Introduction

Girl sitting on dock and reading a book

Mark Twain observes, "It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense." Why does fiction have to make sense? After all, in fiction, pretend characters inhabit imaginary worlds, perform fabricated actions, and recite make-believe dialogue. Yet despite all the imaginary elements, fiction follows a plan. Narratives, or stories, stick to a familiar pattern, or a plot line. In another lesson, “Explain the Influence of the Setting on Plot Development in Literary Text/Fiction,” you learned the typical elements of a plot: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. In case you need a refresher, this video makes all the plot elements "crystal clear."

Often characters are a driving force behind the plot. In this lesson, you will learn how complex, multilayered characters contribute to the development of a story’s plot and the literary experience.

Freytag's Pyramid


Images used in this section:

Source: reading-lake-summer-book-girl-1698771, BibBornem, Pixabay.com

Source: Diagram of a story's plot structure, Kaede4, Wikimedia Commons

Characters in Action

 cutting board with a whole red onion, a half of and onion, and slices of an onion

Fiction is filled with many intriguing characters like Huck Finn, Katniss Everdeen, and Harry Potter. Memorable fictional personalities are round characters. They are, as the label implies, well-rounded with multilayered personalities. Just as you can peel away the layers of onions, you can peel away the layers of round characters. As a story unfolds, you learn more and more about how round characters emerge into complex characters and contribute to the development of the plot. We connect with and relate to round, dynamic characters in fiction.

Margaret Hamilton as the Witch in the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz, threatening Dorothy (Judy Garland)

On the other side of the coin are flat characters, uncomplicated characters with a single dimension. The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz is a flat character, as is Cato from The Hunger Games. Even flat characters can move a plot forward. However, they will never become memorable characters of fiction like Huck Finn or Harry Potter. Why? Because they are flat. Readers cannot connect with one-dimensional characters because they can't see themselves in them. Round, multidimensional, and artfully conceived characters are the most interesting and therefore have the most impact in moving the plot forward.

Writers use a number of techniques to develop round characters. Sometimes they tell you directly what they want you to know about a fictional person. Mark Twain uses direct characterization when he describes Tom Sawyer's half-brother Sid as "a quiet boy" who had "no adventurous ways." Far more often, though, authors like Mark Twain show you what characters are like so you can form your own opinion. The showing approach is called indirect characterization. Authors show you characters through their speech, thoughts, effect on others, actions, and looks. An easy way to remember these five types of indirect characterization is through the mnemonic STEAL (speech, thoughts, effect on others, actions, looks).

What characters say influences what readers think of them. The wicked Queen in Snow White is very vain because she keeps asking, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of us all?"

The Queen asks the magic mirror who’s the fairest of them all. Illustration from Sneewittchen, Scholz' Künstler-Bilderbücher, Mainz

Readers learn how tricky and devious Tom Sawyer is when he pretends to enjoy the work of whitewashing a fence so someone else will want to try it. He asks, "Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?"

Twain weaves in all the types of indirect characterization into the beginning of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Twain doesn't tell us directly that Tom is an adventurous rascal or a disobedient jam thief. Instead, he shows Tom's actions (STEAL) and their effect on others (STEAL), specifically his Aunt Polly.

While there is no description of Tom, there are some clues about how Aunt Polly looks (STEAL). She is old and wears useless but stylish spectacles. Her effect on others (STEAL) is obvious in the following scene as well . Tom is hiding so she won't "skin his hide." Her character is revealed through her speech, thoughts, and actions (STEAL).

In this opening scene, Mark Twain sets the stage by showing Tom’s playfulness, his disregard for Aunt Polly’s rules, and finally his escape. We learn later that Tom skips school and gets home just in time for supper. Tom’s and Aunt Polly’s characters begin to evolve, advancing the plot into an intriguing story.

postage stamp

Chapter 1

"TOM!"

No answer.

"TOM!"

No answer.

"What's gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!"

No answer.

The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked THROUGH them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for "style," not service—she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well. She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:

"Well, I lay if I get hold of you I'll—"

She did not finish, for by this time she was bending down and punching under the bed with the broom, and so she needed breath to punctuate the punches with. She resurrected nothing but the cat.

"I never did see the beat of that boy!"

