Characters are a vital ingredient to a successful story, and well-drawn, memorable characters are what we remember and enjoy about stories. We become immersed in their world, their adventures and their actions.
Characters are notable because they’re multidimensional; they’re almost real, and very often they are drawn from real life. But the one thing that makes characters so effective is their characteristics. These multifaceted features give your characters life. It’s the thing that makes them real. But what do we mean by characteristics?
Real people are fallible. No one is perfect. Everyone has foibles and we have unique personalities, shaped by our genes, experiences, childhood, parents and peers and our environments. Everyone has a history, a background; a story. We all have personality traits – the little things that make us…us.
These are the various layers your characters need in order to have realistic characteristics.
This is an important aspect that writers shouldn’t overlook. Our behaviour is dictated by so many things and they are drawn from external influences and internal influences.
What we do in any given moment is governed by our behaviour - how we act and react to the things and people around us. It’s that behaviour that defines us. But there are different aspects of behaviour – it isn’t just one thing.
We are all guilty of repetitive behaviours – hair twiddling or flicking our hair, hand rubbing, licking our lips; foot tapping…all these seemingly insignificant things are characteristics that make us unique. We tap our fingers when we’re annoyed. We cross our arms when we’re defensive (the arms form a physical barrier to our bodies), and we scratch our noses or ears when we’re nervous.
Behaviours can be dictated by our mood, what happens in any given day, the people around us, the stresses of life, work, family…just about everything. That’s why authors like to give their characters certain behaviours to help make them stand out. You could, for instance, have a character that is particular about cleaning his hands. Or a character that constantly adjusts his tie when he feels awkward or under pressure.
Often people fiddle with their glasses when they talk. Some people, when they’ve crossed their legs, bob or tap their feet when they’re annoyed. These characteristics may not seem much, but the reader will notice them and it will help them form a deeper, clearer mental picture of your characters.
No character is complete without traits – those individual qualities that are unique and distinctive to all of us. Characters are no different. Character traits help to flesh out your characters and make them more realistic. Readers will recognise the little nuances and quirks, and they will like your characters more.
Some of us are reserved, while some of us are quirky or quick to temper. What we like and dislike is part of our personality traits. Some people are prone to jealousy; others are way too relaxed about life. Some people are adaptive and love change, while others are easily stressed by situations. Everyone is different, so every one of your main characters will also have varying character traits. Just remember that every single person has negative and positive characters traits, so unless your protagonist is actually an angel, they won’t be wonderful, perfect or righteous as you think.
Body language is another area often overlooked by authors, but it forms part of your character’s overall characteristics. You can show your reader much more than ordinary directions in your descriptions, for instance, this example simply tells the reader the character is frustrated:
John’s voice rose in frustration. “No way!”
With body language, however, those simple actions become a secret code to the reader – a way of expressing much more.
John rose slowly from the chair. His shoulders stiffened, and his fists tightened and bunched until hot-white. “No way!”
The stiffening of the body can hint to your reader more than just telling them what the character is feeling. Hand gestures or sweeping hand movements, animated speech with body movement are all overt signals to the reader. Other signals can be subtle. Someone crossing their legs is a subtle signal (depending on whether they cross their legs away from a person or near the person) of like or dislike. The stroking of a face can convey much more than just an action, which is also subtle. A character that leans forward during a conversation is showing the other character interest. These are ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ ways that readers pick up on.
Emotions shape the way we behave. They are so powerful that they can make us do things we normally wouldn’t. We’re driven by emotions. So, what we feel often has a bearing on how we act with others. Some people might be overly emotional, which may lead to tactile and softer characteristics, while others are less emotional and have colder personalities. This might reflect standoffish characteristics, or those who lack sentiment.
Emotions make use sentimental. They make us fall in love. Emotion makes us cry or it gives rise to rage and anger or jealousy. It makes us do crazy things. It makes us withdraw into ourselves. It makes us happy, sad or depressed. But whatever the emotion, make sure your characters have plenty – your reader will thank you for it,
To create characteristics, make sure you create a complete biography of your main characters. You have to really know your character like a real person. Where was the character born, and when? Who were his or her parents? What was their childhood like? Their education? What happened to them to make the person they are in the present story? Who influenced them growing up? What has happened to them to bring them to that opening point in your story?
When you have these questions answered, you will have a good idea of the kind of character you have created. It will be easier to assign certain behaviours and personality traits according to the character’s history and backstory. You might, for instance, have a character that suffered a childhood trauma, and now suffers panic attacks whenever they come into contact with dogs, or a character that has an addictive personality and can’t resist alcohol – something that might make or break him.
You don’t have to look far for characteristics for your characters – our own personalities are stuffed with them. So if you want your readers to remember your characters, make sure they have real traits, real emotions, real behaviours and try to show different body facets of body language.
Next week: Developing a story idea