BUILDING CHARACTERS READERS WILL REMEMBER
1 1. What’s his name?
Although a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, the names you choose need to fit the character and the genre. In our earlier example, it was clear that while Margaret and Sterling fit an historical romance, those names weren’t appropriate for some other genres. Names should be chosen that not only fit the tone of your novel, they must also be appropriate to the setting. If your story takes place in Ireland, your characters might not be named Bubba, Nick, or Ephraim. Instead, they might be Pat, Conan, or Liam. Make sure you choose names that fit your character’s ethnicity, but don’t use stereotypes. Although Bubba is a fun name, not everyone who lives in Arkansas is named Bubba. Similarly, not all Jewish characters should be named Rebecca or Abraham nor are all Muslims are named Mohammad. Pick names that are appropriate, just don’t turn your characters into stereotypes.
Combining names from different ethnic backgrounds can add interest to your story. For example, Sankari O’Brian combines an Indian name with an Irish name. What’s the story there? Sounds like an interesting family dynamic that will help to make your lead character’s background diverse and out of the ordinary.
Names can also help to paint a picture of your character in your readers’ minds. For example, who do you see when I mention Edward Prentice Howard, III? Or Buffy Vanderkellen? Do you see people from rich, aristocratic families? What about Billy Bob Hatfield or Betty Lou Clutterbuck? Would these characters most probably live a different kind of life than Edward and Buffy?
The names Rock and Brick aren’t popular now, but at one time, they put a picture into women’s heads of manly, masculine men. Today, the same image might be created by Lance, Duncan or Heath.
You also need to be careful with names like Gertrude, Maud, Mabel, Bertha, Frank, Norman or Otto. These names definitely bring up a picture of someone older. The same goes for Whitney, Tessa, Britney, Travis, Connor and Tyler. These names suggest someone younger. Make sure the names you pick not only fit your story, your genre, your setting, and your tone – but that they also match the age of your characters.
2. What does he look like?
Your job as a writer is to create a picture in your readers’ minds so they can see your characters. This is especially important for your lead character and his or her romantic interest. The rule here is: Less is more. What do I mean by that?
Your readers have imagination. They will envision your characters in their own way. Don’t over describe them. Reveal just enough so that your character will create a spark in your reader’s mind that will bring your character to life. Sometimes, just a little description will paint a picture of someone the reader knows or has seen. Overloading them with details could strip away that image in their mind. You don’t want to do that. Once a reader has a clear picture of your character, they are real to them. They’ve made a connection. And that’s exactly what you want.
One important point: If your female lead character has a “turned up nose,” only bring it up once. Don’t stumble into the mistake some writers do and constantly remind readers that: Jenny stuck her turned-up nose in the air after you’ve introduced Jenny early on in your story with: Brice lightly kissed Jenny’s turned up nose and smiled. Overemphasizing any kind of description can be annoying.
So how do you introduce your character’s looks?
Here’s one way:
Jenny brushed a lock of raven black hair off her forehead. Brice stared into her stormy gray eyes and a shiver ran through him. She had no idea how beautiful she really was. That quality made her even more appealing.
(Note: Usually it’s better if you don’t combine two descriptions at the same time. I would suggest you save the stormy gray eyes for another scene.)
Brice stood next to her, peering down at the top of her head. Being near her made him feel tall.
In this example, I’ve told readers that Jenny is short without saying, Jenny is short. “Well, maybe Brice is tall,” you might say. No, because if he was tall, he wouldn’t have to feel tall. So, I’ve killed two birds with one stone here. Described two characters without actually describing them.
Here’s something else about Jenny:
“I wish I could wear clothes the way you do, Jenny,” Marnie said with a sigh. “But I’ll never be that skinny. I’m just not built that way.”
Now we know that Jenny has black hair, gray eyes, is short and thin. Yet, I haven’t actually said that.
One last thing:
Jenny’s mother was still upset with her daughter for cutting her long, straight hair short. “You look like a boy,” Marion fumed.
