by Maralyn D. Hill
This article is an excerpt from the book that I co-authored with Brenda C. Hill, $uccess, Your Path to a Successful Book. When working with character development, our book is quite comprehensive. It was also published on The Big Blend Magazine
Fiction and non-fiction (true stories) need well developed characters and plots. If you don’t know where you are going, your reader won’t either.
You must know your central conflict in order to develop it. Readers want conflict and resolution.
Characters need to react in specific ways to the conflict of the plot and need to talk and introspect about how they act.
Non-fiction must be concise and accurate and you must know the market you are targeting.
Research your background material. This can help you expand your characters’ depth in their jobs, home life, and personal likes and dislikes.
Create and know your characters. John Ames suggests a character notebook for the major ones, so you know intuitively how they would react in any situation. Ames says, “Your notebook should list the character’s traits, likes and dislikes, overwhelming passions in life, and of course the fatal bête noire which the character must overcome to grow.”
Hank Sears’ advice is, “You have to know your characters somewhat better than you know yourself. Know the date of birth, education, physical characteristics—the works. Write family trees. Then file it all away for reference in case you forget a character’s age or eye color.”
Barnaby Conrad says, “Making the reader like or dislike the character is generally half the battle.”
Ayn Rand, who continues to have a best selling novel worldwide, Atlas Shrugged, many years after her death, wrote, “All writers have to rely on inspiration. But you have to know where it comes from, why it happens, and how to make it happen to you.”
We suggest reading Please Understand Me: Character and Temperament Types, by David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates. It goes into 16 personality types based on Jung, Myers and Briggs. It will provide incredible insight into what makes people tick and is an easy read.
When writing fiction, make sure your characters are developed, integrated to the plot, memorable and real. Know what makes them tick. Be sure to resolve their issues and know where they fit.
In trying to bring your characters to life, think of:
- Complexions and skin types
- Blemishes—birthmarks, pimples, moles, beauty marks, scars
- Eye type—shape, colors, variations
- Noses—button, hook, wide, tiny, big
- Hair—colors, textures, styles
- Facial hair—beards, mustaches
- Body hair—hairy arms, hairless arms
- Head shapes—large, small, round, elongated
- Mouth—cupid, thin lipped, large lips
- Chin/jaw—square, pointed, rounded
- Cheeks—full, puffy, rosy, shallow
- Teeth—bright white, yellowish, crooked, protruding
- Facial types—odd or interesting, big, attractive, aged
- Body types and parts—attractive, big, aged, distinctive, necks, shoulders, hands and arms, chest, breasts, belly, legs and hips, feet
- Voices—high, low, deep, dialects, whiney, strong
After describing your characters’ physical characteristics, move on to their personality:
- Introvert—quiet, shy, standoffish, loner
- Extrovert—outgoing, meeting and greeting, first with an answer
- Cold or warm and inviting
- Domineering or overbearing
- Nervous, shy or submissive
- Sad or gloomy
- Intelligent, street smart, slow, ignorant
- Boring, know-it-all, dull
- Eccentric, unique in style and thought
- Charming, likeable, knows what to say
- Well-bred, good manners, polite, knows what to do and say
- Devious, sly, questionable, always looking for angles
- Amoral, no values
- Annoying, nerve racking, wearing
- Puritanical, strict in approaches, unbendable
- Happy, cheerful, comfortable
- Type A, go-getter, workaholic, driven
- Type B, laid back, takes it easy, slower paced
- Mentally ill (type of mental disorder)
- Psychological and psychiatric problems
- Diseases, disorders, or afflictions
- Alcoholic or substance abuse
- Strong, brave or weak
- Vices, abuser, pushes people around
- Addictions, drug, alcohol, food, shopping, gambling
- College degrees and where they are from
Next consider the body language:
- Expressions, smiles, frowns, grimaces.
- Reactions, eye roll, blush, contemptuous, conveying irony.
- Gestures, thumbs up, fist, shrug.
- Dress, neat, expensive, sloppy, attention to detail, in style, out of style.
- Given names and surnames—it’s always nice when you take the time to have them tie in with the personality.
If this list seems overwhelming, we’d suggest you use the book, The Writer’s Digest Sourcebook for Building Believable Characters, by Marc McCutcheon. In addition to going into more detail, it has exceptional forms and explanations.
Write a biography of each character.
Once you know your characters well, you’ll better understand how to integrate them in your story. Remember, you may have more in your inventory than what makes your story. But, this will assist you in your plot. Readers do not want to know every aspect of your characters. Bringing in the most important part is what matters.
Example: List the articles in a woman’s purse: Lipstick, makeup, wallet (credit cards, money), dental floss, note pad, pen, business cards, stamps, letter, glasses, and a small handgun. Now write a brief description of what you noticed when helping her pick up the contents: Annabel dropped her purse and it flew open, scattering the contents. As her lipstick rolled across the foyer, I retrieved it as she quickly moved to replace the handgun before anyone noticed. I wondered, why would Annabel have a handgun? The other items in Annabel’s purse may or may not come into play later in your story.
Your turn; write a brief description of what you noticed when a female character drops her purse.
Get to know your characters as well as you know yourself. Some of them may be from the hidden self you generally don’t show to the world. Believable is the goal.
Maralyn Dennis Hill, The Epicurean Explorer, is President of the nternational Food Wine & Travel Writers Association, Editor-at-Large for CityRoom, and contributes to numerous publications.
Maralyn’s articles are geared to luxury markets, spas, corporate retreats, business events, and culinary tourism.
Maralyn’s says: I was born to travel and tell the tale.
Image courtesy of Julien Tromeur.