Gross Anatomy of a Novel: Character

Gross Anatomy of a Novel: Character


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Intro: What is Gross Anatomy of a Novel? In this series, we’re going to take a holistic look and approach to novel writing. What are the fundamental necessities? How do they work together? While we will cover the basics and fundamental ideas of each topic, we’ll also give some expert tips and tricks we like to use that you can’t find elsewhere. This week, we look at character.

Aaron likes to think there are four pillars of character development:


  • Pillar one: Physicality


    1. Our characters have physical bodies in a physical world.

Al: This is true even when the characters are not human. Books like Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Adams’, Watership Down, George Orwell’s, Animal Farm have anthropomorphized characters–animals thinking like humans. In fantasy and horror literature there may be orks, ghouls, spirits, angels and the like, and they to need physical descriptions.

    1. Our characters should be as unique in their physiology as they are in their psychology, as they are in their personality.

Al: It is often the physical characteristics that make a character memorable and can even be key to the story–Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  

    1. Our bodies are living textbooks of our history:
      1. Every scar has a story
      2. Diseases often have long-term physical repercussions
      3. Every accident, injury, etc. can linger.

Al: These can play into a character’s psychology and dictate some of his or her choices.

    1. Consider:
      1. What does it feel like when they walk?
      2. What does it feel like when they run?
      3. What does it feel like when they fight?
      4. What does it feel like when they’re in an accident?

Al: This reminds me of an early scene in a football movie–North Dallas Forty–showed one player on a Monday after a game. He was bruised and battered and struggled to walk. In that scene, the price played by professional ball players was clearly shown.

      1. Think of your character in terms of biology:
        1. Their lungs and heart, their eyes and ears.
        2. Their joints and muscles
        3. Their bones
        4. Are these in perfect condition?
        5. Are they in some way disabled? What way?
        6. How does that affect your character as they move through life?
      2. Put your character in motion
        1. Make your characters run
        2. Make them fight
        3. Make them dance
        4. Make them exercise
        5. Make them exert themselves
      3. When the setting is extreme, we should feel it as if we’re in your character’s skin.
        1. What effect does the heat have on your character? The cold?
        2. Is their skin sunburned? Wind-chapped? Dried out?
        3. Does humidity sap their strength? Do they get overheated? Fall asleep in the cold?


  • Pillar Two: Psychology


    1. is a great resource for this.
    2. Know how your character would react in every situation.
    3. Find something to surprise your reader and your character
    4. Know how your characters, not only feel, but how they demonstrate that outwardly.
    5. Know who they’re compatible with, and who they don’t like.
      1. Extroverts are action oriented, like to be with people
      2. Introverts prefer to think, like to be alone
    6. Where is your character comfortable?
    7. Where are they uncomfortable?
    8. How do they react to conflict?
    9. Who are they attracted to?
    10. Strengths? Weaknesses?

Al: One of the deepest dives I’ve done in character psychology was Ellis Poe in Wounds. His fractured emotions, memories, combined with his keen mind made him a wonderful character for me. He is hamstrung by guilt, fear, and self-imposed exile–the perfect character to force him to do what he would never do otherwise.


  • Pillar Three: Status (credit to Steven James)


      1. Characters have status when others are present. This status is either high or low.
        1. A character’s status changes depending on the situation. This change helps deepen our understanding of the character.
        2. Think “high status” at work: he’s the boss, and people fear and respect him.
        3. At home, he is “low status.” His wife is the boss, and he does as she says. His kids ignore him.
      2. High Status: Dominant people:
        1. Confident and relaxed.
        2. Have loose gestures and gait
        3. Maintain eye contact at length to threaten, intimidate, control, or seduce
        4. Remain still and in control.
        5. Do not immediately answer questions; they control the conversation.
        6. Blink infrequently and keep their heads still as they speak.
        7. “Allow” people to “help” them.
      3. Low Status people:
        1. Have constricted strides, voice, posture, and gestures.
        2. Look down, cross legs, bite lips, hide faces with hands.
        3. Are fidgety, bedraggled and or frazzled
        4. Apologize and agree more
        5. Try to please
        6. Are easily intimidated.
        7. Act as if they need something.
      4. Negotiators:
        1. Characters that are instinctively in tune to other characters’ statuses.
        2. Mirror the status of those they relate with so as not to appear too dominant or submissive.
        3. Can effectively manipulate other characters
        4. Your diction should reflect the status of your character.


  • Pillar Four: Spirituality


    1. Does your character believe in a higher power? Why or why not?
    2. This does not mean “religion,” though it could. Be specific where you can:
      1. Baptist (or Methodist, or Catholic, or Pentecostal) rather than “Christian.”
      2. Atheist vs. Agnostic
      3. Karma? The great unknown?
    3. How your character perceives the “spiritual world” (even if it’s to deny its existence) will shape who they are and how they react to others with different beliefs.
    4. Are they casual in their beliefs, or are they adamant? Do they proselytize, or do they hide their faith?
    5. Understanding this about your character will deepen your writing. Not every character needs a “spiritual arc,” but those are often very satisfying to readers, even if they don’t agree with the particular spiritual “epiphany” your character may have.

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