5 Ways to Round Out Your Characters

It’s not enough just to invent a character. You have to breathe life into that imaginary person. Here are five ways you can do this – and how to show your readers you’ve done your homework.

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  • Physical Appearance – what does your character actually look like?
  • Mannerisms – how does your character act and behave? What gestures does he use habitually? How does she walk?
  • Speech – Does your character use long or short words? Simple or complex sentences? What quirks of speech do they use?
  • Belongings – What do your character’s possessions say about them? What things does she treasure? What things can’t he live without?
  • Spaces – what is your character’s house like? Their bedroom? Workspace? How do these spaces show your character’s personality?

Now, how do you impart this information to your readers without boring paragraphs of description? Remember to show, not tell.

Here’s an example – let’s say we’ve got our heroine, Sandy Shores, who’s a quirky¬†lifeguard with a secret dislike of children.

We could tell about her:

Sandy Shores was a tall green-eyed redhead who strode the beach with a possessive eye. It was her stretch of sand, after all: hers to guard and keep safe for the tourists and their rugrats. She twirled her battered whistle – a keepsake from her father’s days as a high school football coach – as she patrolled. She spotted a stray bit of litter and pounced. Blasted kids and their candy bars. Why didn’t their parents teach them to throw their garbage away properly?

However, it’s much more effective to show – and drop in your background tidbits as you go:

“Patrolling your beach again, Sandy?”

Sandy Shores turned eyes green as the sea on Officer Law. “Laugh if you want, Doug, but these people are on my sand. They’re mine to guard.”

“Even the dreaded house apes, eh?”

Sandy shuddered, watching a particularly sticky urchin toddle across the beach, holding a dripping ice cream cone. “Somebody has to keep the brats safe, yes.”

Officer Law laughed, his eyes on the battered whistle in her fist. “Why don’t you get yourself a new one, anyhow? That one looks like it’s on its last legs.”

Sandy closed her fist protectively. “It was my father’s.”

See the difference? Now, you try it – you don’t have to put everything about your character into the first scene, but drop bits and pieces of their life into your story to make them more believable.

What is a Scene?

Many writers, especially new writers, have trouble with scenes. They can picture the beginning of their story and the end, but what comes between gets a little hazy.

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The key to keeping your story moving is to be able to write a good scene, and to keep those scenes coming. And the key to a good scene is conflict.

Pages of prose do not a scene make, nor does dialogue between characters. Unless there is some sort of conflict and movement from one value state to another, you don’t have a scene. You should have movement from negative to positive, or vice versa. Hate turns to love, or guilt to innocence. Each scene should have some sort of “turn” or movement.

Make sure your scenes go somewhere. They must follow the story pyramid: inciting incidents, progressive complications and tension, climax and resolution. If you get stuck, think about your character arc: is your character getting closer to his goals or further away? It has to move in one direction or the other along the arc for it to be a successful scene.

Unfortunately, the easy to understand scenes are often the most difficult to craft. The scenes that stick in a reader’s mind are the ones you’ve had to edit and re-edit to perfection. And when you’re writing scenes, remember: the first thing that comes into your mind is something that’s already been done. Go deeper and seek out the real tension and conflict that will drive a truly memorable scene.

Plot or Character Driven?

Are you a plot-driven or character-driven writer? By this I mean what sorts of stories do you typically write?

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It all depends on what sorts of questions you ask. Do you find yourself asking “What if” questions, such as “What if a tornado hit my town?” or “What if that man suddenly started running down the street toward me?” These are plot questions, questions about the story itself. Stories that answer this sort of question are plot-driven stories.

If you find yourself asking “Why” questions, such as “Why did that woman just laugh?” or “Why does that man feel the need to step in and help that person?” then you’re asking character questions. Stories that deal with internal struggles are character-driven stories.

Good stories have a mix of both plot and character – they have an external plot driving the story, but they also have internal character struggles going on at the same time. The trick is to pay attention to what you’re doing so you can have an even mix of character-driven scenes and plot-driven scenes.