After these passages, do you see Jenny in your mind? Good. As I said, less is more. Only give your readers enough description so they can form their own images. Believe me, this works. I still chuckle about a comment made in a review of my book Simple Choices.
I think the picture on the front is not a real good representation of what is inside. I loved the first two covers but this one just didn't have the pull for me that the other ones did. Sam looks pretty much like what I imagine him looking but Gracie does not look like what I imagine from the books. It was just me, but I didn't care for this cover.
The cover of Simple Choices doesn’t even show my lead character’s face! She is pictured from the back! This reader had a very definite idea of how Gracie should look. So much so, that she was offended by a representation that didn’t show any features at all. Yet I never over-described Gracie in the previous books.
One warning: Even though you don’t spend a lot of time describing your characters in detail, you do need to be consistent. Readers will notice if you forget and change something in the middle of your story. If blond Buffy suddenly turns into a redhead without a trip to the hairdressers, get ready for some nasty emails! Once a reader has a clear idea of what your character looks like, mistakes will not only pull them out of your story, but can also lose you a reader. Goofs like these are actually “author intrusion.” Don’t allow your readers to be more mindful of your mistakes than they are of your story. Believe it or not, there are folks out there who live to find errors in novels. They will call you on it publicly. These kinds of readers may even make up stuff so they can chastise you. Although authors tend to simply ignore people like this, it doesn’t help to add fuel to their fires by making missteps that can be avoided.
Another great way of describing characters comes from comparing them to something readers are familiar with. Here’s an example:
Jenny looked up to see a man standing in front of her. Her breath caught in her throat. He could pass for Brad Pitt’s younger brother.
Now let’s add some humor. This is from my cozy mystery novel, Bye,Bye Bertie:
Mavis Baumgartner was a force to be reckoned with. She ran her family like a drill sergeant cursed with an unruly command. Although all our volunteers had been given firefighters' outfits by the Stevens County Fire Department, only the men had them on. Mavis was so massive she couldn't fit into hers. Instead, she wore a big, bright yellow rain poncho over her long flannel nightgown. As she clomped around in enormous black rubber boots, with her poncho flapping in the breeze and her overly bleached bun beginning to come loose from the hairpins that were trying valiantly to keep it secure, she looked like Big Bird with an attitude and a bad dye job.
By using an image known to everyone, Big Bird, I was able to describe Mavis in a way that painted a very clear picture of her. This is a great way to connect readers to your story. As with everything else, however, don’t overdo it. Once, maybe twice in a novel is enough.
Tattoos are another way to describe someone. What does their tattoo say? Where is it located? Most people don’t have something permanently inked onto their body unless it’s important to them. This is a good way to “show” your character’s personality to your readers. Perhaps your character stupidly got a tattoo when he was young and now attempts to cover it up because it expresses love for someone long gone from his life. However you decide to use them, tattoos can be great fodder for defining characters.
One final note about appearance:
Adding characters with physical problems must be handled with care. Frankly, I enjoy it when authors include characters with disabilities. In my Harmony series I had a young Mennonite character with Down Syndrome. Another character, Gracie’s boss from Wichita, also had a son with the same condition. Grant was uncomfortable with his son’s disability. I used the Mennonite family in Harmony to teach him a better way to relate to his own child.
Be sure you thoroughly research your subject before doing this. If you don’t, you could easily offend a reader who is dealing with the reality of a situation you’re only writing about.
Here’s an example:
How many times do we say “disabled people” or “disabled individuals?” Do you know that this can actually cause resentment? As one woman who worked at Independent Living Resource Center in Wichita explained to me: “Why do we put the disability before the person?” She taught me that the correct way to refer to this part of our population is: “persons or people with disabilities.” You might think this is nitpicking, but I think she makes a great point. And my point is that in your novel, you shouldn’t do anything that draws your reader out of your story. Saying something incorrect or stereotypical about a person with a disability can do it. Good research will protect you as well as the folks you’re writing about. .
