We said in part 4, that if we want to be successful in fiction writing, we have to be able to create characters that come to life in our reader’s minds. To do that we have to treat each character as an individual with their own specific history, with unique traits that define them. We need also remember that in real life no one is all bad just as no one is all good. Each rough character must a soft side, every hero has some faults. It’s one of the things that endears them to our readers and gives them the ring of reality. I’ve heard it said that true love consists not of loving someone in spite of their faults, but because of their faults. Hmm, don’t know if I buy that, but it works in characters.
Okay, 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 for our characters, we want to keep it around. Data storage–CDs, floppy disks, Quick Sticks–is cheap. Don’t throw away any hard won work. Ever. If we ever have to use this character again, or its twin, or as the bases for a new character, we’ll have it around. This is especially true if we are planning on a series, when we have to build a character that our readers like and care about, a character we’ll grow and update from book to book. Without the profile, it’s almost impossible to dig the characterization out of our prose, especially is some time has passed.
The other thing about a character profile we can do it before we start the book, during the first draft, or after it. How much detail we fill in depends upon the importance of the character. And we will not use all this material in the book. That would be boring. But it all waddles around in our head which in turn helps us to get it down on paper.
To aid in building a character profile, I’ve developed a series of headings to fill out, some of which were given to me by Marcie Hiedish, some I’ve worked up myself.
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 at sidewalkbooks.com. A little plug there. Also, make the names distinct. If two names sound alike or look alike on the page, change one of them. The last thing we want to do is have the reader scratching his head wondering who is speaking. I’ve collected names from the obituary section of the newspaper and saved them according to sex and nationality. It give me a pool to chose from.
A good rule 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 capture 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.
We can also use a 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, alluded to above, if we don’t physically describe the character, such as the protagonist, 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 an audio of someone and then seeing the person in real life.
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 back-story that gives reason to the character’s fore-story, 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 rounds 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.
Stick around. In BookMarc #18 we’ll wrap-up of characterization with the rest of a character profile.
Peter E. Abresch – BookMarc© February 13, 1998. Updated November 8, 2014