Make Characters Believable

In my class this semester, I am working with students on making their characters believable. One of the first “obstacles” to overcome is their tendency to want to describe each character in detail: hair color, height, weight, perfection of teeth, etc.

My task is to have them develop the characters fully in their mind’s eye, and then choose those elements of character that must be used, and those that must be set aside, for their knowledge alone, and perhaps to be used later as the story develops. It isn’t necessary for each character to be described exactly as the author sees them. Leave something to the reader’s imagination. If it isn’t vital that the woman is wearing a daffodil-yellow dress, simply mention the dress. And wouldn’t it be more interesting if a woman who dresses in the highest of fashions and has her face and body sculpted annually still smiles with crooked teeth? What does that say about her? It certainly makes her instantly more interesting than if she had perfect teeth.

I also spoke about the importance of names in character development, and how the name can create an immediate, if unconscious, expectation in the reader’s mind. A woman named Wonderly manifests a different expectation than does a woman named Malificent. And a villain named Mordred is much more menacing than one named Tubby.

Names can begin the expectations of character that will be further developed by physical and psychological description.

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