There are many elements writers need to pay close attention to when creating a fictional world. There’s setting, plot, pacing, voice, imagery and so on. Everything is important, everything counts. That said, one of my favorite places to focus my writing attention is on my characters.
How do your create a good character? Well, the short answer is that she has to be believable. I tell my students and the people I mentor that this means a fictional character has to closely resemble a living person.
This guest post is by Anne Leigh Parrish, author of What is Found, What is Lost. Her debut story collection, All The Roads That Lead From Home (Press 53, 2011) won a silver medal in the 2012 Independent Publisher Book Awards. Her second collection, Our Love Could Light The World, (She Writes Press, 2013) is a Kirkus Reviews recommended Indie title, and a finalist in both the International Book Awards and the Best Book Awards. She is the fiction editor for the online literary magazine Eclectica. She lives in Seattle.
Keep in mind, a character doesn’t have to be nice, or moral, or a pillar of the community. Decent people with no flaws or vices don’t usually make for the most interesting reading. But nor can a character be all bad, with no redeeming traits. In other words, a character has to possess one essential element: complexity.
I don’t mean to suggest that a character should be hard to read (in fact, you don’t want them to be), or super mysterious, or generally murky and unclear. You want the reader to know what makes your person tick, what gets them up in the morning and what wakes them up at night. Your reader needs to know what your character wants, what he’s afraid of losing and willing to fight for.
Once you know what motivates your character, you can flesh her out, so to speak. Keeping with emotional or psychological aspects of personality, think about what makes your person feel guilty, or embarrassed, angry, even terrified. Your plot will bring out these reactions, so it’s important that your character react accordingly. A wooden character who feels nothing isn’t going to cut it, I’m afraid. On the other hand, a character that goes to pieces all the time can be just as dull – unless, for example, he uses his melt-downs as a way to manipulate those around him.
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Now let’s move on to the physical person. The obvious question is, what does she look like? Some authors tend to give a lot of details to the reader – height, hair color, eye color, and so on, but that’s never worked for me. When I read a short story or a novel, I like to fill in the missing pieces for myself, because this keeps me engaged and interested. Keeping that in mind, I give only one or two items the reader can hang an image on – a crooked nose, a missing tooth, a small red mark on one cheek, bitten down-finger nails, a limp, a tendency to slump, mumble, laugh at sudden moments – the list is pretty long, if not endless. The important thing is to mention whatever handful of traits you’ve chosen strategically throughout the piece, sort of as reminders about the person. Someone he’s meeting for lunch can think to herself, there’s that gappy smile again, the one that made me fall for him in the first place, or, I wish I didn’t love that gappy smile so much.
Along with psychology and the physical reality of a fictional character are gestures or habits. Maybe these come out under stress. Maybe they’re a sign of happiness, or anticipation. I love those characters of mine who convey what they’re feeling by doing something we’ve seen them do before – like biting a lip, or twirling a strand of hair. The first time this happens, of course, you need to tell the reader what’s up. If a long period of time passes before the next gesture, and the reader hasn’t yet had a chance to see this has a habit, you’ll need to remind them. Sally always pulled her hair when she lied, or When Davie got an idea, he leaned forward and snapped the fingers of his right hand. I think it’s gestures like these, almost more than any other aspect of a fictional character, that really brings someone to life.
In sum, a fictional character must resemble a living person. Figure out what makes her tick, what he wants and is willing to fight for. Give readers a few solid physical details, and let them fill in the blanks for themselves. Lastly, endow your person with some habits and gestures that will appear more than once, and suggest an emotional state or experience.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.