Previously published by Net Author, The Institute of Children’s Literature Online, Novel Advice, and Gotta Write Network
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CHARACTER? WHAT’S THAT
By Richelle Putnam
What would Ella Enchanted have been without Ella, or The Best Christmas Pageant Ever without the Herdmans? Louis Sachar could never have written There’s a boy in the Girl’s Bathroom without a boy named Bradley Chalkers.
A story without character is like a body without organs. An empty shell. Plot may drive the character, but without character, even the most exciting plot is utterly useless. A hurricane striking an abandoned coastline and a fire destroying a vacant building are futile stories without characters struggling to survive.
So what is the definition of character?
(a) A person represented in a story
(b) The individuality of a person
(c) Physical features
(d) Moral or ethical qualities
(g) Or all of the above
If you guessed all of the above, you are correct. Character is the heart and soul of every manuscript.
Remember Maniac Magee? And Palmer in Wringer? And who could ever forget Stanley Yelnats in Louis Sachar’s Holes? Why does S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders still sit boldly on bookstore shelves? Characters.
So, how does a writer create full, poignant characters that readers relate to, cry over, laugh with, and cheer on? The task is not a simple one, but neither is it an impossible one.
Try these steps in creating memorable characters:
(a) The character’s name is very important. A well-bred princess wouldn’t likely be Twinky, nor would an urchin raised on the docks be named Alexander the Great. Choose character names carefully, just as you would your own child. Names define character. Alex might be a strong, athletic type. Jennifer could be a studious, yet dreamy girl. Think about M. C. Higgins the Great. Now that’s a name that defined character. A name powerful enough to be the name of the book. Who can help but remember Beverly Cleary’s Ramona? And what kind of name is Kelly Beans? It’s the kind readers remember. A writer finds unique character names in many places: the phonebook, a baby name book, other literature, movies, and TV shows. The resources are endless. For multi-cultural names, the Internet is a great place to be. Try these sites:
(b) Individuality – How does your character dress? Does he like what’s cool or does he give a rip? Is he up to date or old fashioned? Maybe he’s colorblind or has extremely bad taste. Are his shoes Nikes, deck shoes, or hiking boots? Does she wear halters, sportswear, frayed jeans, or Capri pants? Allow your reader to visualize your character’s likes and dislikes. Have your character roll her eyes as she bypasses the new white button down blouse hanging in her closet, and dreams of owning the frilly silk one in Barton’s Department Store. Indicate her desire as she flips through the latest fashion magazines, or scrimps on lunch to buy designer jeans. Individuality also includes hobbies, sports, music, and what your character likes to read. But don’t tell your readers these things. Have the book, Little Women, sitting on her bedside table, or have him return the Wild Boys CD he borrowed from his best friend. Hanging a Grateful Dead poster or a Big Purple Barney will say something about your character without saying anything. Little noticeable things like these allow your readers into your character’s life.
Study people wherever you go, church, school, the mall, etc. Notice how the ritzy woman in designer clothes walks differently than the longhaired teenager in baggy pants and t-shirt. Observe where they shop. Why? You get an idea of likes, dislikes, desires, etc. Does she linger at the perfume counter or in the shoe section? Does the teenager spend all his time in the record shop or in the video game room? Take notes as you analyze both young and old, but respect their privacy and don’t be too obvious. You certainly don’t want to draw attention to yourself or them.
(c) Physical features – What is the color of your character’s hair? Skin? Eyes? Is her nose long? Her cheekbones high? Is your male character’s face expressive when he speaks? Do his brows furrow when he’s agitated? Are his fingers short and stubby, or long and slender? How tall is he? And so on. Your readers will want to visualize each character vividly. Remember that. You don’t have to give detailed descriptions in one long, boring paragraph. In fact, that’s a definite no-no. Divvy it out, bit by bit, a little at a time. Your characters’ looks must be as unique as their name. Give more detail than brown hair and green eyes. Let us see how her thick, wavy locks fall into her deep-set eyes or how he rubs his shaven head. Tell us how he slumps his shoulders because he’s so much taller than the rest of his classmates. Don’t just jot down the physical traits of the people you’re observing, describe the boy’s features as he’s plays a video game and the woman’s lips as she admires herself in the mirror at the makeup counter. Don’t overlook the faces on television and on screen and join outstanding physical traits of different individuals to create your own unique character.
(d) Moral/Ethical Qualities – This is how your character feels about issues, large sor small. What does she think about drinking and drugs? Is it no big deal? What about premarital sex? Cheating on a test? Taking a quarter off Mrs. Simpson’s kitchen table? Is she judgmental of others because of social status? The character will portray these qualities by actions and choices. Thoughts play a big part, because your character will not give long, parental type speeches. However, don’t create perfect protagonists, or evil antagonists that have absolutely nothing good about them. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. When we make villains that are hopeless and heroes that are flawless, we are building an unrealistic world that an audience sees right through. If you have difficulty finding something positive about a really negative person, read a few biographies on well-known people you don’t like, even hardened criminals. This will help you get to know antagonists on a personal level and create them into something more than cruel, evil people.
