Thursday, January 12, 2017

How to Give Birth to a Character

Eyes of blue, hair of gold, and she's got Dolly Parton dimples. He's tall, dark, and handsome, with a twinkle in his eye. She's a sweetheart. He helps old ladies cross the street.

First chapter in, I'm bored to tears by these people, and I'm pretty sure they're not going to get any more interesting in chapter two.

These characters couldn't possibly be real people, because real people have depth. And that depth needs to be apparent the minute they leave the womb of your imagination, or your readers might just close the book on those babies.

Stereotypes don't sell books. I mean, that's the goal, right? You're wanting to market this thing that's taken you months or years to write. (Unless you're James Patterson and you began writing the book last Tuesday night and finished it Saturday morning for publication on Monday afternoon.)

In addition to whatever physical qualities you might bestow upon your characters, you have to add some mental and emotional quirks if you want them to grow up to be interesting enough to read about.

Even the most fascinating plot can't carry a novel for 300 pages or more without characters who come off as human. (Unless they're aliens, of course.) They have to have emotions, passions, and attitudes to back up their physical appearances. They must have personalities that express their needs and fears, goals and desires.

Even though your protagonist, antagonist, and supporting characters might change in ways you can never anticipate while you're writing the story          
 -- characters quite often do that -- there should be an initial outline of the most important characteristics to draw from as you write. In addition to physical appearance, a personality outline is the place to note all those things that will round out the people in your imaginary world.

Here are some pertinent questions and suggestions for outlining fascinating characters before you send them out into your world.

In addition to outward physical descriptions (and please don't do blond, blue-eyed cardboard cutouts), create body language and gestures. What happens to their faces when they smile or frown? What is it about their eyes that indicates that they're shy? Do they chuckle at a joke, or break out into a full-blast belly laugh? They curl their lips when they see a cat to show that they're not animal lovers. Describe the tone of their voices when they talk to a child, or to their own mothers, or a waitress. These things go a long way in identifying character. (Remember show don't tell?)

Know your characters' favorite activities, the kind of clothes they wear, their favorite alcoholic drinks. What are their interests -- art, travel, museums, acrylic nails? Give them specific kinds of cars, or make them take the bus. Do they play golf, do Pilates? When they cook, do they wear aprons?

How do others see them? Who are their friends, their enemies? How do they handle stress? Are they optimistic, or pessimistic? What are they afraid of? Snakes? Rabbits? Lightning bugs? Money? What are their favorite colors? What makes them sad, happy, pissed off? Note their favorite books, the TV shows they routinely watch.  

Where did they grow up, what childhood games did they play? What is the worst and the best things that ever happened to them? Give them family backgrounds, economic positions, educational experiences, religious or moral beliefs.

Fill a notebook or file cards with this information. Give each character a page or color-coded card of his/her own, even if they have just a minor role in your story. Background characters might never display any of these traits or speak of their particular histories anywhere on those 300 pages. But they are just as important as the setting of your story. They are the people who will ooh and ahh over, or torment and torture, those unique, colorful characters born of your labor.

You brought them into your imaginary world, now give them lives. 

"A writer without interest or sympathy for the foibles of his fellow man is not conceivable as a writer."
                                                                                                     Joseph Conrad

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