Any author will say that the creation of realistic and convincing characters is an essential part of a writer’s craft.
If a reader cannot believe in the depiction of someone on the page, that reader will no doubt lose all interest in following their story.
So characters need to be real. Believable. Able to engage and sustain a reader’s fascination.
But how much factual information, the details of everyday life, does an author need to impart?
For a start, do characters need to have birthdays?
Close to finishing my next novel, I suddenly realised that although Lily, my protagonist, has a birthday marked and mentioned in the narrative, few other characters do. Yet the story is set over a year and a bit – should other principal characters have their birthdays noted?
And that got me thinking – how many novels could I recall where the birthdays of characters were defined and celebrated?
Very, very few are lodged in my memory.
Yet in the world outside of fiction, birthdays are notable events, our dates of birth something that we constantly confront and compare.
Sometimes, of course, a birthday is of considerable significance in a novel, playing a pivotal and dynamic role.
Take The Go-Between, for example.
Leo’s 13th birthday in 1900 occurs when he is staying with Maudsleys at Brandham Hall. In the prologue our first-person narrator, 65-year-old Leo, tells the reader that the last entry in his diary for 1900 reads:
Thursday 26th. 80.7 degrees.
Some 230 pages or so later, we learn that:
My birthday! It all came back to that. But I didn’t feel it was my birthday: I felt I was an indifferent spectator at someone else’s.
But even the footman at palatial Brandham Hall notes that:
Time’s running on! You’re 13 now, you’ll soon be 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, and every year brings new troubles.
Pathetic fallacy is already signalling to us that the day is ominous:
And now the skies were grey …I was so used to being greeted by the sun that its absence was as disconcerting as a frown on a face that has always smiled.
And the day – Leo’s 13th birthday – does indeed go on to disconcert in the most major way and thus his birthday proves to be a climactic point in the novel.
In Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, the inheritance of a large diamond on Rachel Verinder’s 18th birthday is the event that propels the plot so clearly this birthday is of considerable significance, igniting the action.
Drama, of course, has a glaring example of the use of a birthday with Harold Pinter’s play The Birthday Party. Yet in this complex play, the audience is never really sure of things – This isn’t my birthday, Stanley declares against the insistence of other characters. It’s next month, he continues to protest. But ambiguity runs through the play so the uncertainty surrounding Stanley’s date of birth is part of the bewildering and unstable world in which the characters find themselves.
So perhaps this is indicative of the necessity or otherwise of noting a character’s birthday. Only if it plays a defined role in the narrative should it be mentioned.
Otherwise, ignore the event.
Forget the cluster of birthday cards and butter icing on the cake and – these days! – greetings on social media details if they are simply there for their own sake.
Deprive characters of their annual ‘special day’ if it is merely incidental and cannot be exploited for plot purpose.
Just as authors never get their protagonists to clean their teeth or make their beds or wash the kitchen floor unless it can be used as a device for revelation of some sort or a clue to a character’s personality.
Which, of course, it can be.
After all, it’s the little details and idiosyncrasies in real life that can reveal so much about us ….
And since our obligation as writers is to make our characters as close to life as we can within the construct of the novel..
I think I better stop before I find myself going around in ever increasing circles!