Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Character of the Character

There are many ways to show the character of the people in your stories. One way to set them apart is through things associated with them – their car, their house or apartment, something they treasure. Look around your own home. What makes your living room different from anyone else’s living room? Is it ultra modern? Country? Full of antiques? Is there one thing that you just love – the coffee table, the stuffed bear sitting in the rocking chair, the blanket draped over the chair? Why? Was the coffee table handmade by your grandfather? Did the stuffed bear belong to your daughter? Do you like to snuggle under the blanket while you read? Now think about your major characters. What would they have in their living room and why?

What about the house as a whole. What color are the walls? All white? Pale pink? Green? Is each room a different color, some rooms multiple colors? What does that say about that character?

What kind of cars do they drive and why? A hybrid? A Hummer? A sedan? A luxury car? Is it new or second hand? Is it so old they hate driving it and they’re in constant fear of it breaking down in traffic? Does that make them avoid getting on the main highway in rush hour? Does it make them take the main roads instead of less traveled roads at night? Does it mean they always keep their cell phone with them? Does their Hummer or giant SUV make them feel powerful, invulnerable?

Also, consider quirks and habits. Does he carry a pack of cigarettes in his pocket, even though he gave up smoking ten years ago? Why? Does she never leave home without her planner, even when she’s not on her way to the office? Does he always answer his cell even when in a restaurant? When the traffic’s heavy, does she whip out the newspaper and read, peeking over the top occasionally as she inches forward?

When it comes to characters, quirks and habits can set them apart. But it’s also the things they carry with them or keep in their lives that can establish their “character” and make them come alive to the reader.

When it comes to your book or story, how did you establish the characters?
Helen Ginger is an author, blogger, freelance editor and writing coach. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. In addition, her free ezine, Doing It Write, which goes out to subscribers around the globe, is now in its twelfth year of publication. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn – or catch her April 30, 2011 at Books 'n Authors 'n All That Jazz in Weatherford, Texas, where she and Sylvia Dickey Smith will be talking about “Jazzing Up Your Characters.”

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  1. My characters language, their mannerisms, associations and where they pretty much paints the picture. The best way to broaden that picture is by what other characters say about the mc.

  2. I am struggling to make my characters more real right now. This is a huge help. Thank you Helen.

  3. Hi Helen,
    Thoughtful post. I never thought about wall color expressing a character's personality, but I will now.
    Donna v.

  4. Helen, you are so right about the little details making a character come to life. One of my writing friends once introduced a character by a simple line. "From the time he was five years old and his mother punished him for drawing on the walls, Marco knew he wanted to be an artist." To me, that says a lot about the character.

  5. Helen, these are great! I love this reminder to add bits like this in my story. I'm reading a book know where the mc's bedroom walls are orange. What a character!

  6. These are wonderful ways for us to show our characters, Helen. I always try to remember that each of my characters have their own quirks, likes and dislikes. While one might notice the paintings on the wall, another is worried about making a social faux-pas and yet another is just focused on the delicious aroma of freshly baked scones.

  7. This is a good post, :-) All of us, I know, have that one character from a book we love more than anything, and I know we could easily rattle off things like looks, actions, and language, to explain why we love that character so much. As writers, we should aim to create characters like those so that readers can become connected with them, too!

  8. I'm not a terribly visual person, so I have to work very hard to make sure I include the types of things you've listed above.

    My character, however, has a very sharp sense of smell!

  9. LM, so much can be said about the character by all those things, including their "voice" and what they say about others!

    You're welcome, Liza. Let me know how it goes.

    Hi Donna. I know my house and the colors on the wall says a lot about me.

    Maryann, I love that line!

    Julie, orange walls are definitely a "tell." Not many people choose orange.

    Elspeth, that's so true. You have to make sure each character is unique. Great point.

    Chick Lit Gurrl, you're right. We may not have to do much with really minor characters who walk on and off stage, but the others, we need to make them memorable.

    I'm not either Scooter. I usually have to add things in on rewrites. Ooh, "smell" is a great sense and probably one of the most overlooked.

  10. Good points to consider.

    My characters character had some guidelines - they needed to fit certain substance abuse and mental health profiles - but mostly I had to learn about them as I wrote them.

    But they all have certain attachments to possessions, colors, places, rituals etc.

    Thanks for the insightful post.


  11. It's all in the details, isn't it. They're what stay with us after we put the book down, those little quirks and traits that define.

  12. That's a very good suggestion. I drive a Toyota. Some called us boring. But I love to be called reliable.

    My Darcy Mutates

  13. PS: Thank you for the follow. I am now follow you too. Have a lovely weekend!

  14. Whoops and I've lost my original comment - Thank you for such great writing tips! Very useful!

  15. I like Enid's comment as an illustration of your point, Helen: the varying perspectives build character AND add tension.

    I'm also intrigued by the former smoker who carries a pack of cigs in his pocket...I'd like to write about him!


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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