The Greatest Gift

By Virginia Parker Staat

“I love the tradition of Dickens, where even the most minor
walk-on characters are twitching and particular and alive.”

~Donna Tartt

It was a gem of a find. It had rained for six days straight, and we were looking for a diversion. As David and I strolled through the small ferry terminal in Wrangell, Alaska, we discovered a cart filled with discarded library books, all free for the taking. Within minutes, I had several keepers in my hands. The most promising was The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern. This short story inspired the movie classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, one of my Christmas favorites.

I love to read beginnings and how great writers develop their wonderful stories into classics. That evening I curled up in the camper, relishing the time before me in the company of this small book. Too quickly I was done and disappointed.

Stern’s short story was far from what I had envisioned. It seemed flat and sketchy. The opening was similar to It’s a Wonderful Life, with a desperate George Bailey on a bridge, contemplating suicide by diving into the icy river below. However, in place of the wingless, second-class angel Clarence, a nameless little man appeared in Stern’s version. The little man offered George the opportunity to see the world as if he had never been born. Missing from the short story, however, were the multitude of minor characters I had grown to love in the movie. There was no despicable Mr. Potter; no absent-minded Uncle Billy, grieving Mr. Gower, or seductive Violet; no Bert and Ernie serenading at George and Mary’s window; and no sign of Zuzu’s petals. My problem was that I knew It’s a Wonderful Life all too well.

It seemed to me that Mr. Stern had been inspired with a most wonderful idea, yet he had missed a tremendous opportunity. In the book’s afterword, Stern’s daughter revealed the details of her father writing The Greatest Gift. She recalled him saying that the story had come to him intact and that he never thought of changing it. She also said that he was a historian by trade and had just begun writing fiction. The Greatest Gift was among his first attempts at writing a short story.

I certainly identified with Mr. Stern. When I was in college, I wrote a melodramatic short story about the final moments in a suicidal man’s life. My writing professor was brutally honest with me, explaining that short stories were no place for suicides. It takes much longer than the space allowed in a short story to develop a character so emotionally desperate. When comparing Stern’s original short story to It’s a Wonderful Life, we can clearly see that this is true. In The Greatest Gift, Stern writes eight sentences explaining why George wants to commit suicide. Over two-thirds of the movie is dedicated to understanding why George feels so desperate. It is the quintessential example of character development.

Rich, three-dimensional characters are the cornerstone for any story. They draw our readers in, offering emotion and connection. We develop our characters through details, dialogue, and action, whether writing fiction or nonfiction. Nature writer Bill Roorbach explains, “A lot has been written about characters and character when it comes to fiction. Many of the same techniques apply to nonfiction: Through detail, through gesture, through talk, through close understanding of whole lives before and after the scope of your story, you make your people vivid in your reader’s head.”

Every character we introduce to our readers – even minor characters – must have a purpose. They must move the story along in some way or add depth to our protagonist. A character may be an antagonist, opposing and/or foiling. They may be dynamic, changing as a result of our story. They may be mentor, tempter, lover, trickster, supporter, or sidekick to our protagonist. Readers should feel that every character we introduce has a life outside our story.

Let’s look at the minor, femme fatale character Violet Bick in It’s a Wonderful Life. Why is she important to George’s story? Webster’s Dictionary defines a femme fatale as a woman who attracts men with an aura of charm and mystery. George seems to be one of the few people in Violet’s life who sees beyond her allure, treating her honorably. Violet’s titillating, temptress dialogue and actions are different when she’s around George. As a result of Violet’s minor character, we understand protagonist George and his personality more clearly.

When we focus on developing the characters in our stories, we add richness and depth to our work. They pull readers into our story, evoking emotion and connection. We develop characters through details, dialogue, and action. Once mastered, our characters become one of the greatest gifts we can offer our readers.

[To understand more about characterization, I invite you to read Philip Van Doren Stern’s short story The Greatest Gift (available free online) then watch the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. Compare the characters in each, focusing on their purpose and personality.]