Learn to create memorable characters that leap off the page.
CREATING MEMORABLE CHARACTERS
Points of characterization summarized from Sol Stein’s FictionMaster.
© T. L. Gray 2002
WE NEED TO KNOW THE PEOPLE IN THE CAR BEFORE WE SEE THE CAR CRASH. The reader wants to fall in love with at least one of your characters. As a romance writer, they must love the hero and heroine. Creating a fascinating character will get you there. The best conflict comes from great characterization. And if conflict is grounded in characterization, you won’t need to worry about plot, it will come.
FOUR CHARACTERISTICS OF INTERESTING PEOPLE:
Personality—distinctive traits of an individual. A set of behaviors, attitudes, manners, and mannerisms that identify the person.
Disposition—attitude toward people, places, the world. Outlook, mood, frame of mind, inclination, tendencies.
Temperament—manner of behaving, thinking, reacting to people, circumstances.
Individuality—the characteristics that set him apart, define him, singles him out.
ECCENTRICITY—an offbeat manner of behavior, dress, or speech that is peculiar to that person. The oddball. Kinky. Quirky. The most memorable characters in the history of fiction have some degree of eccentricity. These are things that seem perfectly normal to the individual, but are seen as idiosyncrasies by others.
Think Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. He’s vain about his mustache and fussy about his linens. He doesn’t walk, he trips along with short, almost dainty steps.
What’s in a NAME?
Is the name you’ve chosen for your character distinctive? Common first names can be used with uncommon last names, or vise versa. Example: Jay Gatsby. Single, uncommon names stick in the memory of the reader. Example: Heathcliff.
Descriptive nicknames like Bunny, Slim, Bubba, should be used carefully—they characterize the character more than any other name. They could unintentionally characterize comically when that was not your intent.
Certain types of names will be markers for the reader to identify with a particular origin, such as a Scarlet O’Hara (of Irish decent).
Is the name too unwieldy or too long? Does it start with the same letter or sound like another character name in your work? If so, consider changing the name.
Make your character come alive on the page. Avoid common clichés and generalizations. Rely on a striking image rather than a list of characteristics.
Bad Example: Joseph Rock was tall and broad-shouldered. He dressed in tight jeans and always had a smile on his face.
Good Example: When Joe Rockport smiled it looked like a prison riot had gone off in his mouth, but that didn’t keep him from giving the ladies his best. His jeans were glued on, his glossy locks raced ninety-mile an hour toward the back of his neck, and his boots, new when God was a baby, had been the death of many a cockroach.
Who seems more interesting?
How does your character speak? Softy. Whisper. Shout. Lisp. Hoarse.
Example: She seemed to sing her words instead of saying them so that one felt they were part of a tune that was never ending.
“That,” she hissed, jabbing an accusing finger toward the hallway where Francis had just disappeared, “is not a preacher.”
Characterize through movement. Contrast between what we expect and what we see stirs our interest. Use forms of movement such as scurry, zigzag, promenade, stroll, stagger.
Example: He staggered toward the door, reaching for the knob before collapsing to the sidewalk. (Is he drunk? Wounded? Why is he staggering?)
PSYCHOLOGICAL: How does your character listen? As though his life depended on it? Half-heartedly? Did he/she notice the music playing in the background or only the silence when it stopped?
In my upcoming novel, THE CHAMBER, I gave one of the characters phenomenal hearing. He could hear a mosquito crawl across cotton.
EYES: Even when Renee stood completely still her gaze bounced around the room.
THE MOST IMPORTANT CHARACTERISTIC: Your character needs one distinctive or unusual physical and psychological characteristic. If you haven’t already, invent one.
Example: She knew he was nearing the end of his patience when his warm hazel eyes began to turn an icy blue.
Don’t say she’s short, say: She preferred to stand when others sat.
DOES YOUR CHARACTER HAVE A REAL JOB? The reader should see them at work. This will give the main characters more depth. Show, don’t tell. Thinking about a work problem can also help in characterization.
