The Essence of Character

– by Alexandra Sokoloff

I so loved Stephen’s post on character yesterday I wanted to continue the discussion, from a slightly different angle.

First  I just have to say this.  In just a few paragraphs – tiny black marks on paper, or bits on a screen – Steve put a REAL PERSON into our heads.   An unforgettable person.  

That’s great writing.   But I don’t think you can break it down into the words he used and what order he used them in.   It’s not a technical skill so much as – well, as another Steve says in On Writing – it’s telepathy.   Steve  – Our Steve – was struck to his core by a unique human being and so moved by the experience that he used his own being to communicate that profound encounter to us – whole – so that we could have that encounter with Henry, too…


How awesome is that?

That is the real magic of writing.

And that doesn’t have a lot to do with details, really. It has to do with ESSENCE.

Note what SJS didn’t put into his characterization of Henry.  He didn’t say what he was wearing (didn’t need to – we’ve all seen how men dress to move furniture).  He didn’t say if he was married, with or without children, gay, straight.  He didn’t give us his long and involved back story, what kind of cereal he likes, what team he roots for, what side of the bed he sleeps on, what his astrological sign is.   There weren’t even any descriptions of fascinating tattoos.

I’ve seen character bio forms that have writers list all of those things and more, and they always make me uneasy.   It’s too much information.  A character comes through not because of a mountain of details, but because of those one or two unmissable things that define him or her – in this case, Henry’s infinite patience and presence in a frustrating, mundane situation (and the contrast of that personal serenity in the body of a bruiser.).

Steve’s portrayal of Henry doesn’t have much to do with the words he used, either, with technical skill.  Oh, we need technical skill all right, but mainly so that we don’t get in our own way while we’re writing.   We learn all those things, the words, the pace, the grammar rules and how to break them, iambic pentameter (yes, we all use it if we’re writing in English…) – but that’s just a pianist’s scales, or a dancer’s barre work.   We do those things so that we have a finely tuned instrument that is always ready on a moment’s notice to communicate the pure ESSENCE of a character (or love scene, or  fight, whatever we’re needing to communicate in our story.)

I think I’m going on about this because – well, of course it’s what I do, but also I’ve been thinking about the essence of character because I went on a Reacher binge recently and caught up on a few of the older books I hadn’t read yet.  And then I wanted more, and I started up rereading the ones I’ve already read.

As I have confessed here before, I’m not much of a series reader.   I realize that part of it is that I am generally doubtful and cynical that any one author can continue to build depth and complexity in the same characters for more than three or four books.  And that’s if they’re really good and really lucky.   With a series, I am always bracing myself for ennui to set in.   Now, I think TV can do series brilliantly – but TV has the incredible advantage of having ACTORS along with a whole staff of writers looking after character development.   And actors are fanatically devoted to exploring their particular character, exclusively.   That specialization and focus can, in the best of circumstances, carry TV characters much farther than authors are usually capable of carrying them.   That’s by no means a slight on writers, it’s an acknowledgement of the art, craft, magic and specialization of actors.

But Lee Child’s Reacher is an exception, and so is Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, and that has to do with unbelievably great plots, for sure, but I think it also has to do with character essence.

In any Reacher book you care to pick up, on the first few pages you are going to find this character who is almost always out on the open road, and preternaturally observant. Okay, sometimes you meet him right before a fight in which he is always outnumbered and always the last man standing, but the fight will be portrayed moment by moment so that we experience Reacher’s mental and psychological calculations at every second of the action.    I don’t much think about what Reacher looks like – muscle seems to have very little to do with anything that happens.  In fact, Reacher is huge, but is constantly dispatching bigger and stronger men because he’s fighting with his brain.  It’s the Sherlockian powers of observation, whether in a fight or in the course of an investigation –  that are compelling about the character.

There are a few other constant, essential things about Reacher that make him unique.  He HATES a situation in which a big guy, whether an individual or corporation, is dominating or oppressing a weaker person or entity; he is driven to right that imbalance time and time again.   He hates having any encumbrances – house, clothing, place, or even money.  And he must have the companionship of an intelligent, unique woman to feel balanced and whole – that is, as balanced and whole as Reacher will ever even temporarily be (he doesn’t say this, but it’s constantly played out).  

Harry Bosch is another character I never get tired of.  Harry was devised with a particular back story of being a tunnel rat in Vietnam, which – without being stated – gives a sense of why this man is damaged.  And Harry is wounded, no doubt – while he is often heroic, you worry about him, wonder how he even gets through a day, sometimes.   As an LAPD detective, Harry is constantly up against overwhelming forces – it’s not just about the case he’s working on, but the bureaucracy and sometimes malignance of the police department in general, or superiors in the department in particular.  Sometimes the very family Harry is trying to help is working against him.   Sometimes there’s a bigger, amorphous evil like racism.   In fact, there’s always a sense of a greater evil that might finish Harry off for good.  Harry is on some level aware of these larger forces and still he goes out there and does his job with a dogged determination that is both relentless and slightly – autistic, is the word that comes to mind.

