How does the novelist write a believable character, then, someone who lives and breathes on the page? You poke her. You provoke, bedevil, harass, importune, and vex her. You stack the deck against her and see how it plays out, how she reacts to the mischief you set her against. Look at Paul Auster's The Book of Illusions, for example. David Zimmer is real to me because I've seen him at his emotional extremes. We see him mourn the loss of his family in the first pages of the novel. The nature of that mourning reveals character, not only to the reader but, at the early stages of writing, to the writer, too. That mourning meant something to me. I won't pretend to know how Auster goes about his work, but I will argue that killing off a protagonist's family, for instance, and then watching how he handles himself in the face of tragedy is a good first step in developing character. In the early stages of writing, this truth gives the novelist something to build on.
Does David Zimmer go on a rampage, or does he drink half a bottle of whiskey in front of the TV every night until he catches the old silent film that makes him laugh for the first time in months? Write it and find out, even if you're going to toss it later. Find out how your character deals with the big and small challenges in his life in order to discover that entry point into a psyche that might otherwise have remained closed. Crisis provokes reaction, reaction reveals character, character brings you story.
When in doubt, I tell my students, throw another challenge at your people and see what they do. How your characters respond to the torment you put them up against, big and small, lets you into their world, their head, their heart. Is she courageous, pathetic, weary, or wild? When she sees that altercation on the sidewalk across the street, does she cross over to intervene, or does she put her head down and keep walking? Does it prompt her into a memory, inviting a parallel storyline? How she responds to these challenges tells you if you want to spend more time with her.
That's the big picture. If suddenly that stick you're poking her with becomes a pistol that someone points at her as she waits in line at a bank, you've found your story, or at least a crucial part of it. If that pistol becomes an obsessive quest for sex, there's another one. If instead it's the detonation of the atom bomb over Hiroshima, as it was in my novel The Ash Garden, you've got your story. We're looking for action/reaction here. Go with it. You follow her in a situation like that and you've got yourself a story, not just a key to opening her up as a character.
But how do you continue to build and shape a character when he's not directly reacting to those challenges you've put in his way? It can't all be sex and nuclear catastrophe, right? The people in our novels need to enjoy calm seas as well as rough ones. Time away from storyline and theme give the novelist opportunity to add layers to a character. It helps create people who are more than convenient representatives of a certain experience, gender, race, or culture, more than functionaries of theme and story. How do we get this layering?
You give your character opinions, needs, likes, and dislikes; you give him fears, joys, anxieties. Let's call these "personality markers." What are her pastimes, fantasies, hopes, memories, and preoccupations? Be sure that some of these are not connected directly to theme and story. Diversify. That'll avoid creating a character who seems controlled by the needs of her creator, simply a representation of a type. A protagonist might be a lawyer, but certainly not all her waking hours will be spent thinking about the law. These personality markers serve to add surprising and interesting layers to your characters that may indirectly connect to the needs and movement of your story and the themes that compel you. Your guy can be the type who harbours strong opinions about sport, say, though sport has nothing to do with your novel. We all carry contradictions and trivialities within us, and not everything has to line up perfectly in a character's profile. In fact, I'd say the jagged edge of paradox and contradiction brings a character closer to the truth of what it is to be human. That's why the essentially kind and generous protagonist and narrator of my new novel is capable of violence, jealousy, and fear. He's not consistent. He's not a type. He's like all of us—a pretty decent sort who's not so sure what he'll do when his wife walks out on him, or when his brother uses him to sleep with the daughter of a long-lost girlfriend. And that's how I found him, and this is how I made him who he is. By taking the love in his life and smashing it before his very eyes.
Dennis Bock's new novel, Going Home Again, is published by Knopf. It appears in August.