Perhaps no single aspect of writing fiction is as important as being able to create believabe characters with whom the reader can identify and about whom the reader cares. If the reader does not care about the characters, he will not care about what they do or don't do. The reader will not care what happens to them. Even your unsurpassed plot, without quality characters, will not matter much. Quality characaters are like real people. Everything they do comes out of who they are. A character's actions and reactions stem from his person, his motivations, his spirit. To fully involve the reader in your story, you must fully involve your reader in your characters. It's that simple.
Good writing begins not with plot, but with character. Character drives plot.
There are seven aspects of creating character that every writer must know. They are
- Your character's physical appearance
- Your character's speech
- Your character's thoughts
- Your characters's actions
- What other characters say or think about your character
- How the setting reveals your character
- Your (the author's) direct comments about your character
Your character's physical appearance
The first thing you notice when you meet a person is his appearance.
Of course the list goes on and on, doesn't it? The important points to remember here are these:
- Is the person clean or dirty?
- Is the person handsome or beautiful or plain?
- Are the person's clothes expensive, stylish, ragged?
- Is the person old or young or middle aged?
- What race, color of hair, eyes?
- Is the person in shape, skinny, overweight?
- Is the person dressed in a tuxedo or cut-offs?
Humanity's fixation with the physical imposes limits on relationships. But without a definitive picture of your characters, there will be no relationship with the reader.
- the way you describe your characters tells the reader much about them.
- the way you describe your characters places an image in the reader's mind, without which it is difficult to begin to relate to that character.
Your character's speech
Your character's speech tells volumes about him. The reader learns to know your character by
- what your character says
- Does he speak kind, thoughtful words or selfish, hurtful words?
- Are his words offensive and arrogant or humble?
- Is he educated or illiterate?
- Does he discuss important matters or only trivial ones?
- how your character speaks
- Is his voice thin or a huskey, smoker's voice?
- Does he have a lisp or stutter?
- Does he have a Southern accent?
- Does he speak too rapidly or painfully slowly?
Your character's thoughts
The simple reality is that since our thoughts are private, they are more honest than our words. We have all learned that some things should not be said. We think them, but we do not say them. A character's words may say, "How do I like your new dress? Well, I think it is a lovely color of blue for you." But in his thoughts he may be thinking, "You should never wear a strapless gown! You're just too fat for that style!"
Or imagine a character who is a con man. Do you really think he would say, "Hi, there. I'm going to be a pleasant and cordial as I can in order to win your confidence, then at the first opportunity, I am going to rip you off bad! Yes, sir, I am going to get you to trust me, then swindle you out of every cent you own!" Of course not! If your character is planning something underhanded, his thoughts may reveal what his words never would.
Let the reader hear your character's thoughts. They can be very revealing.
Your characters's actions
Everyone knows the old saying "Actions speak louder than words." It is true in life, and it is true in writing characters. Does your character
What your character does and how he/she treats others is very revealing. A mofia hit man and a volunteer for a hospice program both deal with the dying! But they create too very different characters, don't they? Let your reader see your character in action. Let your reader see your character behind the scenes if it will help to establish personality.
- have interesting hobbies that reveal personality?
- participate in extreme sports?
- shut himself indoors and see no one?
- have a secret life his family knows nothing about?
- volunteer to work at homeless shelters?
- give away money to charities?
- carry groceries for crippled old ladies?
What other characters say or think about your character
Read the following for comparison:
- "No question about it. I am the greatest football player Broken Arrow has ever had. You might even say I am the team! Without me, I doubt if anyone would even show up at the games!"
- "Did you see the game last night? Our quarterback is incredible! He did things on the field no one else could even think about doing! He's the greatest football player Broken Arrow has ever had. He's a one-man team! If he quit playing, I bet the crowd would stop coming!"
Can you see the difference between 1 and 2? Even if it is true, no one thinks highly of someone who is always bragging on himself, do they? To share the good qualities of your character, let other characters brag on him. That way the reader knows what you want them to know without feeling offended by an egotisical main character.
Read the following for comparison:
- "I need to borrow five dollars. I will promise to pay you back, but I never will. I am a mooch. I take from everyone foolish enough to loan me money, but I never pay it back. I never intend to. Can I borrow five dollars?"
- "Did he ask to borrow money? Don't give it to him! He's a mooch. He borrows from everybody, promises to pay it back, but never does. He never intends to pay it back. He just flat out lies about it!"
Can you see the difference between 1 and 2? People do not normally disparage themselves. They do not reveal their intent to harm you or steal from you. They do not reveal the negative side of their character. To have your character do so, is to make your character seem unrealistic. Have another character reveal those negative things that you want your reader to know, but cannot have your negative character reveal about himself.
How the setting reveals your character
Pay close attention to this one. It is poorly understood by many students and not always well-used by writers. The concept of using setting to define character is simple:
- the setting is like the character and reinforces the character's personality, or
- the setting is different from the character and reveals personality by clashing with it.
Consider the following:
- An outdoors-type adventurer's plane crashes in the dense South American jungles. He must make his way back to civilization by will power and cunning. He loves it! The excitement of the terrain, the danger of wild animals and hostile natives, the possibility of failure and what it would mean--all these thrill him!
- A young man fresh off a farm in rural Illinois goes to Chicago, hoping to get a job. The streets are too dirty, the air is foul and polluted, the noise is incessant, the people are too hurried to be genuinely friendly, he cannot see a sunrise or hear the creek splashing its way down to the river--all these things, the presence of things he hates and the absence of things he loves--make him sorry he ever left the farm. He doesn't fit in here, and he knows it.
Of course, you can immediately see the way setting reinforces character. If the setting is like the character, it amplifies those same qualities in the character. If the setting is different from the character, we see the clash, and the characters qualities are still illuminated.
But don't think that just because you place your character in some setting, that the reader will know whether you want him to see the similarities or the differences. Two characters may be in the same setting at the same time, but react very differently. The setting may be like one character, yet very different from the other.
When using setting to reveal character, the writer must either state the similarities or differences outright, or be certain to provide sufficient details of the setting and the character's response to those details so that the reader may unmistakenly see the character's personality.
Your (the author's) direct comments about your character
Use this technique sparingly. Using this technique, the auther simply tells the reader what the character is like. Showing is usually better than telling. This technique is to be used as an abbreviation is used: get the idea across using as few letters (words) as possible. For example, a writer may state, "George Martin was as greedy a man as you would ever meet." The auther tells the reader what the author wants the reader to know about the character. The author offers no support for his/her claims, no incidents that would reveal that greedy quality. The author has a story to tell about George Martin, and the author wishes to begin by establishing George's character. The story is not about finding out that George is greedy. The story is about what happens to this greedy man. The author starts from that character premise without proving it. Do you see the difference? Because readers want to see characters in action, simply telling the reader about the characters instead of revealing those characters through their speech and action, is not as satisfying. Still, it is a technique the writer may use to further the character and the story when the writer does not want to take the time to show or prove his claims about the character.
Study people! Learn to write character. Your writing career depends on it!