I recently discovered Robert Louis Stevenson, and fell in love with Treasure Island. You might say that Stevenson was the Stephanie Meyer of the late 1800s. His work spawned a host of pirate novels, and fueled a genre that lived on for sixty years.
The story is told in first person by a young boy named Jim Hawkins, the son of a couple who owns an inn in Bristol, which is named the Admiral Benbow. As the story unfolds, the reader encounters a brilliant multi-dimensional portrayal of character that anyone could take a lesson from.
An old sea-man comes to stay at the Hawkins’s inn. He calls himself Captain Jack—not to be confused with Captain Jack Sparrow of Disney fame (we learn later that the sea-man’s name is Bill Flint). Stevenson gives this gritty description:
I remember him as if it were yesterday…a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pig-tail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat; his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the saber cut across one cheek, a dirty livid white. I remember him looking round the cove and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:
Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest,
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
In the high, old tottering voice that seemed to have been tuned and broken at the capstan bars.
[he] called roughly for a glass of rum. This, when it was brought to him, he drank slowly, like a connoisseur, lingering on the taste, and still looking about him at the cliffs and up at our signboard.
“This is a handy cove,” says he, at length; “and a pleasant sittyated grog-shop.”
Every detail serves a double purpose
When introducing a character you want to pick details that reveal that character’s personality.
You often hear people say “show, don’t tell.” I believe a more powerful technique is to evoke. For instance, when you read “nut-brown man,” you get an image of someone who has spent a lot of time in the sun. “hands ragged and scarred, etc.” evokes a life of hard labor. I especially love “the saber cut across one cheek, a dirty livid white.” Beautifully vivid.
The introduction of this character is a critical element in the story. Treasure Island follows Joseph Campbell’s monomyth pattern (see Hero With a Thousand Faces). Captain Jack serves as the herald, whose role is to deliver the call to adventure that sweeps the hero into the story. Captain Jack’s vivid portrayal serves to paint a picture of the types of characters that Jim Hawkins is certain to encounter as the story progresses.
Have your character make an entrance
This technique doesn’t always have to be used, but it can serve to further cement a character’s disposition in the reader’s mind. The pattern usually has two steps:
- Have the character do something idiosyncratic, something unique to their personality.
- Then have them say something.
After giving a description of Captain Jack, Stevenson has him sing a little ditty, then calls for a glass of rum. He drinks it while standing in the street, then utters his highly stylized line of dialog. By the end of this introduction you’re popping with curiosity, and dying to know who this person is.
Show interactions with other characters
To add further depth, show how the other characters react. Some reactions will be positive, and others will be negative. When you show one character reacting to another, you at once shed light upon the personalities of both characters.
Young Jim Hawkins doesn’t know what to make of this sea-man. To add to the mystery, Captain Jack takes Jim aside and offers to pay him a silver four-penny each month if he will keep a “weather eye open for a seafaring man with one leg.” If Jim sees such a man, he is to let the captain know as soon as possible.
The captain behaves in an excessively paranoid fashion. The Admiral Benbow is a popular place for seafaring men to seek room and board. The captain is wary of every guest, spying upon them before allowing himself to be seen. Once he is at ease, he will be extra quiet until they check out.
After Captain Jack settles in, he begins terrorizing the guests.
There were nights when he took a deal more rum and water than his head would carry; and then he would sometimes sit and sing his wicked, old, wild sea-songs, minding nobody; but sometimes he would call for glasses round, and force all the trembling company to listen to his stories or bear a chorus to his singing. Often I have heard the house shaking with “Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum,” all the neighbors joining in for dear life, with the fear of death upon them, and each singing louder than the other to avoid remark. … he would slap his hand on the table for silence all around; he would fly up in a passion of anger at a question, or sometimes because none was put, and so he judged the company was not following his story. Nor would he allow anyone to leave the inn till he had drunk himself sleepy and reeled off to bed.
…people were frightened at the time, but on looking back they rather liked it; it was a fine excitement in a quiet country life; and there was even a party of the younger men who pretended to admire him, calling him a “true sea-dog,” and a “real old salt,” and such like names, and saying there was the sort of man that made England terrible at sea.
…I remember observing the contrast the neat, bright doctor, with his power [wig] as white as snow…and pleasant manners made with the coltish country folk, and above all, with that filthy, heavy, bleared scarecrow of a pirate of ours, sitting far gone in rum, with his arms on the table. Suddenly he—the captain, that is—began to pipe up his eternal song…
- Make every description do double-duty. Pick details that that reveal a character’s personality.
- Have your character make an entrance. Have them do something peculiar to their nature, then have them say something that reveals their mood.
- Portray interactions with other characters.