Tag Archives: character
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.
The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.
Delving into a character’s past can be a complicated, tricky endeavor. Spreading details throughout the story keeps it interesting and keeps the reader reading.
A method to tell the past of my characters which worked well for me is using the backstory.
I was inspired to use this method by the ABC television series Once Upon A Time. The show is very adept at using the backstory of fairy tale characters to present them in a more realistic and imaginative light.
In Sword of Tilk Book One: Worlds Apart and Book Two: Strange Land I used the backstory told by Jean, grandmother of the twin Queens. The events related in her narratives were relevant to situations currently faced by the characters. Both narratives were a story within the story.
In Book Three: At Sword’s End, I used the memories of evil witch Desdemona to enlighten the reader about the backstory. Desdemona also used “earth memories” which she could conjure at will.
It isn’t a good idea to create detailed backstories in each and every novel, except for the purpose of knowing what your characters have gone through to get them to where they currently are.
In the Sword of Tilk Trilogy, including the backstories was instrumental to the story itself. The Tilk family history was an essential part of the story illustrating how those past events affect current events. It also displayed the characters at a different point in their lives and explained the people they became.
Creating the backstory within the story can add a layer of intrigue to your characters as well as to your plot.
A common mistake made by beginning writers is trying to tell the entire story in the first chapter. Or even in the first paragraph.
By giving your novel the “slow build” you give the reader a better opportunity to be enchanted with your story and your characters.
A prime example of this slow build process is Lindsay Buroker’s The Emperor’s Edge series.
While most authors write a single novel, Ms. Buroker takes her readers and her characters through a series of seven books (thus far). This affords her the luxury of building on her characters with each series entry. She has mastered the slow build.
I’ll use the character of Akstyr as an illustration.
When we first meet Akstyr he is in the stockade for practicing magic. The Turgonian Empire denies the very existence of magic. Anyone practicing it is punished. Amaranthe Lokdon, the heroin of the series, enlists Akstyr’s help in a plot to thwart the assassination of Emperor Sespian.
From the moment we meet him, Akstyr displays contempt toward everyone and everything, with the exception of studying magic. One wonders why he chose to throw his lot in with this band of miscreants. He keeps himself distanced from everyone in the group, even plotting to turn one of them in for the bounty. He’s one of those characters you want to like but his attitude and his actions leave you shaking your head.
Once we meet Aktyr’s mother in Blood and Betrayal (Book 5) we begin to understand the young man’s attitude. We also realize his attitude is a defense mechanism: he uses it to protect himself against getting hurt.
We also find out he cares more than he lets on.
By presenting him as a lackadaisical character Buroker piques the reader’s interest about him while also tweaking just a touch of frustration with him.
Once his true nature is revealed, all is forgiven. Almost all.
It’s almost like knowing a real person.
The slow build process Ms. Buroker spans over several novels can be achieved in one. It’s all about timing: When, where and how you choose to divulge the essential aspects of your character so your reader gets to know that character gradually. Just like getting to know a real person.
Give the reader just enough to keep them wanting more.
As humans, we all have a dark side. Each of us is capable of experiencing anger, frustration and despair. As humans, we have (most of us anyway) learned to cope with this darker side and to not act upon our darker nature.
That darker side can come in handy for the writer.
I never thought I could be a fan of a serial killer. It goes against every moral fiber of my being. It wasn’t until I stumbled across the audiobooks of Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter series that I thought I would give them a try.
Dexter Morgan is actually a charming individual with his self-deprecating wit and his view of himself as a monster. Thanks to his foster father, Harry, Dexter found a way to satisfy his slaughterous tendencies by killing other serial killers, mainly those who commit murderous crimes against children.
Despite his claim that he has no conscience, Dexter has more of a conscious than most people I encounter on a daily basis. He is very much human, more so because he claims he is not than anything else. Even though, on occasion, Dexter allows his “Dark Passenger” to take control, his actions in between victims present him as just another ordinary guy. Sort of.
I wondered as I listened to those audiobooks (I’ve listened to several of them) how on earth Mr. Lindsay could create such a character?
That question lead to, how would I create such a character? Better still, how would I create a character who truly has no conscience?
