It is the tritest sort of a truism to say that the characters in a story are important, for stories are stories only in so far as they reflect life, and life is impossible without human actors. It is the hopes and fears, the joys and sorrows, the sins and moral victories of men that interest us. We men are a conceited lot, and find nothing of interest except as it relates to us. Thus in the most ingenious stories, where some marvelous invention or discovery is introduced, the interest centers, not in the wondrous things themselves, but in their influence on the people of the story; and in the few stories where a beast or a thing plays the hero, it is always given human attributes.
Fictitious characters, like the plots that they develop, are based primarily on fact, and they further resemble the plots in being different phases of a primal idea, rather than intrinsically diverse. We find many characters in fiction—Miss Wilkins' stories are full of them—which are evidently meant to be realistic, and which impress us as word photographs of existing persons; yet it is improbable that they are exact reproductions. A real person ordinarily has too much of the commonplace and conventional about him to serve in fiction, where—despite the apparent paradox—a character must be exaggerated to appear natural. A person in fiction is at the best but a blur of hieroglyphics on a sheet of paper, and can be comprehended only through the mentality of the author; therefore his description, his actions, his words, his very thoughts must be made so unnaturally striking that through the sense of sight alone they will stimulate the imagination and produce the effect which actual contact with the real person would induce. The character which seems most real is usually a composite of the most striking characteristics of several real persons. To this source of fictitious characters is due the fact that a literary puppet is often thought to be the reproduction of several very different real persons; for the reader, recognizing a particular trait which is characteristic of some one of his acquaintance, thinks that he recognizes the character.
"While the popular idea that every creature of the novelist's imagination has a definite original somewhere among his acquaintances is, of course, egregiously false, it has yet this much of truth, that they are, to a large extent, suggestions from life. Not one person, but half a dozen, often sit as models for the same picture, while the details are filled out by the writer's imagination. There are few people in real life sufficiently interesting or uncommonplace to suit the novelist's purpose, but he must idealize or intensify them before they are fit subjects for art. Dickens intensified to the verge of the impossible, yet we never feel that Dick Swiveller and Sam Weller and Mr. Micawber, and the rest of them, are unnatural; they are only, if I may coin the word, 'hypernatural.' It is the business of art to idealize. Even at its best art is so inferior to nature, that in order to produce the same impression it has to intensify its effects; to deepen the colors, heighten the contrasts, omit an object here, exaggerate an outline there, and so on, until it has produced the proper picturesque effect."
A careful description of the appearance of the characters may be necessary to the understanding of the story, as in Irving's perfect picture of Ichabod Crane in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"; but in our model the people are rather typical than individual, and Hawthorne devotes but little space to their external characteristics. A word or a phrase suffices to tell us all that is necessary to enable our minds to body them forth. Even the hero is outwardly distinguished only by a melancholy expression—a slight of which no school-girl "authoress" would have been guilty. It is more often necessary to give the mental characteristics of the puppets, and in "The Ambitious Guest" we have a deal of such detail concerning the young stranger; but here, too, you must exercise forbearance, as Hawthorne did in his partial analysis of the other characters.
It is by no means essential that the personages of a short story be attractive in person or in character. The taste of readers used to be so artificial that no romancer would have dared to present a heroine who was not perfect in face and figure, or a hero who was not an Apollo for manly beauty; but in these more practical days we have substituted good deeds for good looks and have made our characters more human—our men more manly and our women more womanly; and we exalt them now for heroic acts, rather than heroic mould.
A mistake which it seems hard for the novice to avoid is that of telling everything possible about a character and leaving nothing to the imagination of the reader. This exhaustive method leads to a multiplicity of detail which verges on baldness, and which is very apt to contain considerable irrelevant matter; the details are usually arranged with little regard for their true value; and the intended description becomes a mere catalogue of personal charms. For example, in these three descriptions, detailed though they are, there is nothing to distinguish the particular person described from the scores of other people possessing the same general traits:
He was a tall, deep-chested, broad-shouldered man, having a light complexion, dark moustache, hair and eyes.
We will take a look at our heroine, as she sits lazily rocking, the sunshine touching her hair. She is of medium height, with black hair and eyes and a winning smile that makes friends for her everywhere.
Lura was yet but a slight school girl; she was now fifteen and equally as large as Grace. She looked very beautiful as she came out to meet Grace and Mrs. Morton, on their return from the village. Her dark brown hair had been carefully combed back, but the short locks had fallen and formed in ringlets about the snowy neck and face. Her large gray eyes were bright. Her full curved lips were red, and in laughing and talking revealed two rows of small, even, pearly white teeth. Her cheeks were round and well formed; although at the present time they bore no marks of roses, they were generally rosy. The gray eyes, by the changing of the expression, often became almost black and greatly completed her beauty.
