Writing Characters to Life

Writers are often encouraged to fill in a grid of specifications about the characters they write. Height, age, hair and eye color are entered as well as education, occupation and location. These character forms are useful as a start. But readers will identify more with characters who speak to their emotional core.

Writing Tip for Today: How can you write a character into life? Here are a few suggestions:

Eye Sweeps

Writers sometimes give character descriptions in excruciating detail, beginning at the head and ending with the feet, describing every article of clothing. It’s one thing for you, the writer, to understand all this stuff, but when you introduce or describe a character, it’s more realistic to give that character just a couple of stand-outs. Let’s say Character is a large man, one who wears dungarees, big holey T shirts and red suspenders. What would stand out to you if you met him? More likely than not, you’d remember that he dressed kind of sloppy, that he was a big guy and most of all that he wore red suspenders. This is what I can the “eye sweep,” meaning that we tend to take in a person’s appearance as a whole rather than taking time to log every detail. By giving an overall impression—especially if you give the character some unusual trait—readers are more likely to grasp the character in gestalt rather than as a set of disconnected details. Try this next time you are introduced to a stranger or you are people-watching. You don’t want to write a stereotype, but neither do you want your readers lost in details.

Dig Deeper

While you are communicating this character to readers, go beyond the visual. There are other senses which can be even more powerful and more indelible to readers. Maybe she speaks in a whisper or he has a radio announcer’s voice. Dialogue can illustrate a character. Smells can communicate in a targeted way: body odor, sweat, blood, patchouli oil, all say something about a person. If his hands are rough and weathered or her skin is baby-bottom soft, touch can also help you create a memorable and unique character. I guess taste should be relegated to zombie stories or a steamy romance, but you get the idea! Go beyond the obvious visual cues as you bring your character to life.

Search Motivations

Unforgettable characters are created not from these sensory clues but from what makes a character tick. If your character is bitter and bent on revenge, readers can’t sympathize without at least a hint of how he got that way. In workbooks such as Writing the Breakout Novel  by Donald Maass, you can find probing questions to help you write your character in the most unique yet unforgettable way. Or, ask what your character’s biggest obstacle is, and why it’s such a problem. One way to build a great character is to journal the expectations, losses and back story for the character up to the point where the story begins. You won’t use all this background material in the story, but you can weave in a few sentences here and there to help readers understand a character’s motivations. By writing this inner life of a character separate from the actual story, you will be able to resist the urge to explain (RUE) everything. Readers want just enough to get why a character acts the way she does. All the rest can inform her actions and dialogue on stage while not slowing the story or boring the reader. See if you can create a character using these tips and let me know how it works.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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