In an earlier post Character Building– Why is JUSTIFIED justified in fiction writing I wrote about character traits. Today I’d like to delve a little deeper.
Characters are the most important element of a novel. Today I will be concentrating mainly on the protagonist, but the same development is necessary for all of your characters. Even the victims! Creating a back story for the dead is done differently. I’ll write about that in a future post. (You can follow this blog by clicking the follow button at the bottom so you don’t miss it.)
If the protagonist is two-dimensional or a cardboard-cutout no one will care what kind of trouble the get themselves into, or how they get themselves out of a sticky situation. Creating that perfect character means giving them flaws, mannerisms, speech pattern, job, style of dress, emotions, appearance, etc…
To properly round your protagonist into a believable character use all five senses. It’s not enough to only show what they see. Let them smell their favorite food cooking, or a wretched stench emanating from an oddly shaped package left at their door. Allow their senses to take over…
My protagonist in Timber Point, Shawny Daniels, is a tough, hardened, talented cat burglar who fled an abusive foster home at fourteen years old and then lived on the streets. With that in mind, I gave her a cynical view of the world. She doesn’t trust people easily, nor does she allow anyone into her heart– a self-protection reaction that stemmed from childhood. So when she’s put in a situation where a man wants to have a relationship with her, she wonders why?
“Does he just want into my pants? Will he take me to bed and throw me away once he gets what he wants?” These are valid concerns of hers, considering her background. If I made her trusting it wouldn’t be believable.
Shawny also swears like a long-haul trucker. (No offense to long-haul truckers) She lies, steals, is very opinionated– but still you love her. Why? Because even though she does these things they weigh heavy on her conscience. She regrets lying to the few people in her life. She doesn’t want to continue to steal, but she just can’t help herself. If I hadn’t shown her background no one would’ve liked her. Or if I hadn’t shown her true thoughts and feelings the same would hold true.
You don’t see a lot of novels that use taste. I think it’s a great sensory tool. Keeping with Timber Point, Shawny notices grapevines climbing lattice on the side of a house she’s casing. Here’s an excerpt to show how taste can add to your writing…
“Juicy, purple grapes twined their way in and out of the small squares, reaching for the sun. I couldn’t resist the lure of a tender grape. I plucked one from its vine, rolled it around my mouth with my tongue to tease myself in anticipation. . . and chomped it in half. I felt my lips pucker and my face contort. I hadn’t expected it to taste sour. Spitting the seed on the ground, I searched for a smaller one.
Maybe the tiny ones are more flavorful? I bit in. Tasty sweetness burst in my mouth, squirted down my throat like a geyser. I choked on the juices, but eventually had to smile– satisfied. As delicious as the last grape was, I’d had enough surprises for one night.”
I wrote about character’s flaws in length in Character Traits- Why is JUSTIFIED justified in fiction writing so I’m not going to bore you with repeating myself. If any of you haven’t read my earlier post, just click the title and check it out.
Mannerisms: Maybe your characters have nervous habits. Maybe they bite their nails or twirl their hair. And they don’t even realize they’re doing it, but others do. This is a great way to tie your writing together, make it more believable, and your characters more three-dimensional. For instance, Nadine Couture, Shawny’s only friend, has a habit of interrupting. She never allows Shawny to finish a thought, let alone allow finish a sentence. I had a lot of fun with her because her annoying habit drives Shawny nuts. It made for great dialogue between the two.
Shawny also has a nervous tic. Whenever her anxiety level rises her knee rapidly bobs up and down uncontrollably. It doesn’t matter where she is… sitting in a chair or relaxing in a bathtub.
There’s a tense scene in Timber Point where Levon Samuels (Shawny’s love interest, and the lead detective on the case) is about to find something Shawny has stashed. Shawny’s knee starts jumping up and down, which causes the bath water to splash wildly. (Please excuse all the adverbs!)
