You want your characters to make an impression. You want them to be memorable. Use the following four building blocks to construct characters who will be memorable. They will also give your characters dimension and help the reader to see the character as you see her or him.
I have read many books lately that give very little description – or no description at all – of what the characters look like. Is this a trend?
You don’t have to go into minute detail about a character’s physique but at least cover the basics: height, weight, hair color, eye color, sex and ethnicity gives the reader an idea of the type of person they “see” as they read. This is the foundation upon which all other building blocks rest. You want it to be a strong foundation.
Is your protagonist male or female? How tall is your character? Is he thin or a little overweight? Is she blond and blue-eyed? Does she have any scars or tattoos? Does he have a twitch or a tic? Let your reader know what the character looks like from your perspective so she or he can develop a perspective of her or his own.
Without personality, a character exists only on the page. You want your characters to live vividly in the minds of your readers.
Is your character a good guy or a bad guy? Or somewhere in between? Is she or he brave? Compassionate? Evil? Greedy? Do they have any interesting habits? What are their shortcomings? Do they dress in a unique way? Do they have an unusual name? Establish personality early on and then build on them. Small bits and pieces keep the reader reading.
In Dean Koontz’s The Face the character of Corky is a vivid and memorable character. He is an anarchist on a mission: to create chaos wherever he goes. He is introduced wearing a yellow rain slicker and putting racially-infested propaganda in strangers’ mailboxes. His ultimate goal is to kidnap a Hollywood movie star’s son, Frick (short for Aelfric). Frick is an intelligent boy who scoffs at his father’s lifestyle and deals with his loneliness with witticisms. He also suffers from asthma. One read and you will never forget either of these two characters, not only because of their names but also for their unique personalities.
In the Sword of Tilk Trilogy, Book Two: Strange Land, Gregorio is a pirate who visits the Tilk Realm. But he’s a pirate with style. His manner of dress is of primary note: a mustard-yellow jacket, a lime green tunic and tan breeches. Flamboyant colors are his trademark. Make no mistake, he’s a ladies’ man, but it is obvious he likes to be noticed. He wants to be remembered wherever he goes and he is remembered: vividly.
Mannerisms and Blemishes
While a picture-perfect character with blindingly white teeth may be the ideal protagonist, a character with a “blemish” can be twice as interesting. A character with a stuttering problem, a limp, an eye tic or any number of other small but significant details can make a hero out of a small and seemingly insignificant character. Or it can elevate your main character above the level of hero. Equally, a blemish can heighten the vileness of an evil character. Don’t go overboard and give all of your characters blemishes. One or two on occasion will do just fine.
For instance, in my current novel in progress, Nero’s Fiddle, the character of Colt is a survivalist. He’s a little on the gruff side, rarely smiles and has a constant eye tic as a result of PTSD. He also stands out because he makes his own beef jerky.
Mannerisms can also significantly enhance your character. Something such as a flip of the hair, a wink of an eye, scratching behind the ear, tapping fingers on a table or other surface when nervous or agitated: these little mannerisms can endear your character to the reader. Likewise, a habit of tapping a foot when impatient, tossing trash out the car window or being a non-stop chain smoker paints a picture of a character you don’t want your readers to necessarily like but can still relate to.
In Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar series, Myron has a best friend, Windsor Horne Lockwood III also known as Win. He is as pompous as his name sounds. Even if Mr. Coben didn’t tell the reader Win is a rich philanthropist, the reader would know. The way he walks, talks, dresses, practices his golf swing in his office and steeples his fingers indicates he comes from money. Despite his attitude of superiority, Win is a likeable character. He is sort of Batman to Myron’s Robin: Myron constantly gets into trouble, Win uses his money and connections to rescue him.
Challenge your characters
Think of some of the more popular action-packed movies you’ve seen. Indiana Jones comes immediately to mind. It seemed that Indiana took his foot out of one pile of crap only to place into another. If you want to keep the reader engaged, your characters must be faced with odds which seem insurmountable. You must devise a way for the character to overcome each obstacle he or she faces. How a character handles a particular situation says a lot about that character. It also makes an impression on the reader.
Building a character from the ground up requires diligence. You want the characters to be strong and make an impression, whether good or bad. Pay attention to your character as you visualize her or him. Then use the building blocks to construct your character and develop her or him into a three-dimensional person. Your readers will thank you.