[Elderhostel Mysteries & Fiction Writing Techniques]


BookMarc © #17
Characterization - Part 5 of 6

    To build believable characters we have to treat each one as an individual, with their own specific history, with the unique traits that define them. We must also remember that, as in real life, no one is all bad just as no one is all good. Every rough character has a soft side, and every hero has some faults. It's once of the things that endears them to our readers and gives them the ring of reality.

     The way I do it is to create a profile for each character. There are other ways to do it, but after years of writing straw characters, this worked for me. And if you're not having success, I recommend giving this a try. If we keep doing the same old things, we can expect the same old results. I think Stephen King was the one who said that. And not only do we want to build the profile, but we want to keep it around. Data storage--CDs, floppy disks, Quick Sticks--are cheap. If we ever have to use this character again, or his twin, we'll be ready to go. This is especially true if the character ends up in a series where we'll need to update it from book to book. Without the profile, it's almost impossible to dig the character out of our prose.

     We can build the character profile before we start the book or after the first draft, both work. How much detail we fill in depends upon the importance of the character. We will not use all this material in the book. That would be boring. But it all helps us to see and know the character inside our heads, which in turn allows us to get the character down on paper.

     I've developed a series of headings to fill out for each profile, some of which were given to me by Marcie Hiedish, some I've worked up myself.

  Name.
     I often see beginning writers use names like John Smith, Sally Johnson. Good grief. Isn't imagination our stock in trade? We have a rich choice of names in the United Sates, why not use them, and use them to reflect the personality of our characters. Names like: Mike Hammer; Nevada Barr; Remington Steel; also Chance Dugan and Snack McGhee, two characters of mine from Me and Snack McGhee. Forgive the little plug for my book out on Sidewalkbooks.com And, in the interest of full disclosure, I do have a protagonist named Jim Dandy, but I use it to reflect the character who is always complaining about the name, and I use it as a humorous means to embed it in the reader's mind. Something else about names that I'll mention somewhere in the series. Make sure all names are distinct from one another, how they look on the page and how they sound. The last thing we want to do is confuse the reader.

  Physical Description.
     A good rule to follow is to give three fast features and worry about filling in the rest as we go. "His fierce eyes took in everything as he walked across the floor, limping as if one foot was shorter than its mate, his large head almost bald except for shock of red hair forming a widow's peak." I tarted this up a bit because it is a person's eccentricities that first captures our attention. The other thing to remember about physical description is to do it almost as soon as the character comes on the scene. If we wait a few pages or a chapter, the reader will have already formed his own picture and will ignore ours.
     Another thing we can do is use the character's description to hint at his personality. "Barny came in from the patio, unzipping a leather bomber jacket, holding himself erect, like he had spent too many hours on a military parade ground."
     Finally, as alluded to above, if we don't physically describe the character, such as the POV character, the reader will build an image of him from his actions and dialogue. An example of this is the conflict we often experience between the image we build from hearing someone on the radio and then seeing the person in real life.

  Personal History.
     Everybody has a history. Nobody drops out of the sky. Was he abused as a child? Did she become a prom queen? What side of the tracks did they live on and what did their parents do for a living? This history doesn't have to be in story form, just bare fact statements. It's the backstory that gives reason to the character's forestory, some of the why-he-does-what-he-does. It can be as extensive as we like, but it must be at least enough for us as writers to know the background.

  Place in the world.
     What does she do for a living? Work is such an important part of a person's life that it affects her whole character. Is she married, single, have children? Where does she live? What clothes does she wear? What is her health, financial status? In what social circle does she travel? All these things go into the melting pot to help make up the character's outward appearance.

  Hobbies and interests.
     You think these things don't matter? If we are trying to create a burly truck driver, a crass and foul-mouthed bumbler, chances are he will be more into bowling than ballet. But, if he is into ballet, it could be one of the things that round out him out. Why is he into ballet? A spinster teacher got him interested? Maybe seduced him? This type of thinking could spin into a story all its own. Oh man, I'm telling you all my secrets and I'll lose some of my greatness. Ah, but it might qualify me for the humility of the year award.

     In BookMarc #18, the wrap-up of characterization, we'll finish up with the rest of the character profile.

     If you would like to personally receive BookMarcs when they are issued, send an email to Peter at easyreadingwriting dot com taking out the spaces and changing the at and dot for the symbols.

     And remember: it's always better to light a candle in your mind by reading [Easy Reading Writing] than to curse the darkness of rejections. There is an easy order link to B&N to purchase the book.

© Peter E. Abresch - BookMarc ©
February 13, 1998

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