It isn’t as easy as it seems to create a vile character who performs despicable acts. At least I don’t find it so easy. It’s a little frightening to imagine what I could do if I had no conscience.
As I pondered how I was going to create my character Desdemona in the Sword of Tilk Trilogy and make her someone people could really hate, some guy cut me off in traffic.
I am not prone to road rage though I understand the inclination. It’s difficult not to react when some idiot does something stupid in traffic that could result in fatalities. When it happened and after I finished letting loose a string of expletives that would do a sailor proud, a light bulb went off over my head. (This doesn’t happen often so when it does I tend to pay attention.)
All those emotions the incident conjured could be applied to an evil character.
Better yet, use that bottomless imagination of mine and what I would do if I could get away with it.
That is a big IF.
Remove the barriers of conscience, punishment and retribution and allow your imagination to take you where it will. Do keep in mind that these acts are not something you would actually do, even if you could get away with it.
Then project it onto your evil character(s).
The evil witch Desdemona must kill her own mother.
Harming a parent, a child or a pet are three of the most evil, vile and contemptible acts any human being can perform. I hope there is a special place in hell for those people who perform them.
In order to write the scene where Desdemona performs this act, I had to imagine a person I held beneath contempt.
Face it: there is someone in almost every person’s life that is held beneath contempt. It is virtually impossible to live in this world without feeling that way about somebody.
The guy in traffic isn’t one of them. Detesting someone that much requires personal involvement.
Be that as it may, I visualized Desdemona performing the murderous deed to this person.
Mr. Lindsay did an excellent job of portraying the Dexter Morgan character. But he actually made Dexter likeable.
A noble thing to be sure but if you want your characters to be evil – truly evil – then you have to put yourself in their shoes. Imaginatively, not literally, of course.
We each have a Dexter inside: That part of us which wishes to get even, get ahead no matter what it takes, or simply would like to see others who deserve it suffer. Deny it all you like, it’s there. It’s just a good thing the majority of us has a conscience to keep that dark side in check.
The dark side is not a place I wish to dwell. It wouldn’t be comfortable to live there round the clock.
But tapping into it when needed adds dimension to your characters.
Characters must have character.
This may seem an obvious statement, but you’d be surprised how many writers fail to give their characters character.
You must ask yourself what characteristics do I want my characters to have? The answer to that is completely up to you.
Determine if your character is a good guy/girl or a bad guy/girl.
A good character may have some of the following characteristics: Integrity, Courage, Loyalty, Determination, Ambition, Compassion.
A bad character may have some of these: Greed, Hate, Anger, Deceit, Ruthlessness, Dishonesty.
Mind you, characters will more than likely not be this cookie-cutter. And these are just a few of the traits found in each category. But if you’re trying to establish who the reader should root for, then each of your characters needs some of these traits.
Let’s begin with the good guy.
The last thing you want to do is state, “She or he was loyal, brave and true.” She or he may be all three but it’s a very boring way to let the reader know.
Instead, put the character into a situation that shows the reader how loyal, brave and true she or he is. Like in the paragraph below.
Donovan crept along the cobblestone path to the door of the castle, his hand ever ready on the hilt of his sword. Dawn was fast approaching. He had to get inside, kill the wizard Morgrith and flee before the wizard’s demons found him. He knew he could do this. He must do this. Otherwise, Morgrith would cast a spell rendering King Rodolfo powerless, incapable of running the kingdom. Even so, Donovan’s hand trembled upon the hilt. He knew not what he would encounter in the castle, only that he would deal with whatever lay before him.
We have established that our hero, Donovan, is afraid; his hand would not tremble upon the hilt of his sword if he weren’t afraid. His courage is evident in that he is willing to act in the face of his fear regardless of what he may encounter. His loyalty is to King Rodolfo and he will see his mission through.
Let’s tackle the flip side of the coin. It isn’t enough to state that someone is evil. Show the evil.
Morgrith stood at the window of his study following Donovan’s every move. The demons stood at the ready, awaiting Morgrith’s signal to begin their assault. There was a vat of hot boiling oil and talons and teeth sharpened to a fine point awaiting the beleaguered hero. Let him think one lowly knight could thwart this wizard’s plans to possess the kingdom. He would know otherwise soon enough.
