Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

How to Create Characters Who Breathe On The Page by Ava Homa

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How to Create Characters Who Breathe On The Page by Ava Homa

Narrators aren’t always reliable, even when they pretend to be. Characters who narrate the stories may fake sincerity or simply won’t be willing to open up to the reader entirely. In powerful and subtle short stories, readers know characters better than characters know themselves. How?

Fictional characters, like us, people, are not always able to face reality; thus, escape/delusion sometimes becomes a saviour, consciously or unconsciously. The discrepancy between character’s perception of their situation and the intelligent reader’s awareness of the realities of the characters's life, creates Dramatic Irony. This technique adds depth to the story and can make reading a rewarding and thought provoking experience. An example of classic literature is "Miss Brill" by Katherine Mansfield. This older, single lady considers herself a happy person who plays a role in the life of people around her. Readers know she is desperately lonely and others do not pay the slightest attention to her.

In short, characters/narrators in fiction will let you in on how they perceive their lives, their personalities, and their situation. Experienced readers, however, will not believe that presentation entirely and will look for clues in the story that reveal an aspect to the character’s personality that are hidden or denied by the character. This is one reason I believe what makes a great fiction writer is not the ability to write enchanting sentences but the capacity to observe delicacies and complexities of human being and then to show them. Writers who have a deeper understanding of human nature, write profound stories. Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger, Carver maybe not be easy to understand but their works will leave you with the desire to re-read, dig deeper and discover more.

You can create dramatic irony by showing your reader how the character responds to other’s perception of them. The example below is a paragraph of the story of “Fountain,” from the critically acclaimed collection of short stories Echoes from the Other Land.

“[Ali] went to the mirror and combed his hair. Examining himself, he raised a thick black eyebrow, inclined his body to the right and lifted his chin. He was patting his beard when he noticed a drawing above the mirror. It was a cat looking at a mirror, seeing a lion in its reflection. Ali removed it, tore it into pieces and put them in his coat pocket. (Echoes from the Other Land, page 3)

The character of Ali spends a noticeable amount of time before the mirror and enjoys looking at his different poses. This pleasure is shattered when he notices a drawing above the mirror: “a cat looking at a mirror, seeing a lion in its reflection.” Since only Ali and his wife live in the house, readers know Anis, the wife, has put the drawing there. She knows where to put the drawing to be noticed by Ali “above the mirror.” Through this drawing, you can also tell how Ali's wife sees him: “you’re just a cat, not a lion you think you are.”

The paragraph does not end there. “Ali removed it, tore it into pieces.” There is no way he will accept he has delusion of grandeur. How far Ali’s self-perception is from reality? Maybe, he really is a lion and his wife wants to put him down? You should read the rest of the story for yourself and decide. The point is how much you can reveal your character through a few carefully crafted lines.

Happy Characterizing,

Ava Homa

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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