What is a Character? Insights from Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card, Ender's GameThis week I started reading Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card.  After thumbing through it in a Barnes and Noble for twenty minutes, and then later reading reviews on Amazon about it, and then again going back to Barnes and Noble to do more thumbing I finally decided to invest. It looks like a fantastic book that will challenge me to think deeply about the characters I’m creating. I plan to read this book slowly. I want all of Card’s wisdom to seep in deeply.

Chapter 1 contains a quote on the first page that made me excited to be a fiction writer:

“That part of what fiction is for – to give better understanding of human nature and human behavior than anyone can ever get in life.”

The rest of chapter 1 answers the question: What is a character? I didn’t even finish reading the whole chapter before I put the book down and started jotting notes about the protagonists in two stories I’m working on know. Here’s Card’s list from chapter 1, along with some quotes from the book to help explain the idea.

A character is:

  • What he/she does – “People become, in our minds, what we see them do.”
  • Someone with motive – “Motive is what gives moral value to a character’s acts….A character is what he does, ye – but even more, a character is what he means to do.”
  • Someone with a past – “People are what they have done, and what has been done to them.”
  • Someone with a reputation – “Whether his reputation is deserved or not, however, it must be taken into account. Part of a character’s identity is what others say about him.”
  • Someone who is stereotyped by others, and someone who may themselves have stereotypes of others – “As storytellers we can’t stop our readers from making stereotype judgments. In fact, we count on them. … That’s part of the poser of stereotypes – they set up expectations so you can surprise your reader.”
  • Someone who has a network of relationships (i.e. our characters will talk to their spouses differently than they talk to their co-workers, or the cashier at the bank) – “One of the most startling and effective devices in fiction [is] to take characters out of one setting and put them in another, where different facets of their personality come to the fore.”
  • Someone with habits and patterns – “Habits not only make the character more realistic, but also open up story possibilities.”
  • Someone with talents and abilities – “Your readers will also perk up when a fictional character turns out to be unusually good at something.”
  • Someone with tastes and preferences – “Real people have preferences, and so should fictional characters. Not only do such tastes help the reader feel like he knows the character better, they also open up possibilities within the story.”
  • Someone with a unique physical description – “A person’s body is certainly an important part of who he is … [but] … Far too many writers – especially beginners – think that a physical description of a character is characterization.”

Case Study: Rose Miersma

Rose is the main character in a short story I’m working on currently. I call her a “main character” because I’m not sure yet if she’s a hero or a villain and calling her a “protagonist” seems to heroic. I’ve decided to take the above bullet points and try to define each one of them for Rose.

  • What she does – She teaches a Third Grade, homeroom class. She writes with perfect penmanship on the marker board. She cleans her desk before going home each day.
  • Her motive –
  • Her past – Rose was attacked by a man on a date. They met through an online dating service and he forced himself on her. Rose has never been married or part of a long term relationship.
  • Her reputation – She’s known for being an excellent teacher. She’s punctual, friendly, orderly, and seems to enjoy her job. She doesn’t “rock the boat” the way other teachers do and she rarely complains. She has the reputation that many secretaries have – she knows the answer to any question and can get things done that no one else can.
  • She is stereotyped – Because she’s single and dresses conservatively people assume she’s afraid of men, they assume she doesn’t drink or go out with friends on the weekend, they guess her to be the type of person who goes to bed by 9:30 every night, and they assume she lives with 40 cats. Someone looking down on her might call her “uptight” or a “goody two shoes.” She stereotypes single men over thirty. Because that was who her attacker was, she keeps most men over thirty at a distance, as if they too might attack. She assumes at the very least that they must be jerks if they are not married or in a committed relationship.
  • Her network of relationships – Rose has a younger sister, Karen, and a mother; Rose is one of twenty teachers at her elementary school; Rose spends most of her work hours talking to third graders
  • Her habits and patterns – Rose has a habit of straightening the markers on the marker board tray and the pencils on her desk before she leaves the classroom each day. She never leaves dirty napkins or food wrappers on the counter, and she always wears a full set of pajamas when she sleeps, even in the summer.
  • Her talents –
  • Her tastes – Rose enjoys real literature and isn’t afraid of the avant-garde stuff. She likes to eat big salads, especially with Italian dressing. She does not like the taste of beer or mixed drinks. She likes modest clothing in subdued colors. She likes classical music, but only the kind that’s easy to listen recognize, mostly Bach, Beethoven, and movie soundtracks.
  • Her physical appearance – She wears small glasses and has a small nose. Her hair is brown, curly, and cut short. She wears wedge shoes – not high heels, and not trendy flats. She is not overweight and less than six feet tall. Her make-up is in skin tones and very subdued. She wears her grandmother’s gold ring on her right hand.

I’ve never thought this much about Rose before. After reading Card’s chapter, I’m tempted to work through this exercise on every main character I work on. I’m sure that most of these details won’t surface in my short story. However, I’m glad I’ve thought through them. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to write her more easily, and as Card suggests, that more story possibilities will open up to me because of this information.

You’ll notice that I left a few of them blank. That’s because I’m still thinking about them. As I said before, I think Rose might end up being a villain in my story and not a hero. I think she’s about to make a huge mistake…

…but you’ll have to wait until the story is published to know what it is! ;-)

-Andrew

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5 thoughts on “What is a Character? Insights from Orson Scott Card

    1. Andrew Rogers Post author

      Exactly. Unless I’d read this chapter I don’t think I would’ve spent the time thinking through all of these things about her. It’s pretty cool, actually. I plan to do the same type of exercise on a number of other characters I’m writing.

      On an unrelated note: How’s your first book project going? Do you have any copies for sale yet?

      Reply
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