Of course both Reacher and Harry are wounded knights, an archetype that has captured the popular imagination for hundreds of years, if not since the beginning of time.

I loved Denise Mina’s prickly, scrappy Paddy Meehan instantly because of her in-your-face Scottishness.  Irishness.  Mongrel-mixedness.  She’s a new journalist from the wrong side of the tracks and too young to have any practical experience who ends up uncovering more than any of her male colleagues combined because of sheer cussedness.  The lone woman up against a force of often hostile male colleagues has always done me (the brilliant BBC series Prime Suspect is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen) because it’s so true to my own experience.   Paddy’s also like Tess’s Jane Rizzoli, who startled me as a female lead because she is so desperately unhappy, so NOT a Cinderella.  In the book which was Jane’s introduction, The Surgeon, Jane DOESN’T get the guy – she nearly gets killed instead.   She gets no respect on the job because she’s a woman and she gets no respect from her Italian family because she’s a woman.  And experiencing her pain and outsiderness made me a devoted fan.

Margaret Maron, to me, captures the essence of the South in her Deborah Knott books.   Margaret’s own laser perception masked by that “Who – little ol’ me?” Southern slyness oozes through in Deborah.

Cornelia’s Madeline Dare is a fascinating character to me because she lives in – or at least has lived in – a world that is completely alien to my experience, and yet I completely relate to her razor-sharp smarts, wicked tongue, and feminism.  SJS’s Hayden Glass being driven by this demon of addiction is compelling to me in essence.  Ken Bruen’s  Irish cop Jack Taylor’s essence to me is his wide-open heart and purity of soul.   

Okay, you know what I want from you today.   Who are YOUR favorite series characters and what is it about them – what is the essence – that draws you back, again and again?



33 thoughts on “The Essence of Character

  1. Shizuka

    It's hard to pick favorites, but a character I love is Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan.
    She's funny, prickly, and tenderhearted. And the series has a strong character arc. Tess goes from patheticly unemployed to a detective with her own agency, sleeping with an ambitious jerk to pretty commiitted, and she picks up several friends and cohorts along the way. And although she has heroic qualities, she's someone I can see myself being buddies with.

  2. Debby J

    I never tire of Harry Bosch, and one of the reasons is because with Harry we've seen a lot of character growth. Sure, he's maintained all the essential "Harryness" that made me love him from the very first book, but Michael Connelly hasn't left him static. Harry is NEVER boring. My favorite guilty pleasure character is Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast of Preston/Child fame. He's really over the top, and in a lot way predicable, but he had me at the first "indeed." But my all time favorite series character (if 3 books can constitute a series) is probably Carl Webster, the Hot Kid (Elmore Leonard). I love Elmore Leonard's characters anyway, but unlike all his Detroit or Florida folks, Carl has that really cool cowboy-like pizzaz that makes me want to go and watch a bunch of Clint Eastwood movies back to back.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Shizuka, one of the things I loved about early Tess Monaghan was that she wasn't very good at detecting, at first. Which makes total sense for a newbie, and made her very human.

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hey Debby. No, Harry is never boring, and I love his little passing obsessions – like in one book, he was driven to distraction by his partner's recent acquisition and overuse of the New Orleans greeting, "Where y'at?"

    Pendergast. Yes, one of a kind.

  5. Grace

    I love Ann Cleeves' Inspector Vera Stanhope, an overweight woman who wears those awful tent dresses, drinks a 'liitle' too much, alludes to better times when there was a man in her life, but little to no back story so she herself is a mystery. She does not indulge in self-pity and is merciless when it rears its head. Cleeves' writing is classic, she writes traditional crime novels in contemporary settings. Her emtional force can be felt throughout her interesting, sometimes dark, novels.

  6. PK the Bookeemonster

    I've got to stand up for the historical mysteries. 🙂 CJ Sansom's series is pretty much universally acknowledged as the measuring stick of histmyst. Matthew Shardlake is maneuvering his way in Henry VIII's temperamental world, not as a direct player in Henry's sphere but as a commoner dealing with the fallout. He's a humpbacked lawyer with a strong sense of morality in an often immoral political world where humpbacks are looked upon with fear and suspicion. He's a wounded warrior of the Reformation; he believed in the principles of the reformation but the movement got stomped on and there are always philosophical survivors for whom life must go on. The series begins with DISSOLUTION which has many connotations in itself and could even be stretched as "dis-illusion" in the character.

