When speaking of character development, most of us probably think about its application to fiction or creative non-fiction. As a writer of both prose and poetry, I enjoy the challenge of incorporating poetic attributes in my novels and borrowing elements of prose when writing poetry.
Fiction or memoir that stays with us is most often noted for its character development. If you think about some of your favorite reads, you will call to mind personalities that are “rounded” as opposed to “flat,” a concept discussed by E. M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel. Simply put, a round character is one who captures the reader’s interest because of his unpredictability, his complexity, and the changes he undergoes in the course of the story. As Forster puts it: “The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way.”
What are some of the tools available to use in creating sympathetic characters—that is, characters we can identify with and cheer for, in spite of defects that are very like our own?
Physical description—of course. But this is not always the most important factor. Other aspects of description include behavioral traits, choices, associations, dialogue patterns, predictable emotional responses, leisure time activities, likes and dislikes. Concrete sensory details, as well as narrative vignettes create patterns of character which can then be altered to surprise.
Lives unfold in the mundane. Accounts of everyday activities—work and home environments, hobbies and the like help to define a person. This supposes knowledge and perhaps research on the part of the poet or author. Learn about how your subject sepnds his time.
In order to empathize with a character, it’s important to include flaws or defects in addition to strengths. For example, who can identify with a hero who knows no fear in the face of danger?
This post could morph into a book, and there are plenty of resources out there to read about character development, so it’s probably time to look at how this might apply to our work as poets.
Let’s take a look at a classic poem by Edward Arlington Robinson (1896) that uses poetry to paint a picture of a man, Richard Cory, but also of the narrators: “we.”
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich – yes, richer than a king -
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
Because of the succinct format of poetry, a few brief descriptors serve to give us an overall impression of the man and his observers. But, it is not only what is said, but what is implied in the final line.
A lengthy poem by Robert Frost, The Death of the Hired Man is another fine example of character development…of Silas, the hired man, of Warren and Mary, the couple who took him in, and of Harold Wilson, another helping farmhand who is enamored with learning. Check it out if you have time.
For todays prompt let’s write a poem that presents a character. Here are a few suggestions:
• Choose a well-known painting of a person, a personal photograph (or one in the public domain) and let your imagination take flight in an ekphrasis based on the character.
• Write a poem about a famous person or a fictional character who has affected you in some way.
• Create a composite of people you know. When I write fiction, I like to use character traits of persons I’ve encountered in my past. I usually combine them to make someone new…try to make them unidentifiable. People I’ve cared for in my nursing career and their families are rich fodder for my muse.
• Write about yourself. Walt Whitman did!
• Write your poem and post it on your blog or website.
• Access Mr. Linky at the bottom of this post and fill in your name and the direct URL to your poem.
• Visit and comment on the work of your fellow participants.
• Have fun in the process.
For dVerse Poets’ Pub, Meeting the Bar, I’m Victoria C. Slotto, blogging at http://liv2write2day.wordpress.com/ I also invite you to visit my website at http://victoriacslotto.com/ where you will learn about my novel, “Winter is Past.”