Building Character: Bringing People (and Aliens) to Life Through Words – Part 1
Characterization is more than physical appearance and word choice. When I give my Building Character workshop to writer’s groups, I discuss ways to use motivation, fear, conflict, flaws, backstory, belief systems, and more to write vivid, unforgettable characters that will come alive for readers.
Characterization is an entire representation of a being, whether person, vampire, or alien. As a writer, your number one goal is to make the reader fall in love with your characters! If you succeed at this, your story will be a success. If your reader doesn’t like your character, they won’t care about anything else in the book. That’s not to say your characters must be likable. They need to be interesting. Perfect characters are boring and one-dimensional. Give your characters flaws to add dimensions to them. Multidimensional characters keeps the reader guessing. Your readers will want to read more to find out what the character will do, say, or think next. Make your characters relatable, make them suffer (or at least sweat), and make them unique. Even if you write the same type of characters in your books—tough alien gladiators for example—you need to make each tough alien gladiator unique. Why? Because…
A character’s unique traits will determine how they react to anything in the story.
(Read that sentence again.)
Unique characters can keep a series with the same types of protagonists fresh. You don’t want readers saying, “If you’ve read one XYZ Author’s book, you’ve read them all.”
If you’re familiar with Debra Dixon’s book Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, you know about the 4 Ws: who, what, why, and why not.
Why not: Conflict/ Obstacle standing in the way of obtaining the goal.
Deb Dixon defines GMC (Goal, Motivation, and Conflict) as follows…
Goal – desire, want, need, ambition, purpose. What your character wants.
Motivation – drive, backstory, impetus, incentive. Why your character wants to achieve the goal.
Conflict – trouble, tension, friction, villain, roadblock. Why your character can’t have it.
Characters should have external (physical) goals and conflicts as well as internal (emotional) goals and roadblocks that keeps them from learning their life lesson. The external G,M,C causes the big black moment while the internal G,M,C resolves it. In other words, a character shouldn’t be able to attain the physical goal until he changes emotionally, or arcs by attaining the inner goal, in the story.
But goals, motivations, and conflicts aren’t enough to make a character unique. For example, every writer reading this could have the same personal G,M,C.
Goal – to make six figures from our books.
Motivation – We have to pay the bills.
Conflict – We don’t have enough readers buying our books.
Therefore, the G,M,C in and of itself doesn’t make each writer unique. And it doesn’t make our characters unique either.
Deb Dixon (who cites Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the selling writer) says your characters need a dominant impression to show who we are writing about. Use an adjective and a descriptive noun to give your character a dominant impression. For example…
Cocky Smuggler (Han Solo)
Royal Rebel (Princess Leia)
Innocent Fugitive (Richard Kimball)
Unhappy Teenager (Dorothy)
[Side Note: I like to use Caroline Myss’ Archetype Cards to help me figure out the noun and Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi’s Negative Trait Thesaurus and Positive Trait Thesaurus books for help with the adjectives.]