She went to the open door and stood in it and looked out among the tomato vines and "jimpson" weeds that constituted the garden. No Tom. So she lifted up her voice at an angle calculated for distance and shouted:

"Y-o-u-u TOM!"

There was a slight noise behind her and she turned just in time to seize a small boy by the slack of his roundabout and arrest his flight.

"There! I might 'a' thought of that closet. What you been doing in there?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing! Look at your hands. And look at your mouth. What IS that truck?"

"I don't know, aunt."

"Well, I know. It's jam—that's what it is. Forty times I've said if you didn't let that jam alone I'd skin you. Hand me that switch."

The switch hovered in the air—the peril was —

"My! Look behind you, aunt!"

The old lady whirled round, and snatched her skirts out of danger. The lad fled on the instant, scrambled up the high board-fence, and disappeared over it.

His aunt Polly stood surprised a moment, and then broke into a gentle laugh.

"Hang the boy, can't I never learn anything? Ain't he played me tricks enough like that for me to be out for him by this time? But old fools is the fools there is. Can't learn an old dog new tricks, as the saying is. But my goodness, he never plays them alike, two days, and how is a body to know what's coming? He 'pears to know just how long he can torment me before I get my dander up, and he knows if he can make out to put me off for a minute or make me laugh, it's all down again and I can't hit him a lick. I ain't doing my duty by that boy, and that's the Lord's truth, goodness knows. Spare the rod and spile the child, as the Good Book says."


Images used in this section:

Source: Onion. jpg, Donovan Govan, Wikimedia Commons

Source: The Wizard of Oz Margaret Hamilton Judy Garland 1939.jpg, Wikimedia Commons

Source: Franz Jüttner Schneewittchen 1.jpg, AndreasPraefcke, Wikimedia Commons

Source: Tom Sawyer 8c 1972 issue U.S. stamp, U.S. Postal Service, Wikimedia Commons

Dialect

People throughout the United States have different pronunciations for words, different names for objects, and different expressions unique to their regions.

No doubt, you noticed that Tom’s Aunt Polly had some unusual ways of expressing herself. She used homespun expressions, or dialect, common in 19th-century Missouri. Instead of saying, "What's up with that boy?" she says, "What's gone with that boy?" Aunt Polly's speech may seem “funny as all get out" to you, but Missourians don't have a monopoly on dialect. Texans have earned their own reputation for colorful expressions. Rather than say someone is honest, they might say, "He will tell you how the cow ate the cabbage." When the temperature goes up, they tell you where you can prepare breakfast because it’s “hot enough to fry eggs on the sidewalk." When a guest arrives, a Texan might say, "Look what the cat dragged in."

When writers decide to use dialect, the result can be both challenging and rewarding. It’s challenging because readers have to read carefully to understand the character. However, it's also rewarding because the characters are more believable and memorable.

Internal and External Responses

 glass bowl with strawberries marinating in a gel

Tom Sawyer steals jam and Aunt Polly's heart. Fictional characters can steal readers' hearts as well, but readers have to be able to relate to characters before that can happen. That's where the skill of authors comes in. Skilled fiction writers create believable characters with whom readers can connect. Once readers connect with characters, they become invested in their fate. Believable characters contribute to the development of a believable plot because readers want to see what happens.

diagram of a brain with the different sections labeled

Readers connect with characters based on the characters’ external responses, such as their speech or actions. These external responses are what could be recorded with a movie camera, but there is far more to know about characters than what a camera could record. Writers have the advantage over moviemakers because they can probe into characters' heads for their internal responses. When writers share thoughts, readers discover what makes characters tick, what they are feeling, and what motivates them. Gary Paulson created one such character in his novel Hatchet.

In the opening scene, Paulsen shows the external responses of his principal character, thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson. Brian is flying in a small plane with a loud engine and an unusually quiet pilot. Because the pilot is silent, Brian does not talk either. Readers might infer that he's shy or that he doesn't know how to initiate a conversation. However, there may be something else troubling Brian. When the author shares Brian's thoughts, his internal responses, readers begin to connect.

BRIAN ROBESON stared out the window of the small plane at the endless green northern wilderness below. It was a small plane, a Cessna 406—a bush-plane—and the engine was so loud, so roaring and consuming and loud, that it ruined any chance for conversation.

