Without characters our stories would have no real impact on our readers. We write to engage and intrigue them and hopefully make our protagonist the character our reader cares about. If your experience is anything like mine, there is usually one, or possibly two characters, that make their presence known in no uncertain terms. They want the starring role in our narrative. These characters are usually more defined in our minds and are ‘easier’ to relate to, whether because of a personality trait or that they are more fun to write. When creating the protagonist and antagonist in our stories, we give each opposing views and/or values. This is the basis of the conflict that carries our readers along their journey. Each character, whether major or minor, needs to have flaws and redeeming features, motivations, expectations, loyalties and deterrents.
This leaves us with the problem of developing our supporting characters with as much attention to detail as the main antagonist and protagonist. When creating characters we must remember to ensure that each character acts and responds true to their given personality. Character profiles are a good way of ‘getting to know’ our characters, this can be achieve mainly by utilizing character’s names, personality traits, appearance and their motivations. A name is a vital part of creating a mental image of our character for readers. The right name can give them a quick visualization of our character’s age, ethnicity, gender, and even location, and if we are writing a period piece, even the era. For example if I say the girl was called Britney, you would probably picture a young girl because of the association with Britney Spears. However, if a female character were called Edith or Edna, you would imagine someone born several decades ago. So you see a name is not just a name.
A burly man would be called something like Butch but not Shirley, unless of course you are going to tell the story of his struggle throughout childhood to overcome the name. There are plenty of web sites available, which list the most common names for each decade and locations around the world. These are great resources for writers, who require particular names for period stories or want to stay true to a certain decade.
The use of a nickname will also give your character an identity, be it an unkind one given by a bully or one of respect or fear for the bully. You would expect Big Al to be just that, a large person, however, Little Mikey would be the exact opposite. Nicknames, or sobriquet’s can work very well in defining an ethnicity as well but care must be taken not to offend a person of color. Obviously there are certain words that were in common usage decades ago that are not politically correct now, so we need to be diligent in their use.
We should also consider giving our characters a conscience. Will the hero question his actions if they are extreme to his morals? Does the villain have a deep-seated angst? What motivates them? Some flawed characters can be difficult to write on occasion as they are far removed from our own personality (well I certainly hope so!) but with care we can accomplish a believable character.
How do you set about building a character?
Do you write out a full description of your characters?
Have you based a character on someone you know, a famous personality or mixed up several people’s traits to make a new one?
It is part of the art of story writing to describe our characters in such a way our readers can make up their own mental image of them. The trick is to ensure you give your reader enough description without over doing it and boring them – or worse still taking them out of the narrative.
What devices do you use for characterization?
This link from James Thayer is awesome for characterization points:
Just saying this word conquers up lazy summer days, lying on the beach or a lush green lawn looking upward in that happy childlike innocence. Here in Alberta we are very fortunate to have cerulean skies a large part of the year, yes even when its -37 degrees!
I remember waking up the first morning I had emigrated here and thinking ‘how cool a nice sunny blue skied day to welcome us’. Never imagining that I would wake up for the next eight days welcomed with the very same thing! Coming from England, which has cloud cover the majority of the time it was amazing.
The other thing I came to notice about the Albertan sky was how huge it was. Now I know that seems like a strange thing to say but it does seem to stretch forever upward and horizontally. My theory is that the land mass is so large and flat that there is no ‘interruption’ to your view. Even the clouds are different! Each has a ‘flat’ bottom instead of soft fluffy curves. Again this may be due to the prairie lands affecting them. In England we glimpsed the sky through dense trees and hills. A very different landscape where clouds were massive and covered vast areas of the sky.
As you can see from just one word a myriad of images and ideas can come to mind. Using such words enables a writer to create a sense of time and place for their readers, without having to describe them in minute detail. Too much description tends to ‘shut your reader off’ so your use of words is vitally important. Yes its that old adage ‘show not tell’, which raises its head time and time again.