What’s a work of fiction without at least one character? Nothing. Bupkis. Nada. Zip. Zilch. So, let’s dive into what a character is. Seems obvious, but …
Some Character Basics
Your character is going to have an occupation of some kind. And by that I mean something he or she does as a regular thing, even though it may not pay. Long-term student even qualifies.
Some common (to the point of being totally overdone) occupations:
- Doctor, nurse, or medical examiner
- Lawyer (both defense and prosecutorial)
- Detective (as part of a police force or private)
- Actor or otherwise involved in entertainment
- Advertising / marketing agent
- Realtor or construction worker
And then there are wizards, fairies, witches, warlocks, and other fantasy character types.
Try for something a bit different, like accountant, economist, art dealer, or even a salesperson at a large retail store. Some articles think that the profession indicates personality type, but that’s a bit cliché. I’ve known all sorts of people in each of those professions. Not all accountants are dull. Not all economists talk in totally esoteric terms. Not all art dealers are scheming wheeler dealers, and not all salespeople at those large retail stores are out to push you to buy something you don’t want. Give the reader something fresher than that. And make it memorable.
Do it with details. Make that art dealer an expert on Vermeer or that salesperson a philatelist who in his or her spare time is chasing down rare stamps. Just be sure to make it believable, which will involve some research on your part.
The character also has to fit the type of fiction you’re writing. If it’s fantasy, the sky’s the limit, including such common mythical creatures as giants, goblins, trolls, and unicorns. Science fiction gives you a lot of flexibility, too, depending on how true to real life or how “far out” you want to be. Otherwise, stay with professions that are in the real world.
Of course, you can always twist things up by making that accountant be someone terrible at math but who went into accounting to try to fix that. Or your economist could be someone who has filed for bankruptcy several times only to become rich again. And really twist things up by having that economist leave his profession, buy an island, and start up his own nation there.
Character Naming – What a Pain!
What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, or so Shakespeare declares in Romeo and Juliet. A famous line that has a lot of truth in it. In fact, the names Romeo and Juliet have come to symbolize passionate, doomed love. Sigh.
You might be tempted to slap any old name on your characters when you start writing, but don’t. Start right with the right name. For one thing, you might miss replacing that starter name with the new name here and there, causing reader confusion. For another, the name, if it fits the character, helps you write about that character. Who knows how long Charles Dickens pondered before coming up with Uriah Heep and Mr. Murdstone. They sound as nasty as they are. But David Copperfield is a name that sounds innocent and hopeful (and ultimately successful). Huckleberry Finn embodies the spirit of that boy who rafts down river with the runaway slave. Captain Ahab is a name befitting a madman after a white whale.
I plucked the names of my hero Jim O’Connell and heroine Rose Wilson in Hammil Valley Rising out of thin air, wanting ones that were easy to remember and very down-to-earth, like my characters were. The name Rose was a play on words, having to do with a special rose cultivar whose development Jim funds. Other names were chosen with more care, especially Peter Thorn. Easy, memorable, but allowing for a great bit of wordplay. He starts out as a thorn in everyone’s side, plus the idea of a thorn relates to the rose cultivar. And then there’s Henry Baum, whose name means “wood” and fits the fact that he makes things from wood, including musical instruments and kitchen cabinets.
One article I’ve seen on naming characters talks about the sound of certain letters. The author claims that a hard k sound is supposed to suggest strength and courage, whereas h and r and vowels suggest weakness, hypocrisy, and even evil, and l and n could sound sexy or convey feminine weakness. I remain doubtful of this, though. Rose is far from weak, hypocritical, or evil. Nor is Henry. Not all “expert” advice is realistic.
But one tip is definitely true: start out with the right name for your characters. Yes, it can be a pain, but it will pay off.
Tagging Your Characters
No, this isn’t about a kids’ game on the playground. It’s about repeated verbal descriptors that identify a character and help him stick in the reader’s mind. These descriptors can be certain habitual gestures such as an eye twitch or clearing the throat before speaking or certain words that character uses such as saying, “Gee, I don’t mean to intrude” when he or she is clearly meaning to intrude. They can also be related to the character’s appearance or behavior. A classic example that I’ve seen used in various articles is Uriah Heep describing himself and his mother as “humble” while he rubs his clammy hands. Another often-cited example is Sherlock Holmes with his violin and declaring, “The game is afoot.”
Various options for these tags include:
- Voice quality (hoarse, whiny, gravelly, raspy, lilting, singsong, etc.)
- Gestures and body language (twirling a strand of hair, hand wringing, throat clearing, shifting from foot to foot, shoving hands in pants pockets, not being able to look someone in the eye, etc.)
- Dialect and speech mannerisms
- Physical descriptions such as hair (color, style) and clothing (jeans, Goth, Steampunk, ultra conservative, patched, dirty, etc.)
You can sway the readers by describing red hair as either “carrot red” or “blood red.” Rose has dark auburn, a rich color often seen as sensuous. A minor male character has silver gray hair tied back in a ponytail with a black silk ribbon. This hair helps someone pick him out from a crowd but also gives the character a somewhat foppish aura. Of course, my American Indian characters have black hair. There are also bleach blonds, honey blonds, dark browns, and light browns in curly, straight, and wavy styles.
Think your characters through. The more you write about them, the more you’ll know them, and the details will start to come naturally. You may find yourself doubling back to add in some of those details in the earlier mentions of those characters. Worth your time.
Hope you found this helpful and have been inspired to start and/or continue writing!
Please check out my WIPs. And thanks for reading.
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See also: Crafting Your Characters
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