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.

Character Descriptions (pt. 2)

When you describe a character (age, height, weight, hair color, ethnicity, clothing, etc.), you are creating a characterization. The characterization is all the surface information that is know about a person (in addition to the above: schooling, social class, employment, etc.).

But the True Character is defined by the choices the character makes under pressure. For example, you can describe a successful businessman who is happily married, has children who are doing well in school and in sports, and who has a world of opportunity still opening before him. You describe him as the kind of guy any team would want on their side, the man you would choose for a neighbor, the fellow who would be selected as the jury foreman.

But what happens to this man when his world falls apart: one of his children is kidnapped, for example. Will he remain calm, focused, in control? or will he fall apart? make rash decisions? put others in harm’s way to help the one?

It is moments like these that define True Character.

When you are creating the characters for your book, start with plot…know who must do what in the story to give it drama, or humor, or suspense. Then people the book, but don’t create cookie-cutter characters, stereotypes…unless you plan to stand those stereotypes on their heads.

Do the unexpected with your characters. Remember the mother-in-law who lives with the successful businessman? The character you may have thought was just filler, rounding out the background for this stand-up guy who even lets his wife’s mother live with them? What if, as he begins to fall apart, she steps forward to lead the way, providing the strong shoulder and clear thinking required in the circumstances?

By the end of the story, we should know the True Character of each of your cast, and none of the primary characters should remain as they started. All must change. That is story. That is character development.

Character Descriptions

In July, I teach a new class at UCSD Extension, “Creating Memorable Characters.” I’m excited about this class because I believe passionately that characters make a novel. You can have a great plot, a great story, but any great plot or story is diminished by cardboard characters. Take Dan Brown’s books. Gripping, fun rides, but can you describe the characters in anything but caricatures? (No fair using Tom Hanks et al. I’m talking from the books.)

I’ve recently read several novels in which the authors feel the need to describe every character we encounter: hair and eye color, height, weight, body build, etc. Is this really necessary? Can’t they leave something to the reader’s imagination?

For example, if I were to describe someone as a New York thug, I believe I’ve covered the territory. My idea of a NY thug may not be the same as yours, but I’ve allowed you to imagine the character as you choose.

Sometimes, you don’t even need a physical description. If I give my villain #2 a lisp, you can provide the rest. The lisp gives you something to hang on to. It gives you a taste of who this fellow might be. It’s up to you to decide whether that lisp makes him crueler than he might otherwise have been, or whether it gives him a sensitive side, an ability to identify with vulnerability. As an author, I can make use of something like a lisp much better than I can make use of his being 5-foot-1o and blonde.

If size, shape, coloring, and race don’t matter, don’t tell the reader the stats. If you do tell, make sure to use that information at some point. In my current piece under development, my main character is sort of short. This matters for two reasons: 1) her partner is extremely tall, and 2) her height will make a difference in the story. But if she had been of average height, why would I need to state that, unless it proved important in the story?

Characters bring a story to life. A writer must see the characters in order to flesh them out, but the reader doesn’t need a snapshot of each character who filters through the story. If you write a description, make it mean something.

Colonel Sanders wore a white suit and sported a white goatee. There was a reason for that. It told us something about him. But telling us that Rahm Emanuel wears a suit means nothing, unless we are told that it is a suit that sells for multiple thousands of dollars and he pairs them with off-the-shelf shoes because of his bunions. THAT is a reason to describe his suits.

More on characters in my next posting.