3. What does he wear?
Although we don’t choose our height, bone structure, hair, eye color, etc., we do choose our clothing. How we dress ourselves says a lot about us.
A man who wears jeans, t-shirts, boots and cowboy hats is telling everyone that he sees himself a certain way. A man who wears custom designed, expensive suits is stating something very different.
It works the same way with women. Designer clothing versus a thrown together, sloppy mode of dress sends a definite message about the attitude and priorities of the person who made these clothing choices.
Decide who your character is and then dress him accordingly. Here are a few examples of characters defined by what they wear:
· A female character with mismatched, stained clothes might not have much respect for herself. Or perhaps she has a substance abuse problem.
· A man whose suit is threadbare and faded may care about his appearance (he put on a suit) but is probably down on his luck. He doesn’t have the money to buy a new suit.
· Young people who dress in unusual clothes (Goth, pants hanging below the tops of their underwear, etc.,) are usually insecure and trying to find their identities.
· A woman dressed to the nines but whose roots are showing and whose nails need attention may either be hurting financially or might be depressed. Maybe she doesn’t care enough to go to the hairdresser or get her nails done.
· Of course, Amish and Mennonite characters have a form of dress that defines them, but what about a woman who isn’t Amish or Mennonite yet always wears long, plain dresses and keeps her hair in a bun? What does this tell you about her?
· What about a man who has food stains on his shirt? Maybe his wife left him. Or perhaps he’s a detective who has to eat on the run. Sloppy in his dress but meticulous in his detection skills.
· Are you character’s clothes wrinkled? What could this mean?
· What colors do your characters like to wear? Do they like bright colors or do they only wear black, dark blue and brown? How do these choices define them?
· When “dressing” your characters, don’t forget jewelry, shoes, socks, belts etc. Jewelry can say a lot about a person. Does your character wear a cross necklace or does a miniature silver skull dangle from her neck? What about a character who still wears a wedding ring years after his or her spouse died? Someone who wears four earrings in each ear is markedly different from the woman who only wears one small pearl in each lobe. On the TV show “Bones,” Seeley Booth wears loud socks and a belt buckle that reads “Cocky.” This certainly gives the viewer a clear picture of him, doesn’t it? Remember that sky-high heels, shoes with lifts, and scuffed shoes can tell a story as well. Describe in detail the way your character dresses on your character outline. (I’ll talk about these later.) You don’t have to use everything you write down, but it will be there in case you need it. Again, less is more.
One great way to learn about using clothing to define characters is to go to a shopping mall, sit down in the food court, and watch people for a while. How do they dress? How do they act? How do they use their clothing to express themselves? This exercise can be very eye-opening!
4. What does he eat?
This is a very clever way to define your characters. Stephanie Plum eats Cheerios over her kitchen sink. Maybe your detective tells everyone he’s on a strict diet, but when he’s out of the precinct, he visits the hot dog vendor on the corner twice a day. Your characters can love French food in fancy restaurants or have a propensity for peanut butter and banana sandwiches. They can be self-professed vegans who sneak a hamburger when they think no one is looking. Or perhaps they’re fully committed to natural foods. Maybe they have odd phobias and can’t stand to have different foods touching while on their plate. They might eat one food at a time during a meal, never combining different foods together in their mouth. Maybe they only consume organic foods and believe it’s their mission in life to tell everyone else how to eat. What and how characters eat can tell readers a lot about them.
5. How old is he?
You can describe a character without telling his age.
When he smiled his wrinkles seemed to grow their own wrinkles. His age-spotted hand trembled as he reached for me.
Not hard to see that this character is elderly. This is a great way to “show” age in your novel. However, there is one thing most editors want. They want to know exactly how old your main character is. They’re not interested in your descriptive prose as an indication of age. Especially in a series, editors will ask you to give your LC’s age early in the story so your readers won’t wonder about it.
6. What’s his job?
Your lead character needs a job. It must fit your story and your selected genre. A detective will probably work at either a police department or his own agency. An amateur detective needs an interesting occupation or hobby that puts him in contact with crime, criminals, or detection. However, he can have any profession if his love interest fulfills this objective. Having a relationship with someone who is in law enforcement works beautifully.
