E.M. Forster said we can divide characters into two categories: flat and round. How can a writer ensure their characters are round?
Forster said that a round character is one who is capable of surprise: I think that’s a very insightful statement. One trick is to see a round character as someone who is being subjected to some kind of test, some kind of ordeal, and that as they undergo it, they learn something about themselves, as does the reader. If the character always responds predictably, it can be hard to maintain the reader’s interest. Also, looking at the notion of round from a perspective that’s internal to character, it can be useful for the character to have some kind of complexity to their personality, a set of conflicting traits that makes them vivid and compelling. But there are all kinds of strategies.
Can you name some authors who are experts at creating authentic characters?
Jane Austen is hard to beat. Closer to home (and the 21st century!), WA author Joan London is terrific. Her novel The Golden Age is a great character study.
How important is it for characters to be relatable to the reader?
It’s very important, but it’s not the only aspect to keeping the reader interested. Strong storylines, compelling situations, interpersonal conflicts that give us insight into human nature: all these things are just as important as relatability. In fact, all the elements are intertwined; story animates characters, and character animates story: they’re the two sides of a single piece of paper. That said, any writer wants the reader to enter into the emotional world of their characters, to have the reader walk in their shoes for a while. One of the things stories do, perhaps better than any other form of writing, is create spaces for empathy and understanding.
With over 20 years’ teaching experience, Dr Anthony Macris is one of Australia’s leading teachers of creative writing. He has taught creative writing at Johns Hopkins University (USA), and as a faculty member at two of Australia’s best creative writing programs, the University of Wollongong, and currently the University of Technology, Sydney, where he is Associate Professor of Writing. His memoir When Horse Became Saw: A family’s journey through autism (Penguin 2011), was shortlisted for the Age Book of the Year and the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. His latest book is Inexperience & Other Stories.
Join Anthony Macris for his workshop, Creating Dynamic Characters on Saturday 23 November, 10am-4pm, at Writing NSW.