  7. pari noskin taichert

    Alex, I adore Donald Westlake's Dortmunder series for ALL of the characters, but especially for Dortmunder himself — a petty thief who attracts rotten luck — who has a kind of resigned pessimism — but who never, ever gives up hoping that this job, this insane scheme, will BE THE ONE. Dortmunder loves Mae, his live-in companion, but he never says it in words, never buys her fancy things or flowers. His world is peopled with odd friends and cohorts and the affection between them is gruff and palpably evident. Finally, I adore that beneath all of his surliness, Dortmunder has a tremendous respect for himself and for the "little guy."

    Lois Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan is another favorite. He's a physical cripple in a culture that reveres physical strength and prowess. What makes him so compelling to me is that he refuses to let his horrid disability stop him even if it means paying an enormous price. He's a fabulous leader — brilliant, funny, strategically creative — and yet incredibly, painfully, vulnerable in love.

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Ooh, you guys are coming up with books I've never touched. PK, I will absolutely have to check out Sansom's books – your description is so evocative.

    And Pari makes me want to dive into both those series' for the same reason.

    Absolutely, LU!

  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Boy, Alex, I've got to say that I'm INCREDIBLY HONORED that you should dedicate so much of your post to me and my blog. You're an amazing mind and a beautiful soul and I love the way you look at life, the way you analyze the world. I read your post to my wife and kids and everyone thought it was just fantastic.
    It's funny, but I'm usually the guy who goes through those character analysis papers and tries to determine all the details of a character's life, and it always drives me crazy to do that, and I almost never use any of those details in my work. You've given me a free pass to avoid that process now, by showing me that it isn't entirely necessary – that the essence of a character is more important than all the details. And, because I wasn't TRYING to force the character with details, his essence came out. Sometimes we do things subconsciously and it takes someone else – a brilliant observer like you – to point out how it works.
    I don't read a lot of serial novels, mostly due to time constraints, but when I was younger I was stuck on the Doc Savage series. Doc was something of a Reacher-type character, as you describe him. Incredibly strong and muscular, but he used his smarts to get him through tough situations. And he had a team of really cool characters to work with. The stories were kind-of stock and cliche, but they were perfect for an eleven year old boy.

  10. toni mcgee causey

    Joe Pike and Elvis Cole — I'd know those guys anywhere, if I were to meet them, they're that real. Myron Bolitar, too. Lori Armstrong's Julie Collins (probably the rare character as potty-mouthed as Bobbie Faye). Lori's new series with Mercy Gunderson is probably one of the few female characters as tough as Bobbie Faye, too. (We've joked that if we put the three of them in a bar with whiskey, the world would probably end.) Lymond, from the Lymond Chronicles (Dorothy Dunnett's historical military/spy story.)

    With all of them, it's the flaws that bring me back again. There's not a single one of them perfect or beautiful. Every one of them has screwed up (and *is* screwed up, in their own way), and is doing the best they can to either fix it, investigate it, or protect the people they love from coming to harm.

  11. Kaye Barley

    I love lists – too fun!
    Favorite series characters – I think we must read the same books.
    Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott (but, of course!)
    Lee Child's Reacher
    James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux
    Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan
    Louise Penny's Lt. Gamache
    and a bunch more, but 5 is a gracious plenty.
    oh wait! Carol O'Connell's Mallory

  12. kit

    Hi Alex,
    the first charactors that came to mind…were Angel and Louis from John Connolly's Charlie Parker series….I look for them.
    They are stone cold killers…but…I found myself starting to care what happened to them….and the way they are presented…Louis is refined, usually impecibly dressed and likes the finer things in life..Angel is street-wise, flashy…and all over the page. How they met, their back story, and how they get woven into the action is something that will keep me reading and wanting more.
    Now, most people possibly wouldn't choose these two as god-parents for their child….but as you follow along, you realize …that kid is one of the luckiest babies around having two such people to look out for them.
    They are the very epitome of juxtaposition….it's never cliched or bland. It's skillfully done and makes perfect sense….further, they are the sort of people you'ld want at your back.

  13. Eika

    "A character comes through not because of a mountain of details, but because of those one or two unmissable things that define him or her"

    I need to print this out in size 48 font and tape it to the wall above my computer.

    Then, I need to send it to my current writing instructor. He's published, but I've read his work and never want to write that way. He's always telling me I don't have enough detail, and that, when the scene is an argument between mother and small child (child's POV) we should know what the mother looks like, what she's wearing, what the girl is wearing, what state they're in… oy.

    My favorite series character is Robyn from the Tomorrow series by John Marsden. She only appears in the first three books, she's the only really religious character (which I'm not), and the plot puts her as a main character, but not viewpoint, in a group of teens who were camping in the woods when their country got invaded. They become guerilla soldiers, blowing up bridges, blowing up an entire street of houses with important generals in it, taking down airports… and it's been a while since I read them, so I can't say for sure she didn't blow anything up, but I know she put the gun down distastefully when it could've been a shoot-out, she had philosophical views on how things may look from the invaders' point of view, and, (massive spoiler alert) she winds up blowing herself and an enemy general up with a grenade to let her friends get out of prison.

