How To Write: Characters
I was asked recently how to make characters more individual; how to make them unique, colourful and distinctive. How do you get the different quirks of humans into a piece of writing?
Sometimes it feels as if you could have robots as your main characters and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. They all speak and act in the same way, and you could replace them without anyone batting an eyelid. How can you make them individual?
- List six character traits for each of your major characters, and use these when you’re writing. How would these traits affect their reactions to events? How would they speak? How would they react to other characters? It works particularly well if you’ve got two traits that play off each other; what would happen if you get two stubborn and angry characters disagreeing with each other?
- Think about their background. Where have they come from? What happened to them? What adventures have they had? What events have made them who they are?
- List three priorities for that character at various points during the plot. While at the start, their First Priority might be getting back to their family, as time goes on Priority Two: Saving The World may come to the fore, or occasionally be superseded by Priority Three: Get A Good Night’s Sleep. At each plot point, think about what that character’s priority is likely to be at that point, and how it would affect their actions. Even minor priorities get quite big at certain points – if you’ve ever been wet and tired, getting to shelter or sleep is usually more important at that point than whatever your day’s aim was.
Cardboard cut-outs in the background. How to give these walk-on parts some personality?
- Give minor characters a name and a background – even if only you know it and it never comes into the story. Adding in small details about that person can add a lot of character. Instead of “The Innkeeper” who simply pours beer and looms behind the bar, have Dave The Former Swordsman who has his old sword hung up on the wall and never has to break up a fight, because everyone knows what happened last time he did that! You’ll find that details leak into your story – the sword hung on the wall, the dead silence and edging towards the door when someone new throws an insult. Sure, Dave might do nothing more than pour a beer for your main characters – but he’s now a personality.
- Flip stereotypes. If you’re about to put hulking thugs in as bodyguards, how about an unassuming brown-haired woman and a short bald man? Why does your damsel in distress have to be a damsel? Something unusual makes the reader remember that character, and also gives you a chance to fill out some of the background (see the point above).
- Add detail. You don’t need much – don’t overdo it! – but the characters are the points where you can add in detail. The walking stick could be twisted; the man has bushy eyebrows; the girl speaks with a lisp. It only needs to be a single word, but it adds to the reader’s impression of that character.
It can sometimes feel as if all your characters speak in the same way, and your dialogue feels flat and stale. How do you make every voice different?
- Replace ‘said’ with something else – roared, whispered, sneered, commented, asked, snapped, insinuated? This makes you think about how the character is saying things, and gives the dialogue some punch. This can tie into the character traits as well; someone’s who is angry is more likely to roar and snap! However, you’ll soon see that this almost adds too much vibrancy – so you need to go back through and replace some, but not all, with ‘said’. It’s nice to have variety, but don’t overdo it.
- Use contractions or slang to change the feel of speech. Try “I do not like you” versus “I don’t like you”. The same with “It ain’t all bad” versus “It isn’t all bad”, or even “Yup” versus “Yes” – it changes the way your reader hears your character.
- Consider how your character’s worldview affects their speech. If they’re conceited, they wouldn’t bother explaining anything. An over-explainer might be tedious and long, and repeat the same thing in three different ways. A nervous person could stutter or um-er. The worldview also affects how they react; your conceited character might cut others off, whereas the nervous one might be more ready to listen. An angry character might not allow others to speak if they think they are right; how would they react to being proved wrong?
If you’re worried about your characterisations, ask someone to read a section for you. Can they tell who’s speaking? Do they like – or hate – anyone? (Hate is good as long as you want that character to be hated!) A second opinion often helps to check you’ve got the voices and the personalities as you want them and as they sound to you.
Green Sky & Sparks
by Kate Coe
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