Building Definition - Bring Your Story to Life: Characters

J.R. Pittman

When I first started writing, I saw my characters so well I forgot to describe them. I had to go through and write in descriptions. Since that time, over ten years ago, I've done my best to make my characters as real as possible.

If I have an elderly character, I think about how older people move, how they look, how they talk. I do the same for younger characters. For instance: in general, a child is a bundle of energy; they never sit still. They're always fidgeting, either by bouncing their feet, tapping their fingers or even flicking their tongues against their teeth.

An elderly person, on the other hand, doesn't generally move when they're sitting. Every move is measured; energy is doled out in careful increments.

How do I use these details in describing my characters? How do I bring them to life?

For me, coming up with good, strong character descriptions is one of the hardest parts of writing. It's also one of the most pleasurable parts. It's an inside job, with a large portion of the development done before the story is written. Most of what I'll be writing about should be done on a separate piece of paper first - for your information and reference- and then incorporated into your story.

Rule #1. Keep your descriptions straight. It may sound simple but it's not - especially when there are several characters. Many writers have problems getting their character descriptions confused. I've read several stories - and written a few - where half way through the blue-eyed, blond man becomes a brunette with green eyes.

A good way to keep this from happening is to write a list of your characters and outline their attributes:

Carol - blue eyes; blonde hair, long; narrow face; tall, slender frame; 30

Jason - green eyes; black hair, short; round face; tall, stocky frame; 50

All it takes are the bare necessities, and you'll never have Jason's green eyes turning blue halfway through the story again.

Rule #2. Make sure your character description matches your character's background. This isn't as obvious as it may sound. Many a time you'll read about someone with milky-white skin that works outside in the garden all the time or someone with tanned skin that never goes outside or to a tanning bed.

The important thing to remember is this: what a person does during a normal day will help decide what they look like.

For instance, a person who works outside all the time will either a) end up with a tan or b) end up with a burn. Their hands will be rough, even if they use gloves. If their hands aren't rough, you'll need to explain why: they use lotion all the time with the gloves, for example. In addition, the sun has a bleaching affect on hair. Your character would probably either have lighter hair or streaks of lighter hair.

Now, as much as many writers seem to like their characters to be sexy, svelte and well toned, even in stories they have to work for it. If your character normally does one hundred sit-ups in the morning to keep that washboard stomach, let the reader know - even if events keep the character from ever doing the sit-ups during the story:

Jason couldn't help but recognize the irony. Wishing for adventure got him into this mess, and now all he wanted was to return to his normal morning routine: an hour of intense exercise followed by a hot shower and a cup of coffee.

One mention is all it takes to add that little touch of reality. In this example, the reader now knows that Jason normally exercises, which is why he's so fit.

Rule #3. Give your character distinguishing characteristics. You know, roughly, what your character looks like. Now is the time to look deep into your imagination and study your character.

Is your character a psychopath? Maybe he has a tic in his left eye. Perhaps your platinum blond is actually a brunette and her roots are showing. Does your salty sea pirate have a limp or a peg leg? If your character is elderly, are they hunched over or do they stand ramrod straight with perfect posture? Don't be afraid to bring these things to light. These details will come in handy when writing their mannerisms.

Using the example above of a character outline, I'll add distinguishing characteristics:

Carol - blue eyes; blond hair, long; narrow face; tall, slender frame; 30

Perfect posture; hair in bun; well-dressed but understated; pale skin

Jason - green eyes; black hair, short; round face; tall, stocky frame; 50

Slight shoulder stoop; hair peppered at temples; dimpled cheek; crow's feet; tan skin; limp - left leg

By the time you are finished with the outline and characteristics, you already have a good, basic description. This is what you would use when first introducing your character:

Carol took her time, looking Jason over from head to toe. He still stood tall at fifty, though his shoulders had a slight stoop to them. Punctuated by crow's feet, sharp green eyes glared at her from a dimpled, round face more suited to a smile. He crossed his bare tanned arms across his broad chest and shifted, favoring his left leg. "Well?" he snarled.

Sometimes, you don't have the luxury of a complete description in one paragraph. However, if you use your list of attributes and characteristics you can fully describe your character in any instance - even during dialogue:

"Excuse me - excuse me, sir!"

Jason looked over his shoulder to see a tall, slender woman coming his way; he turned to face her. "Yeah?"

She stopped a few feet from him, smoothing back a strand of blond hair that had fallen from the thick bun atop her head. "I don't mean to be nosy," she began, her earnest blue eyes searching his face," but I heard you were looking for a guide?"