    She stayed true to her beliefs, she wasn't hostile, she was polite and kind, she tried to be good to everyone, and she looked out for her friends. What more do I need to know?

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hey Jude! I read a lot of Travis McGee for a while, good reminder.

    Steve, what can I say, it was a "teaching moment" – such a good example of how detail should be used – precisely, passionately and sparingly. I do lists of character traits, too but I try to concentrate on psychological questions like the deep wounds of a character – and placing the character on a timeline, too (what music they were listening to in high school, world events of the time, that kind of thing.

  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Kit, you're right – those two characters are part of what I love about John Connolly's books. Actually I was going to list Charlie Parker as one of those essential characters but then I got hung up on trying to figure out why Squarespace seems to have listed Ken Bruen as co-author of my post – I wish, but I had nothing to do wiht it!

  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Eika, I'm sorry that your instructor keeps going didactic on you, but at least you're savvy enough to read his stuff and realize that that's not the way you want to write – good for you.

    The authors we most love to read are our best teachers.

    Love your description of Robyn, thank you!

  17. debbie

    Thank you Alex, for being there just when I needed you to be, and to everybody who pulled me back through to this side. I mean that from my heart. <3
    Character…hmm. I wonder if a series goes longer when the character is a 'pop in' character who is not meant to develop. My own characters develop more through their thoughts, conversations, and actions. I worry perhaps that there is too little description but, quite frankly, I'm not concerned if somebody visualizes the character differently from me physically. That said, one of the reasons Peter Jackson put The Lord Of The Rings on the big screen with such visual accuracy according to the readers I've spoken to, is I bleive, due to Tolkien's incredible use of description and metaphor that is concise and yet rich.

  18. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Debbie, so happy to have you back! It's been the year from hell for a lot of us here – I admire you for reaching out so honestly.

    I'm all for rich visual and thematic imagery. I think writers who are really good at it – Tolkien, definitely, Thomas Harris, Mo Hayder – are brilliant for being very specific with their image systems, keeping everything to a few choice themes and not throwing in everything and the kitchen sink.

  19. Alafair Burke

    A bunch of my faves have already been claimed: Harry Bosch and Reacher, of course, as well as Tess and Myron. I'll throw in Kinsey Milhone. For me, these are characters I feel I know. I miss them when a book is over. I want to see them again. I feel like I know them and cherish each book as a short visit from a friend.

  20. lil Gluckstern

    I'd like to add Jeri Westerson's Crispin Guest. A historical character whose essence is changing as the series grows, which is both intriguing and satisfying. I simply never miss a Connelly book, Robert Crais, and James Lee Burke. Louise Penny, Laura Lippman, Cornelia Read. Okay, now I'm in trouble, the list is too long for a blog .But character for me is the essence of a good mystery; how and why do these people get to be who they are. But I have to add one thing-my first reaction to SJS' blog-was that man can write!

  21. Dao

    Oh, you guys stole most of my favorite characters already! What's left for me to say?

    I do have a long short list of favorite characters in series and here they are:

    1. Sherlock Holmes: he's an original, gotta read him, gotta study him, gotta learn from him.

    2. Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar: the former star turned sports agent and his rich side-kick, does that sound familiar to you? Needless to say, the whole Bolitar series is fantastic. The actions are swift, the dialogues are sharp, and the twists are unpredictable.

    3. Preston and Child's Agent Pendergast: I'm still waiting for somebody to make a movie out of this series. He is one of a kind. I wonder if he should meet Jack Reacher. That would be cool.

    4. While we are at it, Lee Child's Jack Reacher: he who masters the art of traveling light.

    5. Kathy Reichs's Temperance Brennan: she makes forensic science look cool.

    6. Tess Gerritsen's Rizoli and Isles: the characters are not perfect. They are humans with secrets and that makes them so believable.

    I guess all of these characters have one thing in common: the cool factor. If they were real, I would want to hang out with them and see what they do.

  22. Dao

    Oh, I forgot one more character in a series: Michael Connelly's Mickey Haller in "The Lincoln Lawyer." He's Harry Bosch's half-brother and they did have a couple reunions after "The Lincoln Lawyer" ended. If you think Harry Bosch is cool, his younger half-brother is a lot cooler but in a very different way.

  23. Spencer Seidel

    I'm with you, Alex, about series characters. I much prefer to read and write about one-off characters. I know I'm in the minority here, but I'm picky about realism. There's something about the same characters in the same kind of fantastic situations that I find inauthentic. Just my preference.

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