If you haven’t read the first three posts in this series, go back to Lester Dent’s Wave Those Tags, Part 1: Find a Name to get caught up. Then we’ll press on with the fourth and final part of pulp icon Lester Dent’s look at characters…
NOW MAKE USE OF CHARACTERIZATION TRICKS IN WRITING THE STORY
These seem to be a few of the most-used characterizing tricks.
Wave the tags.
It probably helps to introduce the hero very early—in the first paragraph, usually—and have him strut his stuff, because first impressions are the strongest. This is just about the No. 1 writing rule in the pulps.
A hero may be built up by having the other characters refer to him in terms of admiration or awe. The pitfall here seems to be that the references can be made over-dramatic to the extent that the device may strike somebody as obvious and silly.
Villains may be built as villains in the same fashion, by having other characters mention their dastardly nature, their previous evil deeds.
Have the hero behave like a hero when faced by trouble.
Hero might stay human, though. He can get as scared as the next guy, but his courage will carry him through.
Minor characters can also be built by having the other actors refer to them, either to their external tag, or to the kind of stuff that is inside them.
Often quite a build-up can be given a character before he or she even makes a personal appearance in the story. This device is difficult to employ successfully in shorts, but it is often used in longer pieces.
It is easy to overlook the simplest must of all, that of having the actors keep in character. The hero can hardly go around kicking dogs and making nasty cracks to people weaker than himself. If he makes a nasty remark to a weak and helpless person, he’s a cad as far as the reader is concerned. If he stands up to the big, mean boss and makes nasty cracks, that is different.
And it goes without saying that the villain should conduct himself in a thoroughly villainous fashion. There are black villains,* and half-likeable villains. The black villains never do or say anything pleasant. The half-likeable cads may be pretty good guys, but just weak. The slicks seem to prefer this type of villain, but the pulps want ’em black.
It does not seem to be a good idea to have the villain become too melodramatic in his villainy. If his badness can be spread out, if he can be kept consistently bad, the same effect may be achieved without the chance of somebody bursting out laughing.
There are many tricks for getting character effects, but probably the best way of securing them is to wade through published material, purloin what seems good, and adapt the idea a little.
Always remembering: WAVE THAT TAG.
Next week we’ll break this down and look at both its positives and negatives for a contemporary author.
* Do I have to point out here that Dent isn’t referring to the villain’s race? Given the cover art of the magazines of the era in question, I probably do. But what he means here isn’t the color of that character’s skin but in the sense of a character who has gone over to the Dark Side, is a black-hearted beast, a blackguard, etc.