Saturday, November 5, 2011

Creating Interesting Characters

Lauren Hutton's Teeth
Characters are usually the most important part of a story. Even the best plot needs good characters. Strong, interesting characters stay with me for years, maybe always. So what can we do to help make them vivid and real?
Show characterization through actions and reactions; keep descriptions visual whenever possible, but that doesn’t mean to give a driver’s license description. Show rather than tell. There are at least five ways to show your character to the reader:
1. Through physical attributes
2. Through psychological attributes and mannerisms
3. With clothing or the manner and style of wearing it
4. Through actions
5. In dialogue
Physical attributes are more than hair and eye color. You might show how the person walks—does he walk, swagger, amble, sidle, or slither into the room? Does he look directly at you when he talks or does his gaze slide away?
Show, don't tell. Give her an unusual feature. Remember Lauren Hutton's gap-toothed charm? That little imperfection was endearing and made her stand out.
 How the character looks can be shown through the effect on others. Instead of She was breathtakingly beautiful, you might say Joe and every other man present forgot to breathe when Angela entered the room. Instead of George was big and mean-looking, try something like Walking with George was like walking with a Doberman—one look and people made way in a hurry.
Who could forget John Wayne's walk?
Clothing can show a great deal. Is the character neat and clean but wearing an obviously homemade dress? Does Dan have snagged threads and salsa stains on his Dior tie? And there's always the church organist with the red lace underwear. List all the physical characteristics on a separate page so you don't forget that on page twenty she had green eyes and on page two hundred you make them match the topaz necklace she's wearing. If she's only an inch shorter than another character, she'd better not be looking up at him unless she's sitting down. I often use pictures I cut from magazines or wherever and tape them to the wall by my desk.
Mannerisms are good ways to make a character memorable, but use the mannerism sparingly. Don’t limit your character to a single action so that you repeat the same thing over and over.  Instead of having her twist a strand of hair around her finger until the reader wants to cut it off (either the finger or the hair—watch those pronouns), find ways to vary a nervous habit. Make a list of applicable verbs if she plays with her hair: chew, finger, pull, stroke, tuck, whatever. Or maybe she fiddled with her clothing, adjusted her glasses, pushed her hair back, picked at her nails. Use these things sparingly.
You can also use physical surroundings, the character’s past, and his or her name to enhance the character’s personality. Someone told me that Margaret Mitchell started out calling her heroine Pansy. Thank goodness she changed her to Scarlett. How about Eudora Welty’s Stella Rondo? The name rolls off the tongue and stays with you. Faulkner’s Colonel Sartoris Snopes. It suits the character.
Do you have any pet peeves? What turns you off? Turns you on? How do you come up with interesting characters?


The Tame Lion said...

Inspirational! Nice post!

Ellis Vidler said...

Tame Lion, I went to your blog and laughed. Fun jokes.

VR Barkowski said...

Great primer on show vs. tell, Ellis. For some reason, my characters pop into my head whole-cloth. I do scratch out a quickie profile-sheet for each, but they tell me what to write.

My biggest peeves are laundry lists that reveal neither character nor plot. For example, clothing details that say nothing about the person wearing them or about the story. Another of my list peeves is street directions, as in: he drove down the I-10, to the Topanga off-ramp and slid onto Armstrong Boulevard, stopping at the red light. On green he gunned it and made a right onto the Esplanade, etc. etc. *Show* me the route through a character's eyes, and I'm right there. Give me directions lifted off Mapquest and I'm lost.

Ellis Vidler said...

Viva, good point about the street directions. I described the buildings and lights and had my character guess she was in Chinatown. I hope I let the reader (if there ever is one) see it through her eyes. It's something to watch for.

Polly said...

Another great post. I describe one male character's profile as similar to that on an old Roman coin. Good thing I'm on edits. This is fodder to go back and check. I do have a series of directions, Viva. Thanks for the heads up. :-)

Peg Brantley said...

Super post!

I recently almost didn't read a book because the characters in the beginning seemed really stupid and immature to me. They were young adults . . . 30's. I began to think maybe I missed the part about developmental disabilities.

The book turned out to be good, but the characters never quite made a score. Funny, they were better apart than together.