Can you imagine the character you read about?
More importantly, is the character relatable?
How do we take abstract ideas and develop them into three-dimensional characters who love, laugh, hurt? Who live a life we can understand.
Here is what I’ve found through reading, writing, studying:
- Give them a background. Why is the character a horrible person? Was he in an abusive household?
- Create nervous tics or habits. Everyone has habits they don’t realize they’re doing — play with their hair (nervousness or self-centered), roll their eyes (lack of patience).
- No character is absolutely perfect. Is a perfect person relatable or lovable? No, because we know that’s a front. They’re keeping something from us. We want to see what that is.
- Character need realistic reasons for doing what they’re doing. If a character is evil, there should be a reason or it’s hard to follow, to believe.
- Characters with unique features are interesting. They stand out if they have, say, buck teeth or big glasses that cover half their face, or two different color eyes, or a buzz cut so short the hair seems penciled to their head.
- No stereotypes. Are all women maternal and spend their time in the kitchen cooking? Heck no. Are all men against asking for directions? No. I’ve seen it happen. It’s formulaic, and as such less interesting.
A good character not only carries a story, but can become the story.
I watched Homeland for one reason — the main character. Good show, but not all episodes carried their weight. Carrie, however, was worth every moment I took away from my own life to watch hers. It’s hard to encounter such a dynamic, vulnerable yet strong character in television. Same with the book series Bosch. Harry carried the story.
When reading, do you imagine the character in detail? Do you get attached to their story?
I do. Same when writing.
Paige, from my short-story collection Start Again (Survivor), is a woman who is only happy when she’s unhappy. Morose, distant, yet a tender soul who works long hours, donates to charity, and eschews anything social, Paige finds herself with one friend when life strikes. Loosely based on a real life person, Paige took on a life and look of her own as I wrote her. Her features developed in my mind’s eye little by little until a full-fledged person emerged.
Here is sort of how I see her — picture below. She is a mixture of morose, curious, vibrating with energy, distant yet helper. An enigma to many. An open book to few. You’d want Paige as a friend, but only after being around her a while.
How do you imagine the characters you read about? Do you form a clear picture based on description, actions, both?