If your novel is literary, your lead character’s job may not seem quite as important to your plot, but actually, it can be. For example, if your LC is bored with his life, I doubt he’ll be a fire fighter or in charge of the police department’s bomb squad! You’ll want to give him a job that will support his sense of boredom. Maybe he’s an actuary or an accountant. If you’re writing cozy mystery, you’ll want to your lead character to have a job or hobby that fits into the cozy mystery genre. Maybe your LC makes quilts, cupcakes, is a librarian, owns a coffee house, a boutique, a bookstore, or a bakery. Or maybe she is a mortuary beautician. (Grin)
Many historical romances use governesses or housekeepers as their LC. The lead character’s family has lost their money so they pack up their beautiful daughter and send her to work as a governess for the children of a handsome, brooding widower. Of course, sometimes the crazy wife is still alive and living in a special locked room!
No matter who your interesting lead character is, it’s important to pick a job that helps to define him – not detract from his personality or your genre.
7. What does he want?
Every main character needs to begin his journey wanting something. It can be almost anything. (Maybe not a quest for his favorite candy bar though!) I suggest you pick a desire your readers will identify with. Finding love is probably the number one longing of people everywhere. In romance novels, this would certainly be the first thing a writer might choose. But how to add conflict? Giving him an inner demon that stands in the way of love can bring up exciting possibilities. For example, if your LC comes from a dysfunctional home or has been hurt by love in the past, getting his need fulfilled will be much tougher than it would be for someone who just “hasn’t met the right guy yet.” Uncovering his need and revealing the inner turmoil that stands in his way will allow you to develop a deep, rich character that can stir up empathy and compassion from your readers.
There are many other needs a character might have. Maybe he needs to be free from an abusive past. Or he needs to recover from the loss of a loved one. Perhaps he’s a veteran and is being haunted by his battlefield experiences. This idea also works for anyone in law enforcement or in the health field. Any occupation that faces your LC with death, disaster or heartache can put a roadblock in his life that keeps him from reaching out for love. Maybe your LC has had a breakdown because of his experiences and he is trying to assimilate into regular life.
Whatever you choose, remember that the reason most successful novels connect with readers is because the lead character sets out on a journey for something. Whether it is something you can see or something internal that can’t be seen, the quest is paramount in setting the tone of the novel. In almost every case, the LC’s quest was twofold. Frodo set out to take the ring to Mordor, but he also had to face himself. Would the ring pull him to the dark side? Or was he strong enough to complete his mission? Don’t confuse this underlying need with your character’s main goal of solving “the problem” your plot will present to him. This inner need is different and will help to define your character. A lead character that is only concerned about solving your main plot predicament will only be a cardboard personality unless something interesting is churning beneath his façade.
8. Is he subject to change?
It’s vital that you ask yourself this question when creating your lead character. Is he going to change, or will he stay the same? Although some lead characters do remain steady after the trials and tribulations you put them through, it’s much more interesting if they change some. Something about your plot should bring a fundamental shift in their goals, personality or priorities.
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s main problem was getting home. However, by the time she did return to the farm, she had changed. She’d discovered that her heart’s desire didn’t exist “somewhere over the rainbow,” but that it was in her own backyard all the time.
When Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin returned from their adventures in Lord of the Rings they discovered that they’d changed. Their previous, carefree and irresponsible attitudes were gone. They’d seen and experienced things that had changed their priorities and their outlooks on life.
Luke Skywalker started out as a young boy who wanted adventure and ended up a Jedi knight. His experiences changed him in very definite ways.
Are you seeing a pattern here? Combining the need to solve your main plot problem combined with a personal quest will make your story deeper and your lead character someone your reader will find much more compelling.
9. Who is he…really?
What other traits does your lead character have? Is he easily angered, long suffering, patient, impatient, cheerful, sober, fun loving or serious? Is he introverted or extroverted? Does she keep her feelings to herself or does she blabber everything to friends and family?
