Know your characters…

I was recently asked by Elizabeth S. Craig (Mystery writer and author of the Memphis Barbeque series, Southern Quilting mysteries, and Myrtle Clover series. Check her out here: http://wp.me/P1SArc-2) to do an article on tips for character creation. I’ve been considering writing an article on this topic for some time, so this was a great opportunity!

So. Let’s talk character development. And I don’t mean that in the traditional sense, as in how the character is developed throughout the story. What I mean is: Let’s talk about the developmental process of crafting a character, and what you should know about your character prior to introducing them into your story. We’ll also discuss how to go about introducing them to the reader for the very first time! Let’s get to it!

Think about yourself. There are thousands of things that define you, events that have happened to you, reasons why you are the way you are. The same should be true about the characters in your book. Now, obviously, you aren’t going to be able to write about all of them. You’re going to have to choose what you reveal about your character to the audience very carefully, usually only the most important things. That being said, there are a few key areas that I find to be the most crucial in crafting a character- prior to ever putting them down on the page.

NAME– This is, in my opinion, the most important thing that you could ever decide about your character. Ever. This is the title with which your readers will identify them, and it has to fit the person that they are. I read once that Tolkien never created a character and then gave them a name. He created a name and gave that person a life. I found that to be inspiring. To know that one of the best character creators in the history of literature put this much emphasis on names showed me just how important they really are. So think hard about it! Create a name. Then, once you’ve found one you like, decide who this person is, what they’re like, what their life has been like, etc. I’ll be honest, I have created characters where I tacked on a name afterward. And I tell you, it was a terrible decision. The name just doesn’t feel… right. I find it hard to remember their name, feel as though it doesn’t suit their personality, and find it hard to become attached to them as a whole. Names are important. Pick good ones.

PERSONALITY– Is this person sly and clever? Are they dark and morose? Are they annoying and excitable? Get to know this character. Decide what kind of person you want them to be. THEN, figure out why they are this way. What makes them tick? Was it something that happened to them as a child? Is it their life right now that causes them to be this way? These are things that you may never explain in your book- but you don’t have to. If you understand a character this deeply, they will feel REAL on the page. They will be three dimensional. The way they speak and why they speak that way, or the actions they take, will feel natural. Understanding the complexities of each character will make them feel as though they had a life prior to the one on the page.

RELATIONSHIPS– How is this character related to the other characters in your work? Why is he here? Why, at this particular time, was he in this particular part of the world, doing this particular thing? If characters show up all willy-nilly, it will feel too convenient to the reader. It will feel as though that character’s being there isn’t justified. Think about this one. Figure out their reasons for being where they are, in relation to who they know, who they are related to, who they love- etc. Knowing the relationships of all your characters and how they intertwine will make your story feel organic, as if the things that are happening would have happened regardless of what you decided to write.

MOTIVATIONS: This is connected to both personality and relationships. Why is the character where he is, AND why does he not leave? That’s where the difference lies. Why, when the shit hits the fan, does this character not high tail it out of there? Understanding the reasons for a character’s behavior, his allegiances to other characters, and his overall drive in the story will make your character feel as though he is a living person, with real thoughts, real roles to fulfill, and real tugs of emotion. It’s all about creating a character that feels natural. And to do that, you must first understand each and every character that you create.

Now, there are plenty of other things that you need to decide about your character prior to writing them into a manuscript: What they look like, how they fit into the plot, when you’re going to kill them off, if they will be a good guy or a bad guy- the list goes on. However, these four topics are what I find to be the most crucial. These will make you understand your character. If you understand them, prior to understanding how they will fit into the story, they will fall into place in a very natural way.

 

So, now that you’ve got this amazing character that you know everything about; let’s talk about how you go about introducing them into the story. This is something that I struggle with. Because I know my characters SO well, I actually find it hard to introduce them. See, I know that Caster is arrogant, hates to lose, and is the leader of the group. But how do I SHOW that? How do I go about revealing that to the reader the FIRST time they see him?

First impressions are everything. The first time your character comes on screen, the reader needs to know several things (usually): His name, his personality, and what he looks like. This is SHOWN through how he enters the scene, what he does there, and how he speaks. When a character first enters into your readers lives, the first actions they take should immediately show their personality, as should the WAY they say whatever it is they say. Rather than try to explain this, I’ll just show you.

This is the character (created a few seconds ago for the sake of this blog): Bill Flaxton. Awkward guy, glasses, very tall, bow tie. Think typical genius, socially awkward but incredibly smart. Thin, nervous, etc. You get the idea.

Now, you could introduce this character like so:

               The door creaked open and a man walked in. He was tall, wore a suit and bowtie, and had glasses. He crossed the floor to me and extended his hand.

               “I’m Bill Flaxton. Pleased to meet you,” he said with an awkward smile.

 

With me so far? Now, that ^ just showed you everything I said in my description, right? Oh, WAIT! I didn’t show you anything about his personality, did I? Let’s try that again:

 

               The door creaked open and a man slinked through it, his suit at least two sizes too big for him. He wore a bowtie, and though I’m no expert, it seemed as though it was too tight around his thin neck, the collar of his shirt bunching up around his throat. He crossed the floor, his lips curled upward in what looked to be an attempt at a smile, and stopped directly in front of me.

               After adjusting his glasses from the tip of his nose, he held out a sweaty hand. “Bill Flaxton. Pleased to meet ya.”

               I shook the lanky man’s hand, which he shook vigorously, then wiped my palm on my pants. “Charmed.”

 

Now, as you can see, you got a much clearer image of the man in that second attempt. It’s all about the WAY he enters the room. Saying that he enters the room doesn’t really say anything. Did he barge in? Did he slam the door open? Did he creep in? These are the kinds of things that will give your reader an understanding of that character from the very beginning. Remember: You know everything there is to know about this character. How would he enter a room, and how should you vividly describe that to the reader? How EXACTLY would he say his first line? Think about the typical ways in which your characters do things, and explain them as best you can. It’s all about showing your reader who this person is. You don’t want to have to list his qualities and traits, but you do want your reader to have a vivid image of the person you are describing. It’s a delicate balance, I know. But if you follow my tips of learning all there is to know about your character prior to writing them into your story, their actions and mannerisms should come naturally. When you introduce your character for the first time, you want to show the reader that this is an individual, someone who is all their own, who is unlike any of your other characters. The first introduction of a character is always hard, but by taking the time to properly craft your characters, I think you’ll be able to nail it every time!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Know your characters…

  1. Perfect. I hate when I read a piece for someone that has so much potential, but it’s so obvious the author is not in tune with their own characters. You can’t truly craft a story if you don’t believe in the characters.

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