Example: Judge Sarah Wentworth seemed like a block of ice in black robes until a small child, looking lost and along, was thrust before her, then her eyes softened, revealing warmth and sympathy.
MARKERS—the key to memorable characterization
The use of regional and generational differences. Upper class vs. lower class.
Example: Curlers in the hair, worn out in public connotes “lower class” to readers. Dirt beneath the fingernails may indicate a person does dirty work (mechanic), or simply doesn’t get their hands/nails quite clean.
Public conduct with Children—a woman with a well-dressed child indicates one thing while a woman who screams at her child in the market indicates something completely different.
Also, using an animal or children to characterize a human is a good choice. We tend to dislike and distrust people who are cruel or mean to animals. Yet, the heroine might enjoy teasing children on Halloween by telling them she’s a witch.
Habits. Jewelry. Mannerisms. Transportation. Food and drink. Sports.
Choice of Words—accent, speech markers, stress of certain words, slang, speaks in incomplete sentences.
Attitudes—about people, places, things.
How they get their information—paper, radio, gossip column, TV.
HEREDITY: Best/Worst inherited trait. Best/Worst influence in upbringing. Environmental influences.
Exaggeration—should come from a character: “Lord, my hair grew an inch waiting for you.” Can also come from a person’s internal dialogue about how they perceive others, or their own circumstances.
QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER:
Does he/she behave the same around strangers as family members?
How would he/she react to meeting a close friend on the street?
What if he/she was supposed to have met or called back this friend and didn’t? Would he/she lie? Apologize?
Does the way he/she talks offend people? Or is it pleasing?
Does he/she use figures of speech that characterize?
How are attitudes revealed in speech?
What is implied by the way he/she dresses?
Conscious or unconscious mannerisms?
What impression would you have of him/her at a first meeting? Is this impression in your description? Would this impression be different if you saw this person for the first time naked?
Now, revise your character based on answers thus far. Then continue.
Vulnerability—demonstrate this through action. List worst trait (leave out serial killers, Hitler, etc). Bad trait. Bad trait of opposite sex. Give your character some version of the bad trait. Perhaps your character is aware of his/her bad trait and resists it.
Flaw—your main characters must have both vulnerability and flaws. If the overall intent of the character is good, the character will be perceived as good, yet human, which is what you’re striving for.
Does your character have a secret about something bad from the past that can come out in the story? Is anger not justified by the circumstances?
Do they blame others for their faults? Rationalize them?
What makes them act cowardly? Even the bravest person is afraid of something. Give them a fear.
Is there a reason your character cannot be trusted in a particular area of life?
Do you need to further revise? Do so, then continue.
AVOID: Passivity = wimp. Overriding flaws. (except as a foil for comedy)
Would your character knock on the door and not enter unless given permission, or, denied permission, would they barge in and insist on being heard? The person who waits for permission is passive, a wimp. The one who insists on being heard—assertive. Which character would you rather read about? Assertiveness need not be aggressive or belligerent.
BACKSTORY: Do you know your character’s backstory? It isn’t necessary that the reader to know it, but it’s essential that you do. Questions for backstory: Try to limit them to emotionally important or memorable highlights.
Has something significant happened in the first seven years of the character’s life that must influence the future?
What one incident in school is he/she unable to forget? Favorite teacher? Why?
Who did he/she think of as the enemy? Why?
Ever betrayed by a friend?
Did physical appearance influence his/her vulnerability?
Did mother/father get along? Home life—If there was friction, what was the cause and how did it influence your character’s later years?
What occupation was the first to intrigue your character?
Does he/she ever recollect first love experience? How did it affect them? Influence them?
Most embarrassing moment?
Compare your character’s previous development to the product you now have. Remember that interesting characters are what intrigue and hold the reader’s attention. What makes them want to know more. What keeps them turning pages.