Characters who are compelling and believable, who display understandable actions and justifiable emotions, are the very heart of good fiction. The protagonist, or main character, should be likable and sympatheticbut not perfect. Imperfections make a character more real, more human. Readers need to be able to identify with, and care about, the protagonist. Or even better, to be the protagonist. Readers should feel the protagonists fears, share the protagonists hopes, strive for the protagonists goals. Its like the difference between driving by a horrible car accident involving strangers, and driving by one that involves your loved ones. Emotional intensity increases when the reader can identify with the situation on a more personal, visceral level.
Characters should be unforgettable, lingering in the readers mind long after the story is finished. They should be full-bodied and well developed, not cardboard cut-outs or caricatures. How does a writer create memorable characters? Begin by observing the people around you. Use your eyes first, but dont dwell on the physical description. Make use of your other senses. What does a person sound like? How does their handshake feel? How do they smell? Take note of their behavior. Are there any nervous habits, mannerisms, or idiosyncrasies that make them notable? If so, what do these suggest about their personality? How are they dressed? What sort of posture do they have? For instance, if a woman is tall, and her posture is slump-shouldered, might that suggest she is, or at least has been, self-conscious about her height? In each person you know or meet, identify one or two intriguing or telling characteristics for your files. Collect those files every day, whether they are written or stored only in your head. Build yourself a portfolio of character traits that you can later pull from. Make use of every opportunity. If youre standing in line at the grocery store, watch the check-out clerk. If youre stuck in traffic, study the drivers in the cars around you. What can you surmise about these people during your brief and limited observations? If the guy in the car beside you is wearing a suit and driving a Mercedes convertible, what does that suggest? What if the guy in the Mercedes is wearing a raggy old T-shirt, has messy hair, and a four-day growth of beard?
Which brings us to consistency. Its important for your characters motivations and actions to be consistent for them to be believable. That doesnt mean you must avoid all inconsistencies. But your baseline must be firmly established first. Lets say you have a character who is obsessive about her appearance. Her makeup is always impeccable, her hair meticulously coifed. Her fingernails are well manicured, and flawlessly polished. Her clothes are designer fashions, well cared for and neatly pressed, with never a wrinkle to be found. She would rather be dead than be caught in public looking anything less than perfect. Would this character make a quick run to the 7-11 without her makeup? Certainly not under any ordinary circumstances. But suppose someone has broken into her house in the middle of the night and is now holding her young son hostage at gunpoint. Suppose this someone told her to go to the 7-11 and buy him some cigarettes, and that she had exactly 10 minutes to get there and back, or else her kids brains would be decorating the walls. Would that prompt her to go out without her makeup? And might someone seeing her in the 7-11, someone who knows about her usual obsession, not sense something is very wrong?
Lets go back to the man in the Mercedes, the one wearing the grungy T-shirt. Here, implausibility might be a key tool. The inconsistency of the imagethe rich mans car being driven by someone who appears to be just shy of a vagabond, might be used to reveal a significant fact about the character. Perhaps the driver was once rich and successful, but then he fell on hard times and lost everything. Now hes broke, drifting from one menial job to another, never knowing where his next meal will come from. Yet he clings to the car, even though he could eat for several months on the money hed make if he sold it. Why? Does the car have some special meaning for him? Is his identity, his sense of self, somehow tied to that car? Is he, perhaps, living in it? Does he clean and care for the car with great tenderness, even though he doesnt care for himself very well?
Whatever the scenario, it must be believable. Real life is full of inconsistencies and unexplainable behavior. Fiction should not be.
A good writer brings his characters to life on the page. To do that, the writer must know the character inside and out, every thought, every nuance, every trait. Much of this character information will never be used and, in fact, shouldnt be. A handful of telling and identifiable characteristicsthe primary characteristics that truly define and communicate who the character isare all that is necessary. Finding the perfect balance between revealing too little or too much about a character can be difficult. Too often, beginning writers portray their characters through snapshotsbrief glimpses of static time that reveal nothing about the person inside the hull. Overexposure can be just as deadly. Dont overwhelm your reader with details up front, but rather leak them out as the story progresses. Let your reader get to know your characters the same way we get to know people in real life. When you meet someone for the first time, they dont usually tell you all the details about themselves or their lives. Youre provided with a few clues, an initial impression that may or may not be on target. If you spend more time with that person, additional details are often revealed, allowing you to adjust and expand upon that initial impression. Many of those details are gleaned through your own observations, not because someone spells them out for you. A good writer will let readers do their own gleaning by showing what the characters are like, rather than simply telling them. If a writer does her job well, her characters will eventually become instantly identifiable to the reader through their gestures, patterns of speech, actions, and motivations.
THE ABCs OF
What are the characters basic physical descriptors (height, weight,
hair, eyes, complexion, grooming, and clothing.) What does her appearance reveal about her
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