Writing Tip #15: Developing Memorable Characters

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In these tips for fiction writers, we will look at characters from multiple angles. Check out the previous post, Character Types in Fiction.

This post is about "characterization," which is the process of building characters. When a story seems to lack depth and fails to capture the attention and imagination of readers, very often the problem is undeveloped characters. Let’s talk about how you can make a character stand out as unique and interesting, even in short fiction.

Three Ways to Reveal Your Character’s Traits

All real people have “character traits” and so must the characters in our stories. There are several different ways to share a character’s traits with readers:

  1. By what they say. Do they shout? Or tell jokes? Or interrupt people? We can learn so much about characters simply from the things they say in dialog.
  2. By what they do. Does your character wince whenever there’s a loud sound? This could indicate that they are nervous, or that they have post-traumatic stress syndrome from their time serving in a war. Does your character tickle children under the chin, or roll their eyes at the antics of children? Either of these would indicate their feelings about kids.
  3. By how they react. Characters are not fully in charge of everything that happens in a story. Things happen. How your character reacts to the other characters, the story’s conflict, and events will tell us an enormous amount about the character. For example, when something bad happens, do they fall into a heap of despair, or do they find a way to overcome it?

All of these are methods of “showing” your readers what a character is like. (See the previous writing tip on “show, don’t tell” to learn more about this important concept.)

I’ll share an example, comparing two methods. Let’s say I want to write about my main character’s father, an unpleasant person who intimidates the main character. Here are two approaches:

  • “Telling” version: Harry’s father was a big, mean, angry man. When he walked into the room, Harry was scared.
  • “Showing” version: When Harry’s father entered the room, the air seemed to become thin and brittle like aging bones. Harry put his nose in his comic book and tried to make himself very small. It was no use. In one stride, his father reached him, picked him up by the collar and pulled him close, where Harry could almost taste his acidic, coffee-infused breath. “I told you to sweep the garage. You know what happens when I have to ask twice.”

In the second version, hopefully you can see how much more involved we get with the character. The actions and dialog help us understand the two characters, as well as the contentious and imbalanced relationship between them. Harry’s father is powerful and oppressive. Harry is intimidated and fearful. This comes through in the way the scene plays out.

Why Is Characterization So Important?

Creating a great character is one of the highest goals of fiction writers, because we know that the most memorable characters keep readers engaged and make them want more. Here are just a few examples from books and movies that might resonate with you, and help you to remember just how intriguing character can be:

  • Ariel, The Little Mermaid
  • Gandalf, The Hobbit
  • Indie, Indiana Jones
  • Katniss, The Hunger Games
  • Hermione, Harry Potter
  • Luke Skywalker, Star Wars

The best characters are very well-defined. They tend to be quirky and interesting in some specific way that captivates us. And they are consistent. They might do something unpredictable and surprising, but it is always within the definition of their character.

Building Character Traits

We’ve talked about three different methods of making your character’s traits known in your stories - actions, dialog and reactions. But how do you decide what traits to bestow upon your characters?

There are many different ways to develop those traits, and they will add depth and a wonderful complexity to your characters.

As you explore characterization, let your imagination run wild. Think about adding physical traits (a scar, a limp, a perennially runny nose), inner challenges (a phobia, a particular penchant for anchovies, a love of disco music), and desires (a bucket list that is just one thing, a wish to find a long lost relative believed to have died as a prisoner of war), and so on.

In a Well Storied article titled “33 Ways to Write Stronger Characters,” Kristen Kieffer shares a brilliant list of things you can do to add complexity to your characters. She breaks the list of items down into these categories:

  • Things to give your character (e.g. motivations, flaws, fears)
  • Things to make your character (e.g. make them unique; make them sweat)
  • Things to find for your character (e.g. find perspective; find their glory)

Take Aways

The bottom line is that crafting characters is an art, and it is well worth the time and effort to think through who they really are, and why your readers should care about them. Your fiction writing can immediately develop in richness and complexity, and will be more compelling and wonderful to read.

Happy writing!

@jayna, writer and moderator at The Ink Well.

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If you're looking to up your fiction game and reach that next level, check out my past writing tips linked below.

Writing Tip #1: Writing from a Prompt

Writing Tip #2: Adding Conflict

Writing Tip #3: Writing What You Know

Writing Tip #4: Avoiding the Dreaded Info Dump

Writing Tip #5: Is ‘Show Don’t Tell’ a Writing Rule?

Writing Tip #6: How Fiction Writing Is Like Weaving

Writing Tip #7: Put It On the Page

Writing Tip #8: What Is a Story Arc?

Writing Tip #9: Should You Plot Your Story?

Writing Tip #10: Don’t Start a Story This Way!

Writing Tip #11: What Is “Writing Voice”?

Writing Tip #12: Reveal Everything and Nothing

Writing Tip #13: Character Types in Fiction

Writing Tip #14: Clichés - Avoid the Conspiratorial Wink

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