In Character

What about the characters who spend their lives within the pages of your story?

photography of children story book by Rafael P...

Where do these characters go when the bookmark is placed, the cover shut, the book restored to its proper place on the shelf in, or even haphazardly, absent-mindedly?

Do characters sleep between readings, or enter some sort of foggy limbo from which they can only be rescued when someone takes the book down from the shelf, flips through the first pages and begins to read… chapter one, paragraph three hundred, the next to last sentence? For example…

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

Perhaps one of the best known opening phrases[1] of all time, but if you listen carefully to these wonderful words, you can hear the characters rustling between the pages not yet read, taking that last look in the mirror, straightening ties and hats, smoothing wrinkles and readying themselves for their entrances.

There is an excitement; the attentive reader can see it as the words leap out in sharp focus, he can hear if he tilts his head just so, and he can taste that subtle tang in the air.

The sensitive reader knows it’s not just his own anticipation of a good story, but that of the characters he will meet when he advances through the scenes.

Some of the characters will laugh, some cry, some remain stiff and unmoved by the behaviour of the others. Indeed, the plot goes nowhere if they do not — the characters understand and embrace the weight of that responsibility, where goes the characters, goes the plot.

But…

When the book is closed, do the characters take their laughter and tears with them, or do they simply remove their costumes and makeup and go off to meet friends for dinner and conversation, abandoning the stage set on the page until tomorrow?

Only by close reading can a reader answer that query. Only an author who has mingled with his characters, heard their demands, allowed for, perhaps written whole new scenes can answer that.

And of course, neither is telling. They have a pact with the characters to remain silent as they hand the book over to the next read, a quick and cryptic promise, ‘you’ll love it.’

An interesting question, something I have pondered but have not written about before. Or, if I have, I have forgotten.

One thing I do know for sure, characters live.

When I read they draw me into their circles and share themselves, their worldviews, their visions with me. And, when I write, they motion me over, sling an arm over my shoulder and confide, or suggest or lead. At least, if I am paying attention, that is what they do.

Sometimes it doesn’t happen right away; in fact, if I am being honest, it takes a large chunk of words and feeling around for the flow of the story before the first character — and not always the main character — to abandon his or her timidity and approach me.


  1. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities  ↩
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