Not that he had much to say. He was thirteen and the only passenger on the plane with a pilot named—what was it? Jim or Jake or something— who was in his mid-forties and who had been silent as he worked to prepare for take-off. In fact since Brian had come to the small airport in Hampton, New York to meet the plane—driven by his mother—the pilot had spoken only five words to him.

"Get in the copilot's seat." Which Brian had done. They had taken off and that was the last of the conversation. There had been the initial excitement, of course. He had never flown in a single-engine plane before and to be sitting in the copilot's seat with all the controls right there in front of him, all the instruments in his face as the plane clawed for altitude, jerking and sliding on the wind currents as the pilot took off, had been interesting and exciting. But in five minutes they had leveled off at six thousand feet and headed northwest and from then on the pilot had been silent, staring out the front, and the drone of the engine had been all that was left. The drone and the sea of green trees that lay before the plane's nose and flowed to the horizon, spread with lakes, swamps, and wandering streams and rivers.

Now Brian sat, looking out the window with the roar thundering through his ears, and tried to catalog what had led up to his taking this flight. The thinking started. Always it started with a single word. Divorce. It was an ugly word, he thought. A tearing, ugly word that meant fights and yelling, lawyers—God, he thought, how he hated lawyers who sat with their comfortable smiles and tried to explain to him in legal terms how all that he lived in was coming apart—and the breaking and shattering of all the solid things. His home, his life—all the solid things. Divorce. A breaking word, an ugly breaking word.

book cover for Hatchet by Gary Paulson

Divorce.

Secrets.

No, not secrets so much as just the Secret. What he knew and had not told anybody, what he knew about his mother that had caused the divorce, what he knew, what he knew—the Secret.

Divorce.

The Secret.

Brian felt his eyes beginning to burn and knew there would be tears. He had cried for a time, but that was gone now. He didn't cry now. Instead his eyes burned and tears came, the seeping tears that burned, but he didn't cry. He wiped his eyes with a finger and looked at the pilot out of the corner of his eye to make sure he hadn't noticed the burning and tears.

Brian’s external and internal responses contribute to the development of the plot in this story. Paulson gives voice to Brian's thoughts in the opening passage of Hatchet. The reason for relying on this "internal conversation" becomes apparent in the next chapter of the novel when the pilot has a fatal heart attack and Brian has to fly the plane. After the plane crashes, Brian is left on his own to survive in the wilderness. It's critical that readers know Brian's thoughts so they can accompany him through this challenging experience as the plot thickens. Since readers connect with Brian in the beginning of the novel, they are able to share his experience as he solves problems and matures. Like the memorable Robinson Crusoe, Gary Paulsen’s complex and multilayered character, Brian Robeson, determines the outcome of this novel of survival.


Images used in this section:

Source: Az-Strawberryjam, making by e-citizen (moonsun1981), Moonsun1981, Wikimedia Commons

Source: BrainLobesLabelled.jpg, Camazine, Wikimedia Commons

Source: Hatchet.jpg, Wikimedia Commons

Conclusion

 book shelf and silhouettes

The clever humorist Mark Twain bookends this lesson. He writes, "What a wee little part of a person's life are his acts and his words! His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself." Consider reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Hatchet to discover what more is in Tom's and Brian's heads. You’ll learn how round characters, with their dialects and external and internal responses, contribute to the development of each novel’s plot. As a bonus, you'll acquire two new literary friends.


Images used in this section:

Source: silhouette-head-bookshelf-know-1632912, geralt, Pixabay.com

Resources

Dialects: State by state. (2014, July 9). [YouTube]. Washington Post. Retrieved from www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7ijTGd6hy0

Paulson, G. (1987). Hatchet. Retrieved from http://scotland.k12.mo.us/view/637.pdf

Schreiber, H. (2015, September 3). What is characterization? [YouTube]. Retrieved from www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRW6yVOHCQc&t=40s

Twain, M. (1876). The adventures of Tom Sawyer. Sparknotes. Retrieved from http://pd.sparknotes.com/lit/tomsawyer/section2.html

Vannatter, D. (2013, February 7). Elements of plot. [YouTube]. Retrieved from www.youtube.com/watch?v=TpfbSJjOQxc.