Clever character depiction consists in selecting and presenting only those salient details which will serve to body forth rather a vague image, which shall yet possess a definite personality, to which the reader may give such distinctness as his imagination may impart to the hints offered. It is in a manner building a complete character upon a single characteristic, after the familiar method of Dickens. It is this impressionistic method which is most used by masters to picture those characters which seem to us real persons.
In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Irving thus describes the hero (?), Ichabod Crane, and the heroine, Katrina Van Tassel:
The cognomen of Crane was not inapplicable to his person. He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at the top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock, perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.
She was a blooming lass of fresh eighteen, plump as a partridge, ripe and melting and rosy-cheeked as one of her father's peaches, and universally famed, not merely for her beauty, but her vast expectations. She was withal a little of a coquette, as might be perceived even in her dress, which was a mixture of ancient and foreign fashions, as most suited to set off her charms. She wore the ornaments of pure yellow gold which her great-great-grandmother had brought over from Saardam, the tempting stomacher of the olden time, and withal a provokingly short petticoat to display the prettiest foot and ankle in the country round.
Here are Hawthorne's pictures of Beatrice and her father in "Rappaccini's Daughter":
On again beholding Beatrice the young man was even startled to perceive how much her beauty exceeded his recollection of it—so brilliant, so vivid in its character, that she glowed amid the sunlight, and, as Giovanni whispered to himself, positively illuminated the more shadowy intervals of the garden path. Her face being now more revealed than on the former occasion, he was struck by its expression of simplicity and sweetness—qualities that had not entered into his idea of her character, and which made him ask anew what manner of mortal she might be. Nor did he fail again to observe or imagine an analogy between the beautiful girl and the gorgeous shrub that hung its gem-like flowers over the fountain—a resemblance which Beatrice seemed to have indulged a fantastic humor in heightening both by the arrangement of her dress and the selection of its hues.
His figure soon emerged into view, and showed itself to be that of no common laborer, but a tall, emaciated, sallow and sickly-looking man dressed in a scholar's garb of black. He was beyond the middle term of life, with gray hair, and a thin gray beard and a face singularly marked with intellect and cultivation, but which could never, even in his more youthful days, have expressed much warmth of heart.
And this is the way Dickens sets forth Scrooge, the old miser, in "A Christmas Carol":
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.
There is very little of the catalogue style of description here; indeed, the characters can hardly be said to be described: the author gives rather the sensations which they produced on observers and so excites similar sensations in the mind of the reader.
When once introduced the characters should be allowed to work out their identities with the least possible interference from the author. Their characteristics must not be listed like invoices of goods: they must themselves display the psychological powers with which they were endowed by their creator. Their speeches and actions must seem the results of mental processes, and must appear natural, if not logical; indeed, it is an open question if they can be both at once, for there are few people who are always logical. One good method of presenting the characteristics of a fictitious personage is to indulge in a bit of mind reading, and give his thoughts as he thinks them; another and better way is to show the man actuated by his dominant mental qualities. In "The Cask of Amontillado" Poe builds a whole story on an elaboration of the latter method, and presents the picture of a man temporarily mastered by the spirit of revenge. It is only by thus allowing the characters to work out their own destinies that you can make them real; otherwise they will appear as mere painted puppets, without life or volition.
On account of the technical limitations of the short story the number of characters which may have principal or "speaking" parts is very small—in general only two, and frequently but one. There are usually other characters present to help out the action, but they are merely supernumeraries, without form, life or influence. There are many violations of this rule, I admit, among them such stories as Hawthorne's "The Great Stone Face," "The Seven Vagabonds," and "The Great Carbuncle;" but analysis shows them to be panoramic or episodic in effect, and really violating the unity of action which the short story demands. For similar reasons the characters presented must be unnaturally isolated, with little past and less future, and most strangely lacking in relatives; for the few thousand words of the short story permit but a cursory treatment of the ancestry, birth, breeding and family of the one or two important characters. If by any trick they can be made the last of a long line, and be snatched from obscurity into the momentary glare of the lime light, so much the better for author, reader and character; but if some portion of their history bears upon the story, let it be presented by subtle touches, preferably by references in the dialogue, so that the reader obtains the necessary knowledge without being conscious of the means.