Attire: Some authors describe every outfit their characters wear. This doesn’t interest me as a reader, so I don’t do it in my writing. I do, however, describe clothes if they’re relevant. For example: Shawny is a cat burglar. When she’s casing a potential target’s property she dresses in all black, black leather gloves, shoes, etc… I couldn’t very well stick her in a neon-orange shirt– someone would spot her skulking around the property.
There is nothing wrong with describing what people wear– many great authors do it. My philosophy is: If I don’t enjoy reading it, I don’t write it. But that’s just my personal preference. Someone else might love to know what each character is wearing in every scene. Remember– write for you. You can’t please every reader so do even try!
Setting, however, I love to read about. So this is where I may get a bit more descriptive in my writing. But there’s a fine line. Too much description and you look like an amateur. Too little and your reader won’t visualize the setting properly. Or they’ll visualize something completely opposite from what you intended. Therefore, when describing your setting do it in moderation. I think it’s best done in sprinkles, here and there, rather than two paragraphs about the sun or how the leaves wafted down the street. Nothing screams newbie writer more than that. And although you might be one, you never want to look like one. Instead, mention that your protagonist is prowling down a dark road, or whatever.
Example: “A waning moon barely lit my way.” Then stop. Move on to something else, then pick it up again. “The wind screamed through the bone-like branches of a young beech tree.” Stop. Move on. Pick it up again. “Darkness blanketed the inside of the house. Evergreens permeated the hot, sticky summer air as I cupped my hands around my eyes and peered through a soiled living room window. At least, I assumed it was the living room.”
See? Moderation, that’s the key.
Emotions are the cornerstone of great writing, in my opinion. Without showing emotions there can be no story. Not a good one, anyway. Don’t just use the basic emotions, either. Push yourself to go further. There’s a great writer’s tool called The Emotional Thesaurus. The author has an entire collection of thesauruses. Emotions, character traits, setting, and many others. She also has samples on her website: WritersHelpingWriters.net In the Emotional Thesaurus she gives many examples right on her site, so if you can’t afford the book right now feel free to use those examples. Don’t worry, she says that on the site. She even has NY Times best-selling authors using her tools! If that’s not high praise than I don’t know what is. I highly recommend the site– and her collection of thesauruses.
Lastly, for today, appearance. It’s important to match your character’s appearance with who she truly is deep in her soul. Unless, she’s forced to look a certain way for a job. If that’s the case– go for it. But just remember, on her days off she should have a style to match her personality. This can mean the clothes she wears, her hairstyle, make-up, jewelry, piercings, tattoos, etc. For a man, don’t forget to include facial hair!
What I do before I start writing is to picture my protagonist. I create an entire back story for her in my mind. Then I think about what she looks like. How would she wear her hair, make-up, etc… Would she mark her body with tattoos and piercings, or would she think that’s a ridiculous thing to do? As the book evolves– since I don’t outline– little things come to light. Her habits, bad or good, her mannerisms, the way she walks or talks, etc…
Who can forget this dog? His owners thought they’d cut his hair to look like a lion– and he scared hundreds of people because of it! He also almost got shot by police! But you can see from this example, how we choose to present ourselves to the world impacts how we are perceived. It only makes sense that if you choose wisely with your characters descriptions it will impact your writing, too.
I always end up falling in love with my protagonists because I write in first person. I’m in her/his head so much it’s hard not to feel like he/she is part of me. When I complete the novel, or step away so I can come back with clear eyes, I genuinely miss him or her. I miss their sense of humor. I miss their views of the world. I miss their relationships. I miss everything about them, good or bad. If YOU miss your characters when YOU’RE not with them– a reader will too! And isn’t that what we all strive for? Someone else to love our characters as much as we do?
What are some of the ways you like to develop your characters? What traits or habits do you like to use? I’d love to hear the different ways other writers go about creating characters. After all, we can’t learn from one another if we don’t share our process, right?
If you enjoyed this post you might also like some of my earlier posts…