Think about your favorite character in literature or on television. What attracts you to him or her? What makes you want that person to succeed? Meeting characters on page and screen mimics meeting people in real life: first impressions matter. Writers must give us a reason to engage with their main characters, and they must do so before we decide to put down the book or change the channel. They accomplish this best, not by dishing out biographical information, but by allowing us to see the character in the midst of life. They show instead of tell. Good writers give us the motivation to invest our time and attention to see where their characters end up.
Tracy Higley’s newest release, Garden of Madness, reveals the essence of her main character the moment we open the book. We aren’t told of her strengths or struggles; we get to see them play out on the page. Tiamat, daughter of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, is introduced to us as she runs along the top of the city’s walls. We witness her physical strength and stamina and can sense the restlessness that propels her into the night. We find that neither the derision of the tower guards nor the disapproval of her mother prevents her from escaping the bonds of convention. We learn she chafed at the restraints of her arranged marriage, and we sympathize with her quiet relief at being released from her obligation. From Tiamat’s own thoughts, we learn of her desire to be free and her longing for affection. Within the construct of the first chapter, Higley reveals both the internal and external conflict and introduces us to a character that we want to get to know better.
Hart Hanson, writer for the television series Bones gives us an equally insightful glimpse into forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan. Within the first fifteen minutes of the pilot episode, we see her aggressive response to a perceived threat, her confidence in challenging authority, and her diligence in examining human remains from a crime scene. No one has to explain what kind of woman Dr. Brennan is. We witness it for ourselves, and because we admire what we see, we keep watching.
Introducing characters through their own actions, interactions, and thoughts is known as indirect characterization, and it captures our attention because it lends authenticity to the story. We don’t feel like we’re reading a dossier on the characters; we get to know them in context. Good fiction imitates life. That’s why we always come back for more.
Who is your favorite fictional character? Why? Share with me in the comment section. I’d love to hear from you.