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12 Writing Tips for Building Convincing Characters
To give you a sneak peek inside our IFW writing courses, today’s post is one of our Pointers from the Pros on creating convincing characters.
Pointers from the Pros are 4-5 page articles that demonstrate a specific point about the craft of writing. If you’re stuck on a certain element in your writing (or writing assignment), as a student, you can download a related article to help you breakthrough that particular block. Enjoy!
Think of short stories or novels you’ve read, and you probably think first of the people in them. How can you make your own characters interesting and memorable? First, they have to become real to you. This means knowing them as well as you know your closest relatives and friends. In The Writing of One Novel: The Prize, Irving Wallace said that when he quits writing to eat dinner, he often is surprised not to see his characters sitting at the table with him.
Here are 12 tips for building your own convincing characters.
1. Begin with Someone You See
The next time you go to a shopping mall or store, observe someone you don’t know. Later, write a description. Then add traits to go with what you observed. Maybe the person you saw is a man in his late twenties who looked grouchy and grubby. Ask yourself why. Perhaps his wife insisted he drive her to the store when he wanted to relax and watch TV. Why? Because he’s been putting in long hours at work. So why did he let his wife talk him into doing something he didn’t want to do? How does he feel about his wife? Continue the questions until a credible character begins to emerge.
2. The Type of Story May Suggest the Character
An idea for a story can suggest the sort of characters to be included. For example, for a murder mystery you need a detective. If it’s a police procedural, the investigator obviously has to be a police officer.
What can you do to make the person unique, different from other police detectives in stories you’ve read?
How about making your character a woman? What sort of woman? To succeed in a world mainly populated by men, she’d be pretty special and competent both mentally and physically. So make her a Harvard graduate who paid her way through school as a karate instructor. She has to be skilled in dealing with people—both in her department and with the public. All right, she has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and is working on a Ph.D. Wouldn’t that and her job take up all her time, so she’d have no personal life? She tried marriage, but it didn’t work out. Yet at heart, she’s a romantic.
3. One Convincing Character Suggests Another
Often the character you start with suggests other characters. Maybe you’ve thought of a character you call Henry. He is a worrier. Since this is a significant trait, you’ll want to show how it affects those around him. Place him in a scene with his wife, whom he drives crazy with his fretting. How does she react? How does he feel about her response? What does he do?
4. Setting Can Suggest Characters
A setting, real or imaginary, often brings convincing characters to mind. Suppose you start with an old house up the street from you. Until recently, it had been falling apart, the paint peeling, the lawn thick with weeds. Then suddenly, the place was transformed. But neighbors rarely see the new inhabitants, for they come out only at night. Why? It’s obvious that they’re vampires. The woman’s pale skin appears translucent. In the dim glow of street lamps, her piercing eyes seem to see into a person’s soul . . . . You’re on your way.
5. Developing Your Characters
What should you know about your characters before you begin your story? Think of five categories of information:
- Physical characteristics
- Attitudes and beliefs
- Patterns of behavior
- Dominant traits
These are all related. A person’s education and family background affect attitudes and behavior. A man who had to quit school and go to work will view life differently than if he went to a prestigious prep school and college before taking a position in his father’s firm.
Let’s look at some good ways to get to know your character in depth. Suppose the editor of your local paper asked you to write a profile of your character. How would you go about doing it? The most logical way would be to interview the person.
6. Interview the Character
There’s an acting exercise called the character interview. It has three rules:
- You cannot plan anything ahead of time.
- You must answer as a character beginning to take shape.
- The answers have to be consistent. A person cannot be both fat and thin, for example.
As a writer, you can play both roles. Simply let the questions and answers flow. That’s what I just did with the following, which I started with no preconceived ideas:
A: Yeah, what do you want?
Q: To ask you a few questions?
A: Go on.
Q: What’s your name?
A: Bill Polsky.
Q: Where do you live?
A: Somerset, PA
Q: Do you like it there?
A: It’s way out in the sticks.
Q: Why do you stay?
A: Mom and Dad won’t let me leave till I’m 18.
Q: How old are you now?
A: Seventeen, okay? I’d have been a senior in high school, except . . .
A: I quit. I hate that school.
Q: Why do you hate it?
A: Because of what happened.
Q: What do you mean?
A: It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t even know Bob and Richie planned to do anything. And then . . .
Q: Are you crying?
A: No! Yeah, I am. So what? You’d cry too. They were my two best friends. My only friends. So, you know, afterwards . . . After it was all over and I was walking down the hall between classes, I kept expecting to hear their voices. Or I’d go to the cafeteria and start to save seats. Then I’d remember. So I’m getting out of here, as soon as I can.
