“Revealing small tidbits about your characters as you go along helps engage your readers. We know how important that is in dropping clues and red herrings, but it’s also an excellent way to have your readers identify with your characters — even the villains. This is especially important in a mystery because it isn’t until the end of the story (hopefully) that the reader figures out who is truly the villain.” – Gayle Trent
I like author Gayle Trent’s advice about adding small tidbits of information about characters as stories progress, taken from Adding Dimension to Your Characters, because it mirrors the way most of us learn about the people in our lives. We meet a person, note what they look like, discover whether they seem to like us or pose a threat, and then the longer we’re around them, the more bits and pieces we pick up. Real life people seldom appear with a resume.
I’ve been thinking about all those people in our stories and how we portray them ever since reading a beginning writer’s question on a writing forum. She wanted to know how to figure out what a character in a proposed story looked like, sounded like, and acted like.
The question puzzled me, not because it’s irrelevant, but because the writer seemed to have no idea what the character was like. Early on, most writers need to figure out how best to portray major and minor characters in a story. Usually, though, a writer has a story idea and sort of “sees” the people involved: the challenge, then, is taking what one “sees” and figuring out how to describe the character on paper.
By “see,” I mean seeing the character the way one “sees” somebody in their memory when they think about a family member, colleague, or friend.
Rushing the Plot?
I often wonder if a writer is rushing the plot down on paper before it’s ready when s/he decides to write the story but doesn’t know what any of the characters are like. When I think about writing a “boy meets girl” story, it’s hard for me to think about the idea without “seeing” what they boy and girl look like, act like, and believe in.
Fortunately for me, my imagination is very visual. That is, my potential story or story in progress presents itself to my thoughts like watching a movie. When I write a scene, I’m watching it the way I watch a movie or the way I see an event from the past in my memory.
If you don’t see your story this way as you write, here are a few ideas for learning about your characters:
- Readers like good guys with flaws and bad guys with a few good points. Real people are seldom 100% angels or 100% devils.
- Write a few pages of the story, and watch who shows up. As you write about your protagonist, do you “see” him taking actions and having conversations? Do you see the antagonist working his or her evil plots? If you do, then your characters and their traits may well develop as you tell the story. As you learn about them, you can go back and begin to describe them.
- Interview your character: This works best if you type a list of questions, print them out, and then quickly hand write the answers. Questions might include: how old are you, what color is your hair, what’s your hobby, what’s your job, what’s your favorite movie, what excites you, what depresses you, etc. Pretend like your conducting a job interview and write down the answers as quickly as you can.
- Imagine your character. Relax and pretend you are sitting in a place associated with your story whether it’s an office, ship, war zone, forest, old house or whatever. Pretend you’re sitting there when your character shows up. Watch them. How do they act? What do they look like? What’s their favorite color or song or book?
- I don’t like using real people as models, but sometimes it’s hard not to when they seem to fit the bill. What makes these real people stand out in your mind? If you were going to sketch their picture with a pencil, what physical characteristics would stand out?
- Elsewhere, I wrote a post about characters and themes. When you have a so-called theme for your minor characters, you’re providing the reader with a few defining points each time they appear. They pronounce words incorrectly. They shout. Their hair is always messed up. They wear the same color all the time. They swear a lot. They tell the same joke in multiple ways. You can sketch in characters quickly by getting readers used to identifying them with their theme.
- It’s important to discover why readers might care about your protagonist and what they fear/dislike about your antagonist. Without resorting to trite, stock characters out of books and movies, what does this suggest to you. What actions/traits make a character lovable? What actions/traits make a character despicable? As you think of this, you might begin to see what they look like, what they might do (good or bad) and the kinds of friends they have.
Rushing the story ruins the story. Rushing character development tends to create either flat stereotypes or too many details. As your story unfolds during the first draft, I think you will “see” your characters more and more clearly in your mind. You can always go back and add detail earlier in the story if you need it. You don’t need to know everything about every character when you start writing.
I like the idea of discovering a story as I write. This doesn’t work for the people who insist upon an outline. But as the story unfolds, the characters become clear. Now I can go back and fill in the details and make them more three-dimensional.
In many stories, the plot defines the kinds of characters you need. The more you follow the plot, the more you see who’s in it.