Creating memorable characters is the goal of all authors–after all, who would read a book if the characters are bland or uninteresting? But what is it that makes a character interesting? Is it just witty conversation?
That is surely a part of it, but think about the people you know. Picture the ones you like to spend time with. What is it about them that captured your interest in the first place? I’m not talking lovers here, so set the intangible, irresistible chemistry aside, for the moment.
Was it their gestures, their mannerisms that intrigued you before you got to know them? Something about them caught your interest, and you found a kindred spirit.
That is what we want to do for our characters.
And no, I don’t mean for you to inject an excess of flushing, smirking, eye-rolling, or shrugging into your story.
I want you to think natural: People don’t only use their faces to communicate. People’s bodies and faces are in constant motion, and that is how you want your characters to seem. You can do this in small, unobtrusive ways by visualizing your conversations and the character’s who are having them.
Consider this excerpt from one of my works in progress, Billy Ninefingers. These excerpts are from my rough draft and will be tightened up, but I am using them as the examples today. This tale takes place in the world of Waldeyn, and Huw the Bard figures prominently in it, although not in the opening chapters. This conversation happens just before the first plot point. It is the calm before the storm and reveals some of Billy’s personality and his sidekick, Alan Le Clerk. It shows them as mercenaries and as people, and also shows their environment.
Billy and Alan are clearly friends. It’s a sunny day and they are obviously wearing armor. Their conversation tells us they’re concerned about the trail they are on. Through that, we learn that world they live in is dangerous and people must hire guards to protect them from more than just highwaymen if they choose to travel. The three paragraphs of that conversation are all the reader needs to know about the work they do and the trail they are riding. That scene ends and the next scene takes them and the merchant they are guarding to their destination, the dark, dirty town of Somber Flats.
That is where we come to the lead-up to the inciting action. This is where we meet Bastard John, and it is one of the few times he will be in such a place that we can see who he is. The second plot point makes no sense unless the reader knows that the Bastard is an obnoxious bastard, and proud to be so-named.
We know the Bastard is a bastard when he is drunk. We know he is capable of acting on any thought that passes through his alcohol-soaked mind. We also see that Billy has a sense of fair-play.
Picture your conversations as if your were there with them. People miss a few beats when they are speaking. They gather their thoughts and speak in short bursts. They shift in their chair, or stand up, or wave a hand to emphasize a point. They turn, and they sometimes mumble.
And it is important to remember that every character’s mannerisms are individual, uniquely theirs. You, as the author visualize them this way, but it is your task to commit their personalities to paper, and that is where many authors fail.
Through physical actions and conversational interactions we make our characters knowable and likable (or not, as the case may be). Their actions also help to show the environment they exist in. Within the scene of the conversation, you have the opportunity to convey the setting and the mood of your characters.We use our words sparingly and with intention, painting the setting as if we were artists in the style of the impressionists. With color and small hints a good author gives the impression of detail, offering the reader a framework for to hang his imagination on.
When characters act and speak naturally within a clearly visualized impression of a setting, we as readers, suspend our disbelief and become immersed in the story.