the writer does with his/her characters. The protagonist – and perhaps the antagonist – are more visibly “naked.” That is, their physical traits, their inner selves, and their presence in the context of the story, are the most prominent, i.e., you know the most about these characters. Notice in the Titian painting how the others are depicted less vividly, perhaps left darker in the reader’s mind? Their presence is to support or accentuate Diana or Callisto.
Also notice how Titian has positioned and posed his figures to evoke emotion from the viewer? This is also the purpose of supporting characters in a story: these characters are usually the ones who create the conflict that your protagonist must work through. They’re not presented vividly; they only exist – through their looks, attitudes, or actions – as catalysts to drive the story or to create more vividly the protagonist or antagonist.
So think of your book’s characters as having been built in layers – of description, of conflict, of conflict. I think as this sinks in, you’ll want to re-read your favorite books – and you’ll get more out of them. As a writer, you’ll understand better the mechanics you’re putting into play in your stories.