The few real characters in the story must be made unusually interesting on account of their loneliness. They compose the story, they represent the human race, and if they fail us we are in sad straits. They must be individual; they must stand out sharply from the page, clear and attractive, and leave no doubt of their personalities. More than any other form of fiction, the short story depends upon its hero and heroine, who have "star parts" and monopolize the stage of action. We must see them so vividly that when they speak and act we shall perceive them as actual personages. It is such accuracy of depiction that makes Rip Van Winkle, Sherlock Holmes, Van Bibber, and a host of others enter into our thoughts and speech as if they had really lived.
The names with which we label these dolls may be of importance. In these days names have little significance, yet we still feel that a name from its very sound may be appropriate or otherwise, and no careful writer would give to his characters appellations selected at random. Names are frequently used to good advantage as aids to character depiction or to enhance humorous effects, as in the case of Hawthorne's Feathertop and Monsieur du Miroir, and Irving's Ichabod Crane, and in many other instances familiar to readers of Dickens.
"Dickens's names are marvelously apt, as we see from the passing into common phrase of so many of them. Not a few have become synonyms for the kind of character to which they were attached.... If a name is to hint at character it should do so in the subtlest manner possible—in a manner so subtle as to escape all but the quickwitted, who will forgive the inartistic method in their pride at being so clever as to detect the writer's intention.... In these days, when craftsmanship is cared for and looked for more than ever, ... novelists must sacrifice nothing that will lend a trick of reality to their imaginings. If they take any pains to select names for their characters they should hit upon such as will be seen to suit them when their books have been read (like Sir Willoughby Patterne or Gabriel Oak); names that attempt with clumsy impertinence to give a clew to character at the outset are best left to the inept amateur of letters who has not wit enough to dispense with such aid.
"To be avoided, also, are out-of-the-way names that may have living owners in the real world. No John Smith or Tom Jones can complain if writers christen their characters after them; but if a man owns a peculiar name he dislikes having it borrowed and attached to some figure in fiction whose proceedings very likely do it little credit.... Every writer must know the satisfaction that comes when an 'exquisitely right' name is hit upon. But it is just as well to take reasonable precautions to avoid indignant protests such as that which Hawthorne drew upon himself" for his use of the name Judge Pyncheon in "The House of the Seven Gables."
The dramatic trend of the short story is responsible for its tendency to advance action by speech. Good short stories have been written and will be written which contain little or no dialogue; they succeed through vividness of plot, skill in character depiction, ingenuity of construction, or some such quality; but they would be more interesting and more natural if they held more conversation. A short story should be full of talk of the proper kind; there are few people who preserve silence at all times, and in the exciting moments which a short story usually presents, most persons would find tongue to voice their teeming thoughts. Speech adds naturalness and vividness to the actors, it lends them a personal interest, it gives insight into character, and it aids the development of the plot.
This is a modern tendency, for the stories of Kipling, Stevenson, Wilkins, Davis and Doyle contain much more of the conversational element than those of Poe, Hawthorne or Irving. Where the latter would present a mental struggle or a crisis by some paragraphs of description, the former express it in the short exciting words of the actors themselves; even soliloquies and asides and other of the most mechanical devices of the drama are forced into the service of the short story, to replace the long explanatory passages such as were used by Irving. It has been predicted that in the short story of the future the characters will be briefly introduced and then will be allowed to speak for themselves; if this prophecy comes true we shall have stories similar to Hope's "The Dolly Dialogues," or Howells' little dramas, where there is almost no comment by the author. It is more probable, though, that there is something of a "fad" in the present liking for pure dialogue, and that the short story will never attain the absolute purity of the drama.
If these fictitious personages are to talk, however, they must talk naturally and interestingly—and "there's the rub!" As in real life a man often shows himself to be a fool when he begins to talk, so in fiction a character frequently proves to be but a poor puppet of straw when he opens his mouth. The only way to make your characters talk naturally is to imitate the speech of the persons whom they in some degree represent. People in general do not talk by book: they use colloquial language, full of poor grammar, slang, and syncopated words; and their sentences are neither always logical nor complete. In reproducing this, however, you must "edit" it a little, using your own judgment as to which are the characteristic idioms; for the speech of the people in books is admittedly a little better than in real life—except in dialect stories, where it is usually worse; and you must avoid equally the heavy rhetorical style of the extreme romantic school, and the inane commonplaces of the radical realists.
Conversation like the following is commonly termed "bookish"; it is painfully correct and laboriously profound—but it is not natural. If it were meant for a burlesque upon polite and "cultured" society it would be exquisite, but it is the manner in which the writer believes people really talk, though it is easy to guess that he himself is far from such absurd affectations in his familiar speech.
"By way of preliminary, I have to say that my name is Athlee—Felix Athlee, and yours is Miss India Lemare. I've seen you before."