Here we’ve established the evil in our wizard. He’s ready to kill one knight and it shows he will stop at nothing to get what he wants.
In order to develop a character’s character, it is vital to force the character into challenging situations. How the character deals with those situations will establish the character of the character, for better or for worse.
It gives the reader a glimpse into the life of the character, what makes the character who she or he is. It enhances the reading experience to know a character will face her or his demons and will be a stronger person for having defeated those demons. It enhances the reading experience even more to see how a character deals with her or his demons.
Because how a character in a story or a novel deals with those challenging situations may well inspire a reader with new ideas about how to deal with her or his own challenging situations.
This doesn’t mean covering your character’s face with adulthood acne or warts. But it doesn’t mean all of your characters should have clear skin and picture-perfect white smiles either.
Giving a character a distinctive trait or traits, whether physical, mental or emotional, makes them more relatable for the reader.
Consider this character:
Daphne stood tall and erect, her slender body succinctly outlined by her flowing blue dress. She waited beneath the awning to avoid the rain. She sighed. Once again, she had forgotten her umbrella.
No matter, really. Sooner or later, some man or other, whether handsome or not, would come along and offer her his umbrella. Her smooth face and sapphire blue eyes guaranteed it.
And she would accept the offer, of course, knowing it gave the impression to the male that she was interested. When nothing could be further from the truth.
Consider this character:
Though short in stature, Colt was built solid: concrete wall solid. His tattered grimy flannel shirt stretched tautly across his chest. Faded denim jeans bulged from muscular legs, even though the jeans appeared to have been used for car waxing and worn afterwards without a good washing. His sandy brown hair was long and askew about his face. He wasn’t old but his face gave the impression he was old beyond his years. His hazel eyes suggested a tired wisdom he would sooner live without. A raspy sound issued from his hand brushing across the salt and pepper beard on his face. He was a handsome man, though none could tell past the grime. A shower, shave and a haircut would not improve his outlook but it would well improve the way others looked at him.
Even so, none of these features compared with the constant twitch of his right eye. One would think he was winking in a suggestive manner if one didn’t know any better.
What can you tell right away from the description of these characters?
Daphne may appear picture-perfect, but right away you know that Daphne is shallow and superficial. She’s confident her good looks will get her the things she needs as well as the things she wants. She obviously doesn’t hesitate to use them, particularly in regards to the opposite sex.
Daphne’s good looks become her blemishes. Sooner or later she is bound to learn that good looks don’t get her everything.
Colt, on the other hand, is fraught with obvious blemishes, from his slovenly appearance to his twitching eye. You get the impression that Colt has a story. His character is all the more interesting for his blemishes: why is he so slovenly when he obviously takes care of his body? He must take care of his body if he is so muscular. And why does his eye constantly twitch? What causes that?
Wonderful examples of imperfect (by society’s definition) characters can be found in the works of Dean Koontz.
In By the Light of the Moon, the character Shep O’Connor suffers from Asperger Syndrome. In One Door Away From Heaven, Mickey Bellsong is a recovering alcoholic who meets up with Leilani, a little girl with a brace on her leg and a deformed hand.
These three characters are instrumental to their respective stories.
Shep provides a little comic relief when he is a walking thesaurus. But he also paints the picture of frustration for his older brother Dylan who is his caregiver. When the two undergo serious psychological changes after being given a shot of a mysterious fluid by a stranger, the relationship between the brothers is taken to an entirely new level as is Shep’s character.
The relationship between Mickey and Leilani is fraught with humor when the two meet. But it is humor which hides each of the characters’ worst fears. Leilani fears her stepfather is going to kill her. Mickey fears herself more than anything else. Little do these two characters know, the humor also hides their courage and strengths as well. The shortcomings of all these characters is evident from minute one. It is a wonderful place to start as the reader experiences the growth of these characters and inevitably grows with them.
Picture-perfect characters are all fine and good. But characters with flaws are the characters readers will best relate to. An imperfect character makes for a stronger reader-character relationship.
Those flaws in the hero or protagonist make him or her human. It helps the reader realize that he or she can be the hero, too.