You have a great plot. You’ve written the perfect opening where Billy kills Johnny – an opening that will hook a prospective reader instantly. (See my post “How Do You Get Started?” here.) Now you sit back and think, “Who the heck is Billy? Who is Johnny?” Time to craft those characters to bring them to life for your readers.
Profile Your Characters
Your readers need to be able to identify with the characters in your writing. To do that, those readers need a profile of each character. That profile should include:
- Gender and how it affects and is a part of the life they live (this is true even in these days when gender has become such an issue)
- Age (helps readers better understand a character’s life experiences, reasoning ability, and personality)
- Race / ethnicity, both being items that can shape a character’s personality and how that character interacts with others
- Cultural background (helps create a back story for your character, telling practices they uphold and what they believe in)
- Basic physical appearance (height, body type, facial structure, and physical limitations to help you write how that physical appearance affects them)
- Where the character is from (hometown, state, country), with mentions of their childhood, economic situation, and lifestyle
- Interaction with others (Who are their friends and associations, their enemies? Are they outgoing or loners?)
- Skills, talents, hobbies, and interests – this might include their favorite author, even (one of my main characters is an Ayn Rand fan)
Remember, elements in that profile will also serve as your characters’ motivations, an answer to “Why did Billy kill Johnny?”
You don’t need to state each item in your narrative, but you need to keep them in your mind and allude to them as you write. A good tip is to keep a pad of paper handy to jot down profiles of your characters or type them in a separate document. Some writer software has a special place for you to list your characters and their profiles. I have an extensive Excel 2003 spreadsheet that tracks ages throughout the novels written so far.
How Dialogue Can Show That Profile
Dialogue is the perfect vehicle to demonstrate your characters’ profile, since they are talking directly to your reader. They express their personalities more clearly than pages of narrative text. You can reveal other aspects of a character through that dialogue. A deep thinker will say something like, “There’re friends, and then there’re friends.” A more simple character will say, “They’re not friends. They’re just here for the free food.”
Vocabulary, wording, speech rhythm, complexity, and accent are other factors that you can use in dialogue to convey a character’s profile. One article I saw on character development says that each character’s dialogue should be so individual that readers could tell them apart without the character speaking being revealed. Frankly, I think that’s excessive, but the choice is yours.
Copying from People You Know
I see this tip a lot. It can be tricky, though. You may end up getting sued if your character is too recognizable as being patterned after someone in real life, especially if that person is in the public eye or being portrayed in a negative way.
- That friendly librarian or store clerk
- The mail carrier
- The guy or gal who makes donuts at the local donut shop
- A favorite literary character or two
Blend traits of several of these choices into once character or spread them across several characters. Jim O’Connell, the hero in Hammil Valley Rising, is a blend of my husband, me, and a few literary characters.
Knowing your characters well will help your writing flow and keep you from having a character do something he or she shouldn’t be. One of the biggest issues I see with a lot of writing is characters that act contrary to the nature the author has given them. Yes, people have sudden changes of heart (it seems to happen a lot in movies on The Hallmark Channel), but an evil person doesn’t suddenly become a philanthrope, like Ebenezer Scrooge (shame on Dickens!). It took my heroine Rose Wilson in Hammil Valley Rising a year (and thirty-six chapters) to learn who Jim O’Connell really was.
Readers will remember truly compelling, vivid characters long after they have finished reading a novel or watching a movie. My guess is that you are thinking of such a character right now. Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With The Wind, Dagny Taggart from Atlas Shrugged, Jean Valjean from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, or even Charles Dickens’ title character from David Copperfield jump into my mind.
One thing to avoid: using great character profiles to compensate for weak plot or a so-so writing style. (Yes, I actually saw someone recommend that you do this.) It can be as annoying as seeing a movie that has as its one redeeming feature great special effects, a great movie score, or a tour-de-force acting job. Everything has to work together in balance.
Keep it real, and you will keep your readers coming back for more. A key is giving your characters a problem to overcome based on a strong need, longing, or desire. Survival is top of the needs list. It is accomplished by keeping a job, marrying someone rich, or otherwise securing the means to provide food and shelter. Get even more specific, though. Jim needs to protect his business from those who seek to destroy him. Rose, his neighbor, needs to learn how to make a living on a ranch and how to tell who is really on her side.
Avoid overdoing the quirks. They have become a cliché, especially in detective novels, movies, and TV series. Sherlock Holmes has many, such as a Persian slipper that holds his pipe tobacco. Hercule Poirot is fastidious in his personal habits and touts his “little gray cells” as the secret of his success. Lt. Columbo smokes cigars, wears rumpled clothes and a raincoat no matter the weather, and keeps saying, “One more thing.” And on and on. Quirks are not the same as habits, though. Rose has her cup of tea at breakfast and at other times during the day. Jim likes to gaze at the stars on a clear night. Not too quirky. Oh, and if you do add quirks, make sure they fit your character, possibly revealing part of that character’s back story. Sid Minot has an oily, sly personality and a smile that can send shivers down your spine. It comes from his years of learning to get his way through back channels.
Hope you found this helpful and have been inspired to start and/or continue writing!
Please check out my WIPs. And thanks for reading.
Disclaimer: I get no compensation for links in this post or on my site to other sites and/or products.
9 thoughts on “Crafting Your Characters”
Well, some of my characters don’t have a huge character profile due to their ages- my youngest is five and only a minor character. Tweetsie, like all Fairy Frogs, are compassionate and clever and has some natural gift in the arts (however still trying to find hers). She is extremely energetic, which drives my protagonist nuts.
My antagonist, Sarge (who is a toad), has a pretty interesting backstory, which is tragic and heartbreaking. It actually does explain why he is is a bully in the story. As a matter of fact, his cousin, Marge, is a major character in the story.
Even your youngest has a profile (age, gender). The idea is to have that character firmly planted in your own mind so that as you write about him/her, you’ll maintain that character’s profile. And your other characters sound quite interesting! Best wishes.
Personality- Compassionate, Clever, Energetic, etc (as in going to give away spoilers)
Family- Had a mother and father (both left him), uncle (Marge’s father), Marge
Circumstance- mother left him at age 4, and his father abused him from 4-13 and than left him. Well, both Marge and her father do love him, but it is harder than it seems
Personality- confused, conflicted, lonely, broken, anger problem, having nightmares (those are actual memories, and makes things worse)
Good that you have these things firmly in mind as you write! Best wishes.
As a matter of fact, Tale of the Cattail Forest almost didn’t have Tweetsie in it. Now, I can’t imagine the novel without her in it
I have several characters like that. It’s part of the process of writing.