Hi everyone. I know we’ve talked before about where our writing ideas come from: Dreams, historical events, poetry or movies, or even from our own life experiences, to name a few. As writers, we look at how our characters can be drawn from people we’ve known in our lives, whether we admire or despise them.
Have you ever gotten one of your characters from unusual places–such as song lyrics, or based them on historical figures of the past? Characters can be born in our own imaginations completely–not based upon any actual person we ever knew or studied in a history book. If you write futuristic stories, your alien creatures must be created entirely within your own flights of fancy. If paranormal writing is your bailiwick, you must create your otherworldly characters from legends, lore, and once again, your own imaginings.
But let’s take a look at what makes up a character’s basic framework, beginning with the external elements. These will include all the components that have made our character who he or she is, from the most elementary choices of physical appearance to the limits of cultural and societal dictates that have been imposed upon the character.
One tried and true option that I figure most of us have used at one time or another is to design your own “character chart” for each character, assigning basics such as hair and eye color, and delving into as much detail as you want. Age, birthday, even astrological signs can be included. Did your character lose a parent? Is he an only child, or the eldest of ten children? Every detail you can assign is like the stroke of a paintbrush. We are artists, creating the picture of this person for our readers. If we don’t allow the reader to see the details of the character, she can’t know them “deep down.” The reader must learn through your description, your inference, or through the observations of your other characters.
This leads us to the internal process of your characters’ lives. Again, as in the physical description, as writers we must delve into the characters’ minds and decide what we can allow readers to know, and when to reveal it. Our characters’ emotions, reactions, yearnings, and thoughts are all an integral part of developing them into people we are going to remember. Will we like them? Empathize with them? Root against the villain? Most importantly, will we care–one way or the other?
Defining your characters’ motives and feelings must be detailed, leaving nothing to assumption. This is a key element in creating believability.
But physical and emotional character creation is only a part of the whole “ball of wax.” Our characters have to have a world to live in–a plot to carry out. These components include the conflict (what makes the story exciting and why do we care?) and the point of view. Point of view is extremely important, because this is the character who will be telling the story. The setting can be a huge factor as well, at times, becoming a character in its own right.
How do you introduce your characters with enough flair to make them interesting, and to make your reader emotionally invested in them?
What books have you read with memorable character introductions? Can anyone forget their first glimpse of fiery Scarlett O’Hara? Or of the handsome scoundrel, Rhett Butler? Grab a copy of “Gone With the Wind” and study the way Margaret Mitchell introduces her characters. Her physical descriptions are matchless. Interestingly enough, she doesn’t delve into deep point of view as much as she lets us learn things about the characters through their dialogue and what others say/think about them.
Another example of an unforgettable character entrance is Jack Schaeffer’s “Shane.” Written in the late 1940’s, it remains a classic today. This is an example of how very important the viewpoint character can be. Though the story is about Shane, a mystery man who shows up and helps the homesteaders out of a jam against the most powerful landowner in the valley, seeing it through the eyes of young Bobby Starett gives us a poignant understanding of the other characters–Shane in particular. Telling the story through Bobby lets the tension build to a climax that would be unattainable through any other character’s “voice.”
Another way of introducing a character is through dialogue. Giving the reader a titillating bit of conversation that leads us to
a) the storyline, or
b) discovery about the character’s personality or circumstances
is a sure-fire way to garner interest in the character who delivers the line.
Circumstances can also be the means to provide the introduction of a character who is unforgettable. In Thomas Eidson’s “St. Agnes’ Stand”, the main character, Nat Swanson, is in a dire predicament. He’s been shot, and is being pursued by two men whose friend he killed in avenging a woman’s honor–a woman he barely knew. He just wants to be left alone, to make it to California where a ranch he won with the turn of a card awaits–along with a new life. However, he comes upon a group of orphans and nuns who are sure to be captured and killed by a band of Apaches if he doesn’t intervene–and he can’t walk away. Again, he steps in to do the right thing–and it may be the death of him.
This is just my take on some of the different ways we are able to introduce unforgettable characters–with flair! What are some of your favorite characters? Those characters that just won’t leave you alone to have their stories read–or told?