(e)Behavior – How do your characters conduct themselves? Are they well behaved around adults and out of control around peers, or class-clowns getting into trouble no matter where they are? Do they treat every adult with respect, except their parents? Are they comfortable around the guys and tight as a knot around girls? Behavior so much of the time is not the true character of children and adults. Take a boy whose father has left him and his mother. He yells at his mother even though he is angry with his father. He skips school knowing it’s wrong and that his mother will have to face the consequences with him. Guilt and hurt devour him. He protects himself with rage. His behavior is not a true representation of who he truly is, but it is what others see. Your readers will have the opportunity to know the real character, so build him completely, with a behavior that--though it may not be becoming, is realistic in a stressful situation. To accomplish this, writers reveal the inner emotion that causes the outward behavior, like breaking a window or betraying a friend.
(f) Personality – Is your character the bubbly cheerleader type who never quits talking, or a serious type who takes everything personally? Is he a thinker or a doer? Does he let things slide off his back or let things fester like a boil? Is he an over-achiever or an under-achiever? Does he have a good sense of humor? Is she a perfectionist with schoolwork, yet her room looks like a disaster area? “He has a good personality.” What does that mean? People say it all the time, but you, the writer, need to know how to show it. When you assign personalities to your characters, don’t always make cheerleaders bubbly, or straight ‘A’ students serious, and the wrong-side-of-the-track-kid the one that teachers have trouble with. Avoid labels and stereotypes. As an author, don’t just throw twists into plot, but into characters as well, being careful, however, not to go against the character’s nature. Your readers know your characters well, so when you go against their grain, it confuses the reader. An author who does well with throwing twists into characters is Lois Duncan. Her books I Know What You Did Last Summer and Daughters of Eve accomplish this task very well, as does J. K. Rowling. You never know whom to suspect in any of her novels. In The Sorcerer’s Stone the evil one turned out to be squirrelly Professor Quirrell instead of the overbearing Professor Snape.
Maintain a character
library of favorite published characters.
What made them memorable to you?
What were their faults, fears, gifts, and goals? Some members of my favorite character library
are Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl,
Gary Blackwood’s Widge in The Shakespeare Stealers,
Audrey Couloubis’ Willa Jo in Getting Near to
Baby, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, and who can ever forget Richard
Peck’s Grandma Dowdel in A
Year Down Yonder and A Long Way From
Once you gather information, do a character sketch on each character, even your minor characters. This activity provides crucial information and keeps you from giving Charles blonde hair on page 3 and light brown hair on page 66. Also, referring to your character sketches each day before you write refreshes the character in your mind and reminds you of certain traits. If Julie struggles with a limp, she won’t be loping and running with the greatest of speed. Antoine deals with low self-esteem, he won’t be the first one to raise his hand in class to answer a question or speak up boldly. Character sketches aren’t an option—they’re a necessity. Don’t rely on memory.
If characters start to become boring, (usually somewhere in the middle of the story) ask them a few questions:
a. How do you think things are going?
b. What did you do in your last scene and why?
c. Did you grow from the experience?
c. What are you going to do next and why?
e. Is the ultimate goal you seek really worth all this conflict?
Discovering the answers to these questions will help to get creative juices flowing and your characters back on track. Why? Because you develop a deeper understanding of characters and why they started this journey in the first place.
Again, creating memorable characters is no simple task. Like parents, writers must spend quality time with their characters and become a part of their lives. Writers must also trust and respect their characters for who they were created to be. Characters, like children, cannot be puppets on a string. They are living, breathing persons with qualities, flaws, likes, dislikes, each one with a unique personality. Come to understand your characters for what they are and allow them to be just that.
Richelle Putnam is a former writer for All Headline News. She has been published in Common Ties, E2K Literary Journal, World Wide Writers, Orchard Press Mysteries, Southern Hum, The Copperfield Review, Cayuse Press, Writer’s Journal, Obadiah Press’s Living By Faith Anthology, A tribute to Mothers Anthology, A Cup of Comfort for Mothers and Daughters, and more. Her children’s literature has been published on the Institute of Children’s Literature’s website, Writing Korner, and Wee Ones, Boy’s Quest, Appleseeds, and Hopscotch Magazine for Girls; Her work is soon to be released in Flashquake, Fireflies in Fruit Jars Anthology, and GCWA “Mississippi” Anthology. Her novel, Fallout, was released in 2000; She is the Founder and President of Mississippi Writers Guild. www.richelleputnam.net