Wordslinger: Judge of Character
I considered making this month’s Wordslinger topic about how refs are already ruining American football, or write an open letter to the world entitled: The word body does not rhyme with the word party. However, good senses prevailed and instead I’m going to focus on the best ways to make fictional characters stand out and be remembered.
Some characters don’t need any help to be memorable. They jump off the page and even have minds of their own. In fact, it’s epidemic how these imaginarily souls populating our pages start thinking for themselves long before we’re ready for them to do so. With them, the challenge is not about making them stand out; it’s maintaining any semblance of control over them.
Other characters are important, vital even, but don’t leave the lasting impression we hoped for. It’s these paper dolls that I speak of, and we can use three categories to dress them up:
Motive and emotion
Personality and dialogue
We’ll start with the obvious. Physical descriptions are generally among the first bits of information authors give their readers but often limited to hair color, eye color and dick size. This is unfortunate because we’re visual creatures and paint our own pictures as we read. The author not only provides the canvas, but the colors and the very subject matter too. The more we give the reader (painter) the better their finished picture (impression) will be.
A list of attributes can really slow a story down so I’m certainly not suggesting that you kill them with details, on the contrary, pick one or two unique features and let your imagination run wild…like so…
Victor’s short black hair was wet and sprouted in all directions above pale yellow/green eyes that looked like blades of grass with the sun behind them. Almost hidden in his right eyebrow was a small white scar, a gift from his days in little league and a particularly enthusiastic first baseman.
In just two (long) sentences, I was able fit in three physical descriptions (and four colors), while adding a morsel of personal history. It doesn’t paint the whole picture, but it gets the ball rolling. We can see Victor clearly, his wet hair, his bright interesting eyes, but that’s only one third of the whole character. Now let’s add some motive and emotion…like so…
The strong smell of the alcohol running down his neck made his eyes and nose burn and the cold drips tracing his spine made him cringe instead of shiver. His voice was soft, soothing even despite the lance of brutal words that pierced the heart of his battle bruised parking lot foe. The fight was far shorter than either man expected but Victor’s heart was hammering in his chest like a tractor motor. He was scared that his yet unnamed opponent would see that he was scared and willed himself to speak softly and slowly as he demanded surrender and described in gruesome detail what he would do if his instructions weren’t met. He then pulled his phone from his pocket and dialed 911 with a hand that almost shook enough to give his whole tough guy away.
The most important thing I did there was give Victor an emotion that all readers can relate to. Being afraid while trying to act brave also makes him vulnerable, and in fiction vulnerable equals likable.
We still don’t know anything about Victor’s personality yet but that’s what most of any story would showcase once motives and descriptions were out of the way. Personality is what makes most people truly memorable and dialogue is the best way to let your character’s freak flag fly.
Even if you have a mild mannered character with a personality that doesn’t exactly make them the life of the party, we can explore another quality they possess. Intelligence, for instance is very fun to write. So is dim wittedness and general assholery.
The trick (if you can call it a trick) is customization. Each character needs to have unique traits even if it’s just dietary or fashion related. (The two things I remember most about Laverne Defazio from the TV show Laverne and Shirley is the big cursive L on all her sweaters and how she liked milk in her Pepsi). These are great examples of how to make little idiosyncrasies that can become identifiable and even iconic character traits.
I use the three F’s: fashion, fears and food and they can account for a lot of fun information about your characters while you establish the other areas of development. Borrowing from real life things that make you laugh is not a cop out; it’s a long held tradition amongst authors. Hence the often allocated advice, write what you know.
While that’s a great place to start, it’s going that extra mile (or smile in this case) that will really make a character rise above the white noise of pulp personalities.
As long as your character has depth and weight in the story, they deserve a host of tiny traits to really cement them in people’s minds. If a character seems real enough, then their life (or death) can have a profound impact on your readers. Remember how you felt when you read the end of Half Blood Prince?
The best part of this character development is that it can often be improved upon after a piece is written. That’s not ideal, but during a re-write, boosting one or more character profiles is commonly a goal.
If you fuse fun facts with focused fundamentals, you’ll find your fiction full of fascinating fellows. (Ten out of sixteen words started with F, sorry, couldn’t resist).