Anton Chekhov’s vivid characters live in our imaginations to this day. One of my favorites is “Lady With the Pet Dog,” also translated as “Lady With the Little Dog.”
If you’ve never read his stories, or haven’t read them in a long time, here’s a site with audio recordings of them.
Sit with the characters, as a good doctor sits at a patient’s bedside and listens. (Well, in the old days.) A doctor in Chekhov’s time would take notes, observe the characters’ psychological states, and record their histories. A doctor would be empathetic and open to surprises.
Anton Chekhov: Physician and Writer
Anton Chekhov–doctor, playwright, and short-story author–had a dual career, and each informed the other. Readers are lucky to have his stories, and writers are fortunate to be able to consult his letters and writing journals.
Chekhov understood “what makes people tick.” His stories are full of moments when a character acts or speaks in a way we didn’t foresee, but which feels totally real. That’s because Chekhov understood people and made them memorable.
What gave Chekhov his great powers of observation? As a doctor he treated rich and poor alike. He saw life and death in all its manifestations. The dead laid out in parlors. Frozen horses. Women marooned far from the center of society. Prisoners and the prostitutes.
Chekhov had compassion for humanity’s fragility and foibles. He understood boredom and humdrum lives and self-destructive behavior. But, none of that would have mattered to his literary legacy if he had not also understood that, to create literature out of the messiness of life, the writer had to impose controls on her or his imagination.
How Many Characters Does A Story Need?
Beginning writers often let their imaginations run wild. Stories hop from present to past, and dip in and out of people’s heads. The reader can’t keep track of all the names.
Is it necessary to have a cast of thousands? Chekhov didn’t think so.
When you fashion a story you necessarily concern yourself with its limits: out of slew of main and secondary characters you choose only one — the wife or the husband — place him against the background and describe him alone and therefore also emphasize him, while you scatter the others in the background like small change, and you get something like the night sky: a single large moon and a slew of very small stars.
— To Alexei Suvorin, October 27, 1888
I love this quote, and it’s certainly true that, for a playwright and short story author, one or two characters will suffice.
The tapestry of the novel is much larger, as Chekhov’s contemporary, Leo Tolstoy, certainly knew. However, I still think it’s a good idea to keep Chekhov’s admonition in mind. When working on a first novel, writers shouldn’t attempt War and Peace.
Stick to Chekhov’s advice and limit your cast. (If you’re curious about where Chekhov lived and wrote, read this article in The New York Times.)
Action Reveals Character
After the author has chosen the main character–two, at most–the writer’s next task is to make it safe for the main character to reveal his secrets.
In fiction a character’s psychology is not revealed by endlessly mulling things over. Sorry, Hamlet.
Thinking too much is a character flaw, not a heroic attribute. Fortunately, Chekhov generously shared his thoughts about that, too.
He believed action was the best way to reveal a character’s deepest motivations. The reason the character acts the way she does becomes clear, not by watching her sort through her options, but by catching her thrown off balance and in a moment when she’s forced to act.
In the realm of psychology you also need details. God preserve you from commonplaces. Best of all, shun all descriptions of the characters’ spiritual state. You must try to have that state emerge clearly from their actions. Don’t try for too many characters. The center of gravity should reside in two: he and she. — To AP Chekhov, May 10, 1886
By “spiritual state” Chekhov did not mean the character’s religious leanings. He meant a character “tormented” by circumstance. In a predicament. Forced to make a choice.
Chekhov wrote that the writer must dramatize the choices life forces upon us. To dramatize action means to show the action in scene. You can learn more about scene and summary right here.
But, in the early stages, how does the writer know which direction characters will turn or what actions they will take? You can’t, even if you’re rigorously plotted out the action in your book. So, what’s a writer to do?
You can either get to know your characters as you write, or you can do prewriting exercises to get a firm grip on who your imaginary people are. As you lean forward into your novel, you will place obstacles in your characters’ paths. You will show them standing at crossroads, not just once, but over and over.
The Broad Outlines of Your Characters’ Lives
A short story doesn’t allow much wiggle room. Two scenes, maybe three, and then the story’s over.
But you still need a general picture of your characters. Age. Height. Weight. Why the ex left. Where they went to college. Their favorite team and how much their jobs suck. You, the observer, might have a sense of whether they’re casual or uptight. Whether they wear jeans or suits, halter tops or spangly sweaters.
This superficial knowledge will be recorded in the character description you create in the prewriting stage. (Here’s a character checklist to help you get started.)
Whether you’re writing stories or novels, in the prewriting stage you’re only able to make rough guesses.
- You haven’t tested your characters by forcing them to deal with events that are out of their control.
- You haven’t presented them with hard choices.
- You haven’t listened as they’ve concocted their own revisionist histories.
All these discoveries lie in your future. And theirs.
In next week’s post I’ll give you five pre-writing exercises to unlock your character’s secrets. And, in the meantime, here’s an additional post on characters and how to make them real.