There may have been some surprises in this interview, but there are no jarring notes. Bill Polsky is a credible character.
There are a number of other ways to develop your character.
7. Focus on a Significant Trait
Let’s go back to the character who is a worrier. That’s his dominant trait. Now describe him in terms of the four other categories of information mentioned above: physical characteristics, background, attitudes and beliefs, and patterns of behavior. Suppose he is worrying about whether his wife is faithful to him. He questions her every action. One night she can’t take any more of this and slams out of the house. What does Henry do then? As you plot his actions, you’ll be developing this character into an individual.
8. Play Word-Association Games
Another way to develop convincing characters is by word association. Start with a physical or personality trait and write down the next words or phrases that occur to you. Suppose you start with stingy, followed by aloof, needs recognition, 62-years-old, male, anxious, thoughtful.
Keep going until you have ten or twelve traits. Now take four or five and use them as the foundation on which to build your character. If you find yourself heading toward a stereotype (e.g., stingy = rich = selfish), check yourself and reach for some words that will individualize your character (“plays saxophone,” “likes to gossip,” “is a vegetarian”).
9. Make a Character Sketch
You can begin by writing a description:
Johann Benson is 62, has green eyes and dark brown hair. His most outstanding trait is stinginess. Aloof in actions and appearance, he’s a bank executive in a small town in northern Kentucky.
Or you can combine methods. For example, use the word-association list to add whatever comes to mind. When you finish, you’ll have what a visual artist has in a sketchbook: a basis for constructing a fully developed character.
10. Put Your Character in a Setting
A setting supplies concrete details that can make a character seem real:
Johann Benson, a bank executive, is 62 years old. Many people in the community where he lives, a little town a few miles south of Cincinnati, have grown to hate him. This has to do with his stinginess, which carries over into his reluctance to approve loans at the bank. He makes people feel uncomfortable, almost criminal.
11. Write a Scene of Conflict
Nothing makes a character spring to life like a conflict where his true values come to light:
Johann Benson, vice president of the First National Bank of Euclid, Kentucky, chewed nervously on the skin of his lower lip, already raw and sore. The owner of P and P Construction Company, Debbie Peterson, was coming in to demand a loan. He knew P and P was on shaky ground, and it would be a mistake to extend the company’s indebtedness. Usually Johann hated confrontations, yet something in him savored the prospect of seeing Debbie Peterson in need, of flaunting his power over her.
12. Put Two Characters Together
You can take two characters you developed independently and put them together. Let’s combine Bill Polsky with the officer from the police procedural. Now develop a scene based on a meeting between the two. We know that something out of the ordinary happened to Bill’s friends and resulted in their deaths. Have Lieutenant Paula Haberman go to the school to investigate.
As she talks with Bill and his teachers, you learn more about her from the kind of questions she asks and how she analyzes the responses. You learn more about Bill. You may discover, through this process, which of these two will be your viewpoint character.
Or suppose Henry, the worrier, and his wife have a mortgage held by Johann Benson’s bank. It’s not unusual for anyone to worry about making payments on a mortgage, but Henry seems obsessive about it. How did he get this way?
Maybe when he was a child, his father was seriously ill. Henry worried that he might be left as the sole male in the family, forced to assume his father’s responsibilities. As an adult, he’s become a perfectionist, constantly worried that he somehow doesn’t measure up.
Now put Henry and Benson in a dialogue in which Henry says that their mortgage payment will be late. You’re bound to learn more about both of them in such a conversation.
Though you couldn’t possibly include every facet of a character in your stories, the more you know about each, the more convincing he or she becomes. I usually learn to know my characters so well that when I finish a story and it’s published, I go through a grieving process. It’s like losing close friends who have gone on to a separate existence.
Allow the process to work for you. Benson, the bank executive, might suggest a young couple who wants a loan. Maybe you’ll find they’re more engaging or interesting than he is. Build a story around them and relegate Benson to a minor role. Put the characters together and let them talk to each other, using the traits you established as a basis for the situation and the conflict. Soon you may be surprised to see you’re developing a complete story.
If you use any of these methods, you need never again be stuck with a two-dimensional character. Your stories will contain credible people that your readers will care about.
Marsh Cassady is a freelance writer whose published work includes novels and short stories, biographies, a prize-winning collection of haiku, plays, and books about theater. He is also a teacher, an editor, and a frequent speaker at writers’ conferences.
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