"In the flesh, I hope," she answered.
"Yes, I like you better that way, though you now wear the expression of one older in years and experience. Wherefore, may I ask?"
"Shadows fall on the young as well as the old. One is fortunate, indeed, to keep always in the sunshine."
"And flit like the butterfly, without volition or effort? Human appointments are different. Work is the inevitable, and with the proper tools, it is pleasant enough."
"They must, long ago, have rusted, for the want of use."
"No, we have simply to consider our specialty and we find them ready at hand. Have you done so?"
"I am dazed, and my brain works capriciously."
"Except in the interest of your desires. What are they?"
"Wealth for independence, leisure for indulgence, and fame, the outcome of talent."
His luminous eyes looked out over the water, as he said: "The universal hunt of mankind is for happiness, and he searches for it in as many ways as there are peculiarities of disposition. Does he ever really find it? Many weary hearts are covered with the soft down of wealth. Mischief lurks in indulgence, and fame dazzles but to elude. It is wiser to accept what the gods give, and use the gifts for the betterment of others as well as ourselves."
"Meaningless words, when one is at enmity with the gods for withholding. What fine spun theories we mortals have!"
To the listener every conversation contains a deal of commonplace: it may be that the speakers really have nothing interesting to say, and it may be that their conversation is so personal as to interest themselves only. The reader occupies the position of a listener, and it is the duty of the author to suppress all commonplace dialogue, unless, as sometimes happens, it assists in plot or character development. Conversation like the following is—let us hope—interesting to the parties concerned, but the reader would be delivered from it as from a plague.
"I am so glad to get one desire of my heart."
"And that is?" said Al.
"So glad that is all. I thought you had spied my new tie and was planning some 'crazy design' upon it."
"Oh, let me see! Now, really, that is becoming to your style, but I think it would suit mine better. 'Brown eyes and black hair should never wear blue—that is for grey eyes, the tried and true.' See?"
"Neither the eyes nor the tie," said Al, as he turned his back and looked up at the ceiling.
The real difficulty with this dialogue is that the writer attempted to make his characters "smart" and so permitted them to indulge in repartee; but as they were only commonplace people the privilege was too much for them and they merely twaddled. They did succeed in being humorous, but the humor is unconscious.
Yet unconscious humor is preferable to the forced and desperate attempt at fun-making which we have in this extract:
"I don't believe he is proud," said Joe to Tom, his younger brother. "But you know he has been to the Holy Land and cannot now associate with such wicked sinners as we are. Or else he has turned Jew and thinks we are Samaritans."
"You two are getting no better fast," said the doctor, after a hearty laugh. "Wait until you get sick, I'll give you a pill that will make you repent."
"We are never going to get sick," said Joe, "but expect to live until we are so old that we will dry up and blow away with the wind, or go to heaven in a 'Chariot of Fire.'" Turning to the doctor Joe continued: "You know Will has a girl, and he is awful pious. If one looks off his book in church, even to wink at his best girl, he thinks it an awful sin. And that the guilty one should be dipped in holy water, or do penitence for a week."
It is a common trick for the novice to put into the mouths of his characters just such stale jokes and cheap jests, with the idea that he is doing something extremely funny. He is, but his audience is laughing at him, not at his characters.
But most exasperating of all is the author who, while making his characters suffer the most dreadful afflictions, lets them think and talk only commonplaces still, like the poor sawdust dolls that they are:
"What is the matter with you, Annie?" I said one day, about five months after she had come home....
"You will know some time, Cicely," she answered....
"Why can't you tell me now?" I asked.
"You will know soon enough," she answered. "By the by," she went on, "I am going to Mr. Denham's to-morrow."
"No, I am going with Cousin Ivan."
"When will you be back?" I asked, for Mr. Denham lived twenty miles away.
"I don't know," she answered sadly.
The next morning I went over to see Annie off. I had been there but a few minutes when her cousin, Ivan Carleon, came. He was about six feet high, with dark, brown eyes, and black hair and moustache. He was a quiet man and I liked him. When they got ready to start, Annie came and kissed me.
"I am ready now, Ivan." And then he helped her into the buggy, and they drove off.
Two days afterwards, as I was sitting under the shade of a tree, where Annie and I had played when we were small, Miss Jones, an old school fellow, came along.
"Have you heard the news?" she asked, before she had got up to me.
"Why, Ivan Carleon has killed Annie."
"Explain yourself, Daisy," I answered anxiously.
