A wisp of tarragon grows from a small pot in my windowsill, a gentle summer monk on a cold winter path to enlightenment. Or maybe not. Maybe, a frail twig of indoor tarragon dreams that one day it might be a hardy spear outside rooted in real dirt. How about — the emergence of tarragon in winter was unexpected as a pregnancy at age 50. Even — the tarragon leaned like a colt on spindly legs toward the window, seeking sunnier pastures.
What am I doing here, you might be pondering? I’m characterizing the upstart of growth in my kitchen herb box, surprised by the frail determination of tarragon I thought dormant. You see, this term of my MFA focuses on character development. Not only do I get to be Dr. Frankenstein to Danni Gordon, but I’m also tasked to bring life to her novel-mates. Thus, I’m practicing on a personified herb.
Character traits come in two forms — external and internal. Which do you dive into first? For me, character development is internal, considering who the character is and why. How did they get to be that way? What personality traits do I use to share the sense of this person with a reader? External traits help, and some are necessary if it matters to the story or character’s growth.
Take gender, for example. It’s an important external trait, typically. We want to know if Harry Potter is a boy or girl. Little Women would be silly if the characters turned out to be male (or perhaps profound with a deliberate framing). I recently read The Whale in the Wolf by Jordanna Max Brodsky. It’s the story of Omat, a small clan’s next shaman. The character is born to a young widow following a tragic accident on the ice that claimed all the young hunters (there were four, which conveys how small and vulnerable this group of people are). The baby is limp, the mother has expired, and the midwife abandons the newborn to the elements. The next day, a wolf appears over the baby who has survived the night, heralding the child as the new guide to a people whose hunting skills also rely on pleasing the spirits.
As a reader, we follow the child’s upbringing through his own story. We know he is small, has two freckles on his cheek from his mother’s final tears at birth, and is male. Omat was the name of his uncle. It’s believed that the spirit of the wolf and Omat reside in this young apprentice to the spirit realm. Those are the external traits. Internally, we learn that Omat is fiercely loyal to his family, determined to succeed as a shaman and a hunter, learning at every chance. A serious and studious person. He recognizes the jealousy of his older brother, who is bigger and stronger but envies Omat’s abilities. As characters, they are a striking contrast in personality. This deepens our understanding of who the Inuit are — individuals, and yet dependant upon group dynamics for survival.
Internal characteristics enrichen a story. They are the traits we can slip into. When we feel like Harry Potter or Omat, we don’t become boys. Instead, we become the personalities having experiences we relate to through the characters. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what shade of green a character’s eyes; it matters that we can see through her eyes and experience a new culture, past event, or future predicament. Internal traits embody the emotion of a novel, which is where character growth resides. Note: character growth is not a mandate, but it is an element crucial to some genres. For example, both characters must grow in romance to experience the happily ever after (or good enough for now) ending. Contemporary character-driven novels often hang a satisfying conclusion upon that growth.
Yet external traits come into play with that growth (or character arc), too. Those freckles, dark hair and coloring, and size add up to Omat’s unattractiveness to a blond, strapping Viking he’s rescued when later trying to find his brother. Brodsky manages to develop a natural unfolding of two people from different cultures through a process of friendship. Both find their external traits initially repulsive, but as they become friends and build trust to survive the harsh climate and rescue of Omat’s brother. In a way, this phenomenon shows that looks matter less than intention and action.
What is surprising is that one physical trait becomes the cornerstone of character growth for Omat. He was actually born a female biologically. The reader learns of this early on and comes to understand that Inuit have three genders because of their belief in ancestor souls returning to the newborn of their clan. It’s a complicated system where one’s son might also be a grandfather. And, in the case of Omat, the male spirit inhabited the baby girl. The book is Omat’s identity struggle physically, spiritually, and between cultures. It’s intricately written and well-plotted to be concerned for Omat on many levels.
According to one of my professors and the books I’m currently plowing through, every character has a core trait. For example, Omat’s concern for clan survival formed the core of a person who learned to accept both a woman’s body and a male spirit. Every plot point that emerged, Omat responded from failure or success to integrate self with survival. Another way to look at core personality is to examine psychology or personality tests. I once did numerology on the birthdates for the historical characters in Rock Creek and gained valuable insight.
Do you have to go take the Meyers Briggs for your character as I did for Danni Gordon? No. But you do need to have a core internal trait that guides your character’s actions and growth. As authors, we run the risk of developing characters who are flat, false, or familiar (to ourselves). If you want as deep of a dive as I’m currently submerged in, here are some reading materials:
- Plot Versus Character by Jeff Gerke
- Please Understand Me II by David Keirsey (recommended by Jeff Gerke)
- The Psychology Workbook for Writers by Darian Smith (I’d buy one from Anne Goodwin)
- Writer’s Guide to Characterization by Victoria Lynn Schmidt (and yes, it includes the Hero’s Journey)
I’m also reading Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and recognizing why this book won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It’s a portrait of one woman’s life through the multiple perspectives of those who know her. It spans numerous decades but is not linear, with each chapter reading like a short story from different periods of her life. Some chapters aren’t even about her but have something to reveal who she is. It’s a remarkable contemporary novel and has saved me from the despair after having clawed my way through Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies.
It’s important to read as a writer.
Read your genre. Read yesterday’s classics and today’s big prize winners. Read independents and small presses. Read what you like and define why. Study what succeeds even if you are not the target reader. Build your apprenticeship that not only takes you where you want to go but also gives you a fabulous journey along the way. Write daily. Plot fairy tales in the shower for practice. Talk about what you read or wrote and why either moved you.
Like a single sprig of tarragon, we grow our gardens from the faintest ideas to the strongest cores.
With winter piled upon the Keweenaw and garden season far away, I wondered what it must like to be a mail carrier in extreme conditions or unusual locations. How does the character’s core trait interact with such environments? What conditions can happen on the job to create a conflict, tension, or a plot twist?
January 30, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a postal carrier in an extreme situation. Even if you base your story on a true one, focus on the core trait of this postal carrier. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by February 4, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Submissions closed. Find our latest Flash Fiction Challenge.
Tough-Minded to the Core by Charli Mills
Poking at her glass eye with a felted mitten, Frankie yelled over the storm, “Ain’t no use, Burt. Can’t get through this detestable blizzard.”
Burt relied on her to find shelter. With one eye, she followed flagged Ponderosa pines back to the ridge where she stored supplies in a cavern. “This is why we scouted last summer, Burt.”
Prepared to ride out the storm, Frankie secured the US mailsack, unsaddled Burt, and cleaned her glass eye while beans bubbled in a tin over a crackling fire. Burt nickered for more oats. Just another day delivering mail to mining camps.