In psychology, there are five main personality traits. They are:
Openness: This is characterized by general appreciation for adventure, art, imagination, curiosity, unusual ideas and a variety of experiences. These individuals are known to be more creative, inventive and aware of their feelings.
Conscientiousness: Individuals who display this trait are dutiful, self disciplined and they aim for achievement. This trait is more associated with efficiency in individuals rather than being careless. Individuals falling under this category rarely tend to show spontaneous behavior.
Extraversion: This trait is often related to individuals who are energetic and outgoing and tend exude positive emotions, energy, and a tendency to seek stimulation while in others’ company. They are enthusiastic and also action oriented. These individuals often tend to draw a lot of attention to themselves when in a group.
Agreeableness: This trait is often characterized by the tendency of individuals to be cooperative and compassionate towards others rather than being suspicious. They strive to get along with others in society and are generally friendly, warm, hospitable, willing to compromise, generous and helpful. They also have a very optimistic view of life and believe in people.
Emotional instability or neuroticism: Individuals with this trait are more prone to experience a plethora of negative emotions such as depression, anxiety and anger. They are vulnerable to stress and are often reactive.
I want to mention one other personality type that can add interest to your story. Narcissism is the pattern of traits and behaviors which involve infatuation and obsession with one's self to the exclusion of others and the egotistic and ruthless pursuit of one's gratification, dominance and ambition.
On the outside, a narcissist appears to have higher than average self-esteem. Paradoxically, the narcissist's self-esteem is lower. For the narcissist, self-worth comes from the belief that he/she is superior to his/her peers; it is not enough to be "okay" or "pretty good," the narcissist can only feel worthwhile by being the best. It is this struggle of the narcissist to convince others of his/her superiority that results in the outward appearance of high self-esteem, and the inadequacy that the narcissist feels from not being the absolute best that results in the narcissist's low self esteem. In addition to fragile, exaggerated self-esteem, narcissists are also characterized by a lack of empathy, that is, a lack of sensitivity to the feelings of others. These traits are present in most people to some degree but severe narcissism may warrant a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder.
Although not a part of the five main personality traits, a narcissistic personality can add something unique to your story. I shouldn’t have to say this, but clearly, your lead character can’t be the narcissist. No one, including your readers, will like him. But this personality type can shape a great antagonist or even the LC’s love interest. Maybe your lead character’s inner journey will force him to finally admit, as the father had to in Ordinary People, that the person he loves will never love him back.
If you’re writing a hard-edged detective novel, you may want to research psychopathic or sociopathic personalities. Most serial killers possess one or both of these psychological traits.
You can use these behaviors to help shape your characters’ personalities. They work not only your lead character, but also for your secondary characters.
10. What makes him unique? What does he enjoy?
Your characters, especially your lead character, should have an interest or a quirk that sets him apart from the crowd. Not something so unusual that it doesn’t fit his personality or your genre, but a trait that makes your character memorable.
In my Curl Up and Dye series, Hilde loves SPAM and even enters the yearly SPAM contest at the state fair. Unless you’re writing cozy mystery, the unique trait you give your character doesn’t have to be quite this quirky. Giving a character a unique quality will help to make him memorable. It’s a really good way to define him without “telling” your readers what he’s like.
Let’s look at some other examples:
Maybe your hard-nosed detective lets off steam by:
· Running in marathons
· Training dogs
You get the idea. Whatever you pick will show your reader just who your LC is, and what makes him happy. If it’s bowling, your detective is probably down to earth. If it’s knitting, he’s probably pretty secure about his manhood. Of course, this could end up making him the butt of jokes at work. Could be a humorous idea and one that could really define your character.
Miss Marple, that clever little amateur detective, liked gardening, knitting, and bird watching. Watching our fine feathered friends put her out and about with a pair of binoculars. A great way to peer into the lives of her neighbors in St. Mary Mead!