"Well," she said, "we ain't sure Ivan killed her; but every one thinks so. You know that big gate, about a mile this side of Mr. Denham's? Well, day before yesterday Ivan came running up to Mr. Denham, and said that Annie had shot herself, down at the big gate. They all went down and found Annie stone dead. A note in her pocket merely stated that she was tired of life. But every one thinks Ivan killed her, and that he wrote the note himself. I hope Ivan didn't do it," she said, as she started off, "for I liked him."
The evening of the third day, as I was sitting under the same tree, I was startled to feel a hand on my shoulder. Looking up, I saw Ivan Carleon standing by my side. I gave a low cry, and shrank from him. He turned pale to his lips.
"Surely you don't think I murdered her?" he said.
"I don't know what to think," I answered, bursting into tears.
"Sit down and tell me all about it," I continued, moving for him on the bench.
He sat down beside me; and laid his head in his hands.
Imagine, if you can, the bearer of terrible news who would unburden herself with as little excitement as Miss Jones exhibits; or a real girl who, on hearing of the tragic death of her bosom friend, would be merely "anxious" and bid her informant "Explain yourself!" The author of this could not have had the slightest conception of the tragedy which he had created, or even his poor lifeless puppets must have been galvanized into some show of real feeling.
It is neither necessary nor desirable that you should report every conversation at length, even though it bear upon the story. Do not reproduce long conversations simply to say something or to air your views on current topics. It is just as much a fault to introduce useless chatter as it is to fill page after page with descriptions of unused places. If the hero and the heroine, by a brief bright conversation, can put the reader in possession of the facts concerning the course of their true love, they should be given free speech; but if they show a tendency to moralize or prose or talk an "infinite deal of nothing," shut them up and give the gist of their dialogue in a few succinct sentences of your own. Note how in ¶ 10, 11 Hawthorne has condensed the conversation which doubtless occurred at the supper table, and has given us the salient points without the commonplaces that it must have contained:
He was of a proud yet gentle spirit, haughty and reserved among the rich and great, but ever ready to stoop his head to the lowly cottage door and be like a brother or a son at the poor man's fireside.... He had traveled far and alone; his whole life, indeed, had been a solitary path, for, with the lofty caution of his nature, he had kept himself apart from those who might otherwise have been his companions....
The secret of the young man's character was a high and abstracted ambition. He could have borne to live an undistinguished life, but not to be forgotten in the grave.
and how in ¶ 13 he has given us the trend of the young man's rhapsody, instead of wearying us with what was probably rather a long and tiresome speech:
There was a continual flow of natural emotion gushing forth amid abstracted reverie which enabled the family to understand this young man's sentiment, though so foreign from their own.
One form of the talkative short story that forms a serious stumbling block to the novice is the dialect story. If you have an idea of trying that style of composition, let me warn you: Don't! Dialect stories never were very artistic, for they are a paradoxical attempt to make good literature of poor rhetoric and worse grammar. They have never been recognized or written by any great master of fiction. They are a sign of a degenerate taste, and their production or perusal is a menace to the formation and preservation of a good literary style. They are merely a fad, which is already of the past; and to-day public and publisher turn in nausea from a mess of dialect which yesterday they would have greedily devoured; so that now there is even no pecuniary excuse for dialect stories. They were doomed to an ephemeral existence, for what little charm they ever possessed was based upon the human craving for something odd and new; the best stories of Barrie and Maclaren live because of their intense human feeling, and they would have succeeded as well and endured longer if they had been clothed in literary English.
"That there is good in dialect none may deny; but that good is only when it chances, as rarely, to be good dialect; when it is used with just discretion and made the effect of circumstances naturally arising, not the cause and origin of the circumstance itself. When the negro, the 'cracker' or the mountaineer dialect occurs naturally in an American story, it often gives telling effects of local color and of shading. But the negro or 'cracker' story per se can be made bearable only by the pen of a master; and even then it may be very doubtful if that same pen had not proved keener in portraiture, more just to human nature in the main, had the negro or the 'cracker' been the mere episode, acting on the main theme, and itself reacted on by that."
Study carefully, as models of good character analysis and presentation, Stevenson's "Markheim;" Hawthorne's "The Great Stone Face;" Ichabod Crane in Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow;" Poe's "William Wilson;" Louisa Ellis in Wilkins' "A New England Nun;" Van Bibber in Davis' "Van Bibber and Others;" Henry St. George in James' "The Lesson of the Master."
 "Rudimentary Suggestions for Beginners in Story Writing," by E. F. Andrews. Cosmopolitan. Feb., '97.
 "Names in Fiction," by H. H. F. Literature. Jan. 19, '99.
 "The Day of Dialect," by T. C. De Leon. Lippincott's. Nov., '97.
Excerpted From Short Story Writing, by Charles Raymond Barrett