When a character pops into my head, it’s usually a brief glimpse at first. Sometimes the character arrives unannounced, and I must build a story around them. Other times, sometimes in the same story, the plot demands a character, and I must build them.
In the beginning stages, we see a large picture, and the details are not too clear. We have an overall idea of what the story could be.
Readers always pick up on mushy characterizations. Characters must be as individual as the people we know. Every now and then a manuscript comes to me for editing where the characters talk and sound the same. They ring false, and I know what happened.
The author became so involved with creating the plot and circumstances that characterizations were overlooked.
In your mind, you have the basics:
- Sex and age
- Physical description—coloring, clothes
- Overall personality—light or dark, upbeat or a downer
You can tell me all these things, but unless I see it, I don’t believe it. Good characterization shows those things but also offers me hints of:
- An individual’s speech habits.
- An individual with history.
- An individual’s personal style.
- An individual with or without boundaries—things they will or will not do.
- Someone with secrets they believe no one knows.
- Someone with secrets they will admit to.
- And someone with secrets they will deny to the grave.
This is a key component of the inferential layer of the Word-Pond we call Story. As the narrative progresses, we offer a few more clues about each character, maintaining the mystery, yet giving the reader a small reward.
We begin to see the details buried in the noise of the larger picture.
In real life, people who accost you and dump their whole life on you in a ten-minute monologue immediately lose your interest. In fact, you avoid them, fearing you will be subjected to more of their history.
Don’t make it too easy for the reader because the sense of reward is a ‘found’ thing. The ‘ah-hah!’ moment of discovery is what we readers want to experience. We enjoy the ‘oh, my god’ moment of shock when a deeply personal secret is hinted at, and only we, the reader, suspect the truth.
In the books I love and refer back to, great characters dominate. They behave and react to the inciting incident the way their established personality would. As each subsequent event unfolds, they continue to behave as individuals. No one acts out of character.
We want to read about characters with secrets because they are a mystery, and we love to work out puzzles.
Certain tricks of plotting work across all genres, from sci-fi to romance, no matter what the setting is:
- One or more characters is a “fish out of water,” in that they are immediately thrust into an unknown and possibly dangerous environment.
- Every character projects an obvious surface persona.
- Early on, the reader sees glimpses of weaknesses and fears; the sorrows and guilts that lie beneath their exterior personas.
- Each character has emotions and thoughts they conceal from the others. Perhaps they are angry and afraid, or jealous, or any number of emotions we are embarrassed to acknowledge.
- Maybe they hope to gain something on a personal level—if so, what?
Our task is to ensure that each of our characters’ individual stories intersects seamlessly. In order to do that, motivations must be clearly defined.
- You must know how the person thinks and reacts as an individual.
- What need drives them?
- What lengths will they go to in the effort to achieve their goal? Conversely, what will they NOT do?
- What are their moral boundaries, and what is out of character for them?
Write nothing that seems out of character, unless there is a good, justified reason for that behavior or comment.
We know the obstacles our characters face and the choices they make in those situations are the story. In literary terms, agency is the power of an individual character to act independently, to choose their own path. When we give the protagonist/antagonist agency, we allow them to make their own free choices, and they will take the narrative in new directions, surprising even you, the author.
When they have unique personalities, it becomes easy to give our characters an active role. And yet they still harbor secrets that surprise and shock me. We see the smallest details hiding in the background, nearly obscured by the distractions in the foreground.
We see what is hidden in the shadows.
When I am first writing any story, giving my characters agency is difficult to do. At this point in the first draft of my manuscripts, the motives of my protagonist haven’t quite come into focus for me.
I tend to allow a character’s choices to push their personal growth, so I have to create a personnel file for them. I make each character known to me as an individual, down to their taste in clothing.
I am privy to what secrets they will consent to share with me. Those secrets propel their story-line. But they don’t tell me everything.
Within the plot outline, the individuality of the characters drives the story as a whole. Allowing them agency makes it unexpected. When characters are portrayed as truthfully as possible, they will feel real.
In real life, smart people reveal their secrets only at the right time, or they keep them forever. If they don’t, we will do anything to avoid those people, fearing they will spew too much information, stuff we don’t need or want to know. When they get on the bus, we avoid making eye contact and put our possessions on the seat beside us so they can’t sit there, pretending we don’t see them.
In a gripping story, characters keep their secrets close, revealing them only at the one moment when the protagonist and the reader must have the information.
Now, if only I can write this story that I woke up thinking about. If only I can pry loose who they are, learn their secrets. It’s easy to talk the talk, but walking the talk is the difficult part of writing. This is where writing become work.
Credits and Attributions:
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:George Henry Durrie – Winter Scene in New Haven, Connecticut – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:George_Henry_Durrie_-_Winter_Scene_in_New_Haven,_Connecticut_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=249454341 (accessed December 14, 2017).
Details sections from Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:George Henry Durrie – Winter Scene in New Haven, Connecticut – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:George_Henry_Durrie_-_Winter_Scene_in_New_Haven,_Connecticut_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=249454341 (accessed December 14, 2017).
Don Quijote de La Mancha and Sancho Panza, 1863, Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (Accessed October 22, 2017).