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Creating Great Characters (c) 2010

Catherine Castle

 You have a favorite fictional character that lives in your memory, don’t you? Someone who is just as real to you as your brother or sister? Wouldn’t it be great to create a character like that for your own book. Well, you can, with some work.

In order to create a great character you have to have a clear concept of who the character is. If you don’t know your character, and love or hate him, then your reader won’t be able to get a clear picture of the character either. He or she will be forgettable. 

So how do you define a character? How do you make him come to life?  Sometimes a character springs into your head, fully grown, but most of the time you have to think about who this person is. Is he tall and dark? Is she young or old? What are his or her goals? What fatal flaw does your character have? If you don’t know these things about your character, try using a character sketch to flesh out your hero or heroine’s personality.

 Make a Character Chart.

Character charts can be as simple or as complex as you desire. The most basic of character charts should include the character’s name, physical appearance, likes and dislikes, habits, flaws and secrets. Other information you might need could include family and educational background, attitudes and philosophies, personality traits, perception of self and others, goals in life and goal as they relate to the story, and how the character solves problems or reacts in a crisis. Some of the information you put in your character chart may never come out in the novel.  In fact, don’t plan to include it all in your book. It is mainly for you to see so you will know your character as well as you know yourself.

The Eclectic Writer at http://www.eclectics.com.articles/character.html has a great character worksheet you can download to create your characters.  Mark McCutcheon also has a great book called “Building Believable Characters” that has a character questionaire and lists of character traits that you can use to help build your characters.

Just knowing what your character looks like and who he is, isn’t always enough to make him spring to life. Even if you know him, you can quickly kill him for a reader if you make him dull on the written page. Here are some tips to help bring your character to life.

 Don’t Paint a Still-Life  

An active description of your character gives the reader more than just a still-life snapshot to look at. Which provides you with a more vivid picture? 

Inactive: “He had yellow teeth and a tanned face”, or Active: “He smiled, his teeth a bar of yellow in his brown face.”(from my novel “Leah’s Secret”) 

Inactive: “She had big teeth.”  Active: “She smiled, her lips curling back over teeth that rivaled those of a horse.”

Make Descriptions Memorable

General descriptions give a vague picture of the character. “She was short.” “He had dark blonde hair.” These descriptions don’t really tell you much about the character. But if you say “She looked like a leprechaun standing next to him,” or “His hair was the color of clover honey.” you have clearer picture of what the character looks like.

 Show (personality) Don’t tell

Show, don’t tell is a cardinal rule of writing and it applies to showing us about your character too. Telling the reader that your character is angry man isn’t nearly as effective as showing us his anger. “I’m not happy with you,” he said angrily is not nearly as strong as John’s mouth flattened into a thin straight line. “I’m not happy with you.”

 Give your character a flaw.

No one is perfect.  Everyone has something they can’t conquer. Superman couldn’t tell the love of his life who he really was for fear of endangering her life. Kryptonite turned him into a wimp. Achilles had a vulnerable heel–the only place he could be injured–and someone found out about it. Samson loved Delilah too much, blabbed his secret, and she robbed him of his strength. If your character has no vulnerability then why read the book? If you know he’s undefeatable, untouchable then there’s no suspense when he gets caught in a bad situation because he can get out of it too easily. Look for a flaw, secret or visible, that will get the character in trouble.

Be True Blue

You can’t change directions with characters, emotionally or otherwise, unless you’ve set that direction in motion somewhere along the way. If Superman’s weakness is Kryptonite, you can’t suddenly have him handling it without losing his strength. If Samson’s strength is in his hair, then when it’s cut, he has to become weak. But when it grows back – then it’s believable that he would regain his strength because that’s where it came from originally. If your character’s a recovering alcoholic or drug addict, he can’t just walk away without a battle. Be believable and true to character. Readers will not believe your characters if they suddenly begin acting out of character. They will say “No way!” and close the book.

 Reveal character through dialogue.

Dialogue can be an important vehicle for revealing your character. Dialogue can also help the reader keep characters straight without reading “he said” “she said” every other line. By using a different speaking style with each character you can help the reader keep them straight while you inform the reader about them.

An uptight, correct character is going to speak much differently than one who is easy going. “Oh, dear. He’s late. I certainly wish I knew his whereabouts.” is more formal and restrained.  “We’re gonna be late. Where the heck is he?” is much less informal. And “That *&8%% is late! “ conveys a much different tone. By using the right language you can reveal a character’s education, or lack of education, his emotions, his manners and his attitude.

 A Rose by another other name …

Would not be the same.

What’s in a name?  Plenty! Ancient people believed names were very important to a person’s personality, and they named their children accordingly. Jacob means “supplanter” and he did just that when he stole his brother’s birthright.

Put thought behind the name you give your character. Making the name fit the character will help your character be more memorable. Cinderella wouldn’t have been the same if she had been named Brunhilda. And who would believe Prince Charming was at all charming if he sported the name Clyde? I know I wouldn’t believe it. Readers probably won’t believe your hero is a tough guy if you name him Herman or Clive. But if you call him Ace or Rambo they’ll have a hint about his personality right away because he just sounds tough. 

If you’re at a loss for a name for your character don’t force a name on him. I wrote almost an entire manuscript calling a character Mother 3, because couldn’t find just the right name for her, which made my critique partners laugh every time they read my pages. Her name finally did come to me – Tiberia – and it was perfect. Had I forced a non-descript name on her she wouldn’t be the same. Don’t know where to find names? Try looking in baby name books, the telephone book, or do what a writer friend of mine does–search the cemetery for a name.

 Shack up With Your Character

Having said all this there is one more thing I think you need to do to make your characters great – live with them. When you think about your characters’ motivation and try to get in their heads you will automatically know them better. Live with them for a while before you start putting them in the story. You’ll be surprised what happens when you do. They can become absolutely real to you – and that’s a step closer to being real to your readers too.