Breathe Life into Your Characters

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Getting to know characters and seeing how these particular people react to a situation is what makes readers fall in love with a book. Even plot-centric stories like mysteries or thrillers are still exciting largely because of who is searching for answers, fighting crime, or saving the world. James Bond movies are known for being action-packed, but we think of them as “James Bond” movies because it’s fun to see that particular character move around the world. Nancy Drew—not Jane Smith—solves mysteries. Jason Bourne—not Timmy Nobody—fights a cabal of bad guys. How can you, whatever your genre, breathe life into your characters?

Make Physical Descriptions Pop

When it comes to creating characters, readers want to know what they look like. However, relying solely on physical description will end up sounding like a police bulletin: 5’8’’, 120 pounds, green eyes, long hair. Yawn. Make sure the words you use to describe the person appeals to the senses. The portrayal should be memorable, providing imagery so that the reader can create a visualization of not only what this person looks like but who they are.

In addition to providing an account of their physical appearance, it helps to tie those distinguishing details to a character trait or an idiosyncratic mannerism. Let’s look at one of publishing’s most successful writers of all time, JK Rowling, when she writes under the pen name of Robert Galbraith for her crime thrillers. This is from Troubled Blood (2020).

Morris had been working for the agency for six weeks. He was an ex-police officer, an undeniably handsome man, with black hair and bright blue eyes, though something about him set Robin’s teeth on edge. He had a habit of softening his voice when he spoke to her; arch asides and over-personal comments peppered their most mundane interactions, and no double entendre went unmarked if Morris was in the room.

Note what the author did here. She used a fairly straight-forward physical description—this guy Morris is handsome. Hunky police officer. Tell me more, right? But then she added the word though. From there, she pivots to reporting on the character’s manners, which juxtapose his good looks. He has to comment on every double entendre—as an adult? Ugh. This guy. We know who this is now. Morris is a creep, and worse, he thinks he can get away with it because he’s good looking. In just a few lines, the author tells us a lot about this character.

Use Descriptions of Scenery to Describe Characters

Readers like to have a sense of the setting, but gone are the days where they expect, or want, long reports about the landscape. Try instead to use short depictions of it to also tell a story about the characters in your book. What can you reveal about who they are and where they’re from in the way they interact with the scenery?

Here again is an excerpt from Troubled Blood (Galbraith, 2020):

The further west Robin drove, the lusher and greener the landscape became. Yorkshire-born, she’d found it extraordinary to see palm trees actually flourishing in the English soil…. These twisting, verdant lanes, the luxuriance of the vegetation, the almost sub-tropical greenness was a surprise to a person raised among bare, rolling moors and hillside.

This passage is simultaneously setting the scene: she’s in a coastal part of England, and it’s characterization: she hasn’t traveled much in her home country. Robin is a little provincial. The author manages to weave in important facts about this person without blandly stating that Robin is from Yorkshire, and she is traveling to the southwest. Yawn. Find a way to let us see through your protagonist’s eyes because it tells the reader about the character’s worldview.

Let Characters Reveal Themselves Through Things

What a character notices, her preoccupations, her likes and dislikes, and the objects she uses and what she thinks of those objects tells a tale. Take, for example, this (from Troubled Blood):

Her backpack contained only those items she always carried on surveillance jobs—a beanie hat, should she need to conceal her distinctive red-blonde hair, sunglasses, a change of top, a credit card and ID in a couple of different names.

We learned a lot about “her” in this passage. This woman is undercover—hence the hat, sunglasses, and IDs in different names. However, she’s the kind of woman who wants to stand out in her off time. She’s dyed her hair a “distinctive red-blonde.” What does it mean that a person who changed her appearance (hair dye) to be unique also does undercover work, where she’d need to blend in? I also note she uses a “beanie” as a hat, not a baseball cap or sun hat. She must live somewhere that’s cold a lot of the year. I live in Florida, so such a choice would not help a person blend in.

The bottom line is that the way you describe your characters isn’t a one-time thing, the first time they appear on the page. Their memories, actions, thoughts, and interactions continue to say something about them. How can you make your characterization more distinct and memorable? If you make the effort, perhaps your characters will become as trademark worthy as Bond himself.

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About Author

Mary is a young adult writer and archaeologist. By day she teaches at a local college, and by night she writes about the adventures of adolescence.

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