Perhaps your lead character is a coroner who loves the opera. Or a fire fighter who enjoys the ballet!
If you’re writing a more serious novel, perhaps your male lead character is a gardener. This shows a love of growing things. What a great way to show his “gentler” side. If your lead character is female, maybe she boxes in her spare time. Or takes karate. A reader will wonder why she feels she has to protect herself. And from whom.
11. Who are the important people in his life?
This is self explanatory. Family, friends, coworkers? Anyone who is meaningful to him. Although secondary characters need to be carefully created, some of them may not be all that important to your LC. Just who does he care about? Who does he listen to? Who does he go to for help? You can apply some of these same character questions to the people who play a large role in your LC’s life – and in your story.
12. What about his past?
Most human beings are shaped by their past. Your characters shouldn’t seem to just emerge from thin air. They need to have a life before they appear on your pages. Although you don’t need to get too detailed about this unless they happen to be your lead character or his main love interest, even your secondary characters should have some kind of past experience. Here are some questions to ask yourself and make note of when designing your characters:
· Describe his childhood
· How did his parents treat him? Did he have two parents or only one?
· Did he get along with his siblings?
· Was he a foster child?
· Was he adopted? If the answer is yes, does he know it? (Revealing this in your story can add interest and conflict.)
· Names of parents, grandparents, siblings and brief descriptions. *This is important (Note: If any of these relatives will play a strong role in your novel, be more detailed when listing them.)
· Any trauma in his past?
· Lost loves?
· Was he popular in school? Unpopular? Invisible?
· Any past issues with anger, alcohol, drugs? Did he smoke?
· Was he brought up in a poor family? A rich one?
· Does he resent his past or does he miss his simple, happy childhood?
As you can see, questions about the past can go on forever. These are just a few that can help you to shape your character. If you can think of others, add them!
13. What about his romantic relationships?
Is your lead character married? Divorced? Widowed? Looking? His reaction to his love life can show his state of mind in a very clear way. It can also help to explain his current reaction to the idea of falling in love if he tragically lost the love of his life, or if the person he loved ran off with someone else.
14. Does he have children?
Again, as with his marital status, his children or lack of children will help you to draw a clear picture of his emotional state, wants and needs. Maybe he wants children but doesn’t want to get married. Why? Maybe he has children but is estranged from them. Again…why? Men or women who have a poor relationship with their children have a story to tell. Tell it.
15. What is he afraid of?
Hilde Higgins had a fear of clowns and the color orange, but she had no idea why. It wasn’t until later in the story that she discovered what was behind her phobias. Although she had a photographic memory, she’d blocked the vision of her father taking off with “the other woman” in an orange convertible. And her fear of clowns came from her stint in the hospital as a child. She associates clowns with the entertainers who came to the children’s ward to amuse all the ill boys and girls.
Define your lead character’s fears and explain them. Anything’s possible, just be sure to tie it into your plot.
16.Where does he go to relax?
Where does he go when he wants to unwind? A park? Does he climb a mountain? Go to his favorite pub and shoot pool? Although some of these activities fit into the “what makes him unique” category, many times people go to a peaceful place when they’re under stress that doesn’t fit into the “unique” category. Where do you like to go when you feel like screaming? I like to walk around Watson Park with my dog. (And my husband!) Some women shop or get together for a night with their girlfriends. Men may get together to play poker. Your lead character should have a place to go where he can unwind and think clearly. Maybe he goes to the playground where he used to play as a child. Or he sits outside the house where he used to live with his wife or his parents.
17. What kind of people does he like?
· What types of people is your LC drawn to? Are his friends down to earth? Do they enjoy the kinds of activities he does? Or are they different from him? Maybe he likes quiet people who don’t challenge him. Or perhaps he likes people who hold him accountable for his actions.
· What kind of people does your LC dislike – even hate? Maybe he hates phony people. Or maybe he has something against people who are successful because he thinks he isn’t. You can do a lot with this. Maybe he recoils from certain people but doesn’t know why. This is the kind of conflict you can use to enhance your plot!