He crossed his arms over his chest, lifting one dark eyebrow. "Yeah? Where'd you hear that?"

The woman pursed her lips as if she had just bitten into a lemon, her narrow face thinning even more. "I happened to be standing behind you when you were talking to the other gentleman."

Jason sighed and shifted; her perfect posture, back ramrod straight, made his muscles hurt. Taking in her tailor-made khaki slacks, peach silk blouse and high-dollar sensible shoes, he shook his head. "Sorry, lady. I'm looking for a guide, not someone I have to baby-sit."

After you've fully introduced your character's appearance, then you can use the list to refer back to on occasion. However, try not to use the same words you originally used. For example, Carol's hair is blond, but I might use "fair hair" or "golden hair" later in the story. Otherwise, "blond hair" would become redundant and start to stick out in the reader's mind. Don't be afraid to stretch your vocabulary!

Rule #4. Expressions are not the only way to describe emotion. This is a hard rule to follow. Although this is my own rule, I still manage to break it on a regular basis. Whole scenes have been devoted to the face and eyes:

Carol's eyes narrowed as her eyebrows came together in a frown. Her lips thinned and red spots of anger bloomed on her cheeks. "I would not need a baby sitter, I assure you," she hissed.

Jason smirked. "Of course not." He lowered one eyelid in a long, slow wink as if sharing a joke with her.

If anything, it only made her more angry. Her mouth dropped open in a breathless gasp and then closed with a snap. Her eyes were wide and shocked. Apparently, Jason thought, watching her reaction, she's not used to being talked back to.

This could - and has in some stories - continue on to infinity. It is easy to forget that there is a whole range of other options to describe a character's emotions:

Carol propped her hands on her slender waist and glared at Jason; one expensively clad foot tapped the floor. "Listen - I don't appreciate being made fun of Mr. -"

"Farrel. But since we're all friendly like, you can call me Jason." He leaned against wall and stretched his legs out in front of him, waiting, knowing that she would have some kind of retort. She didn't disappoint.

" - Mr. Farrel, and we are hardly friends!" she finished without pausing. "I know the area you're talking about. I've spent a lot of time in that particular jungle and -"

"Bull."

"What?"

Jason pushed back to his feet and away from the wall. He took a step toward her, fists clenched. "I said bull. I don't know what you've got up your sleeve, lady, but you're lying through your pretty little caps. With that pale skin, if you've ever been to a jungle then I'm the bloody Queen of England."

The various emotions of the characters can still be felt and seen through body language and imparting a "tone" to the voice. Using facial expressions isn't a bad thing - as long as they are used in moderation. Remember that there are many ways to express emotion; variation is the key!

Rule #5. Keep your character's accent and voice easy to read. Accents are a delight to listen to; some are impossible to read. One that comes to mind is the heavy Gaelic accent. I love the lilting sound and have several characters that use it. However, the first time I tried to write it the words were so convoluted as to be illegible. I had to learn the difference between an accent and murder of the written English language.

"I canna go wit' ye, lass, ye ken?" is an accent

"'E 'ad a 'at on 'is 'ead" is murder.

When using accents, remember two things:

  1. It is better to mention that your character has a heavy accent and have them talk with a lighter version than to have the accent so heavy that it can't be read.
  2. Make sure the accent is one you're familiar with.
The first has exceptions. There are times that you might want someone's accent to be unreadable:

"'E 'ad a 'at on 'is 'ead," the drunk muttered, weaving on his feet.

The detective blinked in bewilderment and leaned forward. "I'm sorry - he had what?"

The drunk sighed, blowing a burst of alcohol into the detective's face. "A 'at on 'is 'ead!" he repeated, using wide, expansive gestures with his words.

"Oh! He had a hat on his head!"

The second is as important as the first. If you decide that your character is high-class, the accent would differ from someone of lower class; this is true for most countries. Make sure you know the accent you are trying to write. Listening to an audio recording or talking to someone with the particular accent you'd like to use is a good way to do this.

There are many ways to make your character more real to the reader; these are just a few. In general, a good main character must have:

  1. a full description
  2. a believable voice
  3. a visible personality
You know your characters - even the bit players - inside and out. By paying attention to what methods you use in describing them you not only have a much more vivid picture, you also allow the reader to learn about and grow with your character. Let them know that your character is sad, happy, twisted, angry - give the reader the chance to care what happens to them.

When you first introduce a character you are saying to the reader: This is my main character. You will love - or sympathize, hate, cry - for him.

Make them believe it!