How to bring your characters to life.
Assuming you’ve chosen your POV, you will already be thinking about your characters. True, too, you may have been thinking about your characters before choosing your POV. The two go hand in hand, or word-for-word.
In order to flesh out your characters and give them ample zing, it’s a good idea to make lists of attributes for each player in the plot. However thorough, you must then write your scenes to fit each character. That is, each scene that you write when a character appears in the story should reveal what you planned for him or her when you made your list, and how you planned for them to act.
Of course, as the story develops, any character may take on a different persona than you first imagined. That’s not a problem. Amending the original sketch will suffice, keeping in mind how the new character image affects all the other characters and the plot overall.
I've always been interested in how characters are set up in stories. It's no longer good enough to list features and attributes in paragraph or outline form, which seems like we're looking at a person from head to toe and describing what we see. That’s vital, but characters do something while they act out who they are. Sometimes one thing they do can set up the reader’s impression of them for the entire story.
Here’s my list of traits for the character Randy Osborne from my Egyptian suspense novel, The Ka:
Works with biochemistry and genetics
Short brown hair, greasy and matted
Kind of short
Embarrassing to be around
Obnoxious, to cover insecurities
Not very well liked
Dislikes Chione (the protagonist)
Thorn in everyone’s side
After you make your list, the next practice that will prove immensely productive would be to write a paragraph or two incorporating those characteristics. Then the first time each character shows up in the plot, you’ll be able to incorporate some of the qualities or lack thereof that you’ve assigned to them.
You do not need to use all the attributes in one paragraph when the character makes his or her entrance.
Simply use their habits and traits soon as possible to help round out that personality. If the story goes too far along without clueing your reader as to what they can expect from each character, those characters will seem flat or unimportant.
Here is Randy’s character sketch from the completed novel:
"Everyone looked to Randy, who stood supported with a hand on the back of a chair, flagging a leg back and forth as if his underwear might be caught in the wrong place. Then he lifted the leg a couple of times in a last ditch effort to end his discomfort. His personal habits were reason for a good snicker among the tight knit team, who could politely ridicule one another, then laugh. At times, criticism from any of them seemed all in jest, a way this group of high-strung colleagues dealt with stress.
“At other times, Randy’s behavior was repulsive. He seemed to take great pleasure in eating all the time and, thanks to his mother packing his lunch, he always had an ample supply nearby to pick at. His continual weight gain and lack of personal hygiene turned people off. He always looked sweaty and wrinkled, with matted hair. No one relished the idea of sharing a tent with him in the heat of the desert. Finally, he reached behind himself and gave the seat of his pants a tug. Not the kind of professional posture one would expect from a Physical Anthropologist who worked with genetics and biochemistry."
This is similar to the rough paragraph I wrote soon after making the list of attributes for Randy. When I got to the first part in the story where I needed to show him in action and give the reader the full blast of what they could expect from him, I was shocked to find I had already written what I needed!
This paragraph appears as soon as Randy ridiculously makes a big issue of something in the story. After that, we know full well what to expect from him as the story proceeds.
Readers know that all characters go through what is called a character arc which is more fully explained in another of my articles. That’s when the character starts out as one persona and then changes to another by the end of the story. Sort of like the good-guy-gone-bad or vice-versa. Despicable Randy goes through a shocking metamorphosis but, well…. I’ll leave that for another article.
Mary Deal is an award-winning author of suspense/thrillers, a short story collection, writers’ references, and self-help. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee, Artist and Photographer, and former newspaper columnist and magazine editor.
She has traveled most of her life and has a lifetime of many and diverse experiences, all of which remain in memory as fodder for her fiction. A native of California’s Sacramento River Delta, where some of her stories are set, she has also lived in England, the Caribbean, and now resides in Honolulu, Hawaii. Having traveled a bit, she continues to paint and use her art and photography to create gorgeous products.
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Author, Painter, PhotographerEric Hoffer Book Award Winner
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