Virginia Woolf’s Thoughts on Characters

The Writers Write website has a post by Freddie Moore has excerpted ten points about writing characters from Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’. In the essay Virginia Woolf is responding to an article by English writer Arnold Bennett who argued that 20th century authors were failing to write good novels because they did not write good characters. (Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily and The Huffington Post.)

Virginia Woolf

Ms Woolf’s comments were:

  1. Practice character-reading until you can ‘live a single year of life without disaster’. (Character-reading is Woolf’s term for people-watching for the sake of constructing fictional characters. I think her point was that when you’re a good character-reader you won’t have any disasters.)
  2. Observe strangers. Let your own version of their life story shoot through your head — how they got where they are now, where they might be going — and fill in the blanks for yourself. (This is a favourite pastime of mine when I’m in a restaurant, watching other people, particularly those having intense discussions.)
  3.  Listen to the way people speak, but pay special attention to their silence. (The silences may be more meaningful than the dialogue.)
  4. Write characters who are both ‘very small and very tenacious; at once very frail and very heroic’. Let them have contradictions.
  5. Write about people who make an overwhelming impression on you. Let yourself be obsessed.
  6. A believable character is never just a list of traits or biographical facts. (Because traits and facts don’t define character.)
  7. Illustrate your characters outside of the superficial standards of their time. Let them be complex.
  8. Any captivating protagonist should be someone you can imagine in “the centre of all sorts of scenes.”
  9. Find a common ground between you and your characters — “steep yourself in their atmosphere.” Learn to empathise. (A writer needs to feel what the character is feeling.)
  10. Describe your characters ‘beautifully if possible, and truthfully at any rate’.

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