When you write your character to life, you delve into what that character wants (more than anything!). But to really animate your character, readers must understand what makes that person tick.
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s talk about ways to more fully imagine your character’s inner life:
Back Story Need to Know
We’re all the sum total of our experiences, our personalities, our attitudes. In writing a fictional character, a comprehensive back story is vital to the writer. Writers must know what motivates a character. The past influences what your character does today, but readers can wait to know these motivations. Writers are tempted to info-dump a character’s back story at the beginning of a story, but readers simply want the story. A writer who doesn’t know a character’s back story may have her say or do things inconsistent with that person’s personality. But a story overloaded with this background material will have a hard time getting off the ground. What to do? In the first three chapters of your story, avoid lengthy back story explanations. Instead, reveal back story only on a need-to-know basis until the reader is well-established with the story goal and the character’s outlook on life.
Here’s an example of brief back story at a story beginning:
To add insult to injury, Mom had made me wear a frumpy cardigan over my sundress and she’d refused to let me wear heels—they made me an inch taller than she was. I fanned myself harder. Hadn’t she been seventeen once too?
Describe Through Character Eyes
When you write descriptions of the character’s story world, pull the camera closer by writing these descriptions as though the character was living them. In other words, choose words your character would say instead of describing in a dispassionate way. One way to spot description that is too neutral is to look for generalized or bigger words and phrases. If the description sounds like a travel brochure or an encyclopedia, consider rewriting to reflect the character who is reporting.
Here’s an example from one of my own works-in-progress:
Every summer, the dreaded disease of polio haunted cities and towns across America.
I rewrote through my character, a teenage girl’s eyes:
We all knew someone who’d come down with polio—and we were all scared to death.
The second effort is much more like a teen girl’s speech.
Emotions and Body Language
Your character’s inner life will resonate more with readers if emotions and body language help show the character’s inner life. A person who recoils at the sight of something he abhors goes beyond telling. We don’t need to be told that he loathes this thing—if he jumps back or makes a face, the message comes across.
Readers are always looking for character emotion. Emotion forms a much more powerful bridge from the story to the reader than mere reporting. When readers understand a character, it’s likely to be because the character displays emotions and body language that readers can relate to. We don’t always understand the reasons why people are attracted or repelled by another, but most of us understand strong emotion. Use this emotion to help your reader not only understand your character but to participate in the story on a deeper level.
Here’s an example of emotion and body language to draw readers in:
“Mom.” I was careful not to sound annoyed. “I told you, it’s just that kind of headache—you know, the one Dr. Brinkerhoff says we girls get? I’m fine. Really.”
Mom didn’t seem convinced. “Oh honey, if you only understood.” Tears brimmed at her lashes as she stroked my shoulders. “You’re such a beautiful girl, so perfect. I love you more than anything.”