Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Measure of a Character

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

                                      Martin Luther King Jr.Strength to Love, 1963

This is a well known quote.  I thought it was appropriate for this month since we have just celebrated MLK day.  I believe this quote represents an idea that can be used in every day life...especially when creating a new fictional character.  What is the measure of this man, or this woman, or even this kid as in the characters of THE PHANTOM PILOT.  It's easy to judge the measure of Stevie-girl.  She goes into the haunted house in the very first scene even though she is terrified to do so.  Why? Because she feels it is a way of honoring the memory of her best friend--they'd always dared each other to go in, but never had the courage.  It was also a misguided attempt at "doing her part" for the war effort.  You'll just have to read the book to understand that statement.

What is the measure of Jase, Stevie's new friend?  That's not too difficult to figure out, but it doesn't become apparent in the first scene like with Stevie.  If you think you can tell me the measure of Jase, and give me an example of your reasoning, just leave me a comment.

Now, see if you recognize the following characters and their measure...and by all means, if you think I missed the mark, let me know!

Larry Underwood--The Stand--Larry's got a streak in him that's like "biting on tinfoil."  That's the measure of Larry.  All for one and one for...him!  But does he stay that way, or does his character undergo a major transformation?

Gus McCrae--Lonesome Dove--Gus is known for his laziness and his gambling.  But is that the true measure of Gus?  What about loyalty and integrity?  What about stubbornness?  I always think of Gus when I'm writing a new character because he is so multi-layered.

Okay, here's a more current character.
Katniss Everdeen--The Hunger Games--Katniss is also multi-layered.  What scene in the first book shows us her measure?  Would you say it is when she takes her little sister's place in the games?  That tells us everything we need to know about her in one sentence: she is self-sacrificing and tough.

Another of my favorite female characters is Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird.  What is the measure of Scout?  In the beginning of the book, she is an innocent tom-boy, but by the end, we learn the true measure of Scout in the way she views the racial injustice in her town. But is she perfect?  Not by a long shot; if that were the case, her measure would be cardboard rather than flesh and blood.

And remember, if you are an author, the next time you have an idea for a new character, ask yourself: What is the measure of this character?  And then sketch out your answer in detail.  That's the measure of a good writer.  At least in my humble opinion.

Till next time...cheers!

If you have a favorite fictional character, tell me about him/her.  Also, tell me what line or passage spelled out the measure of that character.


  1. Great post. Now I need to read The Stand and see if you were right about Larry.


  2. Yes! By all means...want to borrow my copy? LOL

  3. It's a deal, but this is one I will want back :-)


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