Characters make your story possible. Writers draw readers in by using well-rounded, believable characters with depth and complexity and they are astute enough to spot mundane cardboard representations, or cartoon/stereotypical types.
Well-developed characters add an extra dimension to your story. Who they are and how they act are important. We’re all complex, we all have different personalities and outlooks and we’re all individual. Your characters should be no different.
The primary role of characters is to move your story forward through the use of dialogue and action, to realise motivation, enhance the plot and to engage the reader.
Of course, there’s more to giving your character a name, simple physical attributes, giving them and age range or creating a half-completed personality. Character traits tell the reader what sort of person your character really is. The more dimensions you add to your characters, the more engaging and real they become for your reader. You need to know the following about them:
• Your character's likes/dislikes, including their general tastes like fashion, food, music, sex, love etc.
• How they act and react with other characters and situations
• How they interact with the environment
• Dialect or way of speaking, linguistic/slang characteristics
• Behavioural traits: what has happened in their past to make them who they are?
• Body and facial traits like twitches, hair twiddling, etc.
• Their outlook on life
• Their habits. We all have habits, so will your characters. Drink, drugs, smoking, farting...even subtle things like someone who wears glasses constantly cleaning them, stroking beards/moustaches, that kind of thing.
The most useful aid is to simply write a full history and biography of your character which will include simple facts such as appearance, date of birth, their age now, parents and siblings, pets, upbringing, education and general lifestyle etc. Some prefer to write a checklist to familiarise themselves. Other writers might see a photograph of someone and know instantly that’s what the character could look like in their story. Do whatever feels best for you.
There are various methods to bring your characters to life within the narrative, and you should try to involve as many for your character:
1. Display the character's actions
2. Reveal the character's thoughts
3. Get reactions from your other characters
4. Body language
Once you have a have a biography or checklist, you need to bring the character to life and dispense some of the information within the narrative. There are couple of methods to do that:-
This is where the writer tells the reader directly about the characters, hair, eyes, nose, mouth, clothes, etc, in one block of writing, usually near the beginning of the story.
‘Jim was tall and had a long nose and deep set eyes, and short, cropped hair which turned a lighter brown in the sun. He had broad shoulders and a short body and was fond of wearing a tracksuit…’
Although this is informative, it’s quite boring and will have people nodding off, and yet many writers tend to go with this direct characterisation approach. It’s much better like this:
‘Jim’s height shadowed those around him. He had a smooth long nose, but his skin had been marked from a bout of measles as a child, and now his whiskers covered the deep grooves in his skin. His eyes were as dark as his stubble…’
The above paragraph tells us several things; he’s tall, he’s self-conscious of the marks on his face because now he has a beard, and he had measles as a child. This is indirect character revelation, and it’s how you give your characters depth without boring your reader to death with mundane facts.
As the example above, this means that the writer implies a character’s traits throughout the narrative, rather than bombard with a gamut of information from the beginning. This way you can drip feed to the reader throughout the story.
Characterisation isn’t just about telling the reader about hair and eye colour, face shape, size etc. The internal goings on within a character makes them interesting, not what they actually look like. That old saying ‘Show don’t Tell’ is a useful tool when describing your characters.
Remember, characters are not perfect, and they should never be. They have flaws, foibles, habits and weaknesses, just like real people. They should resonate with your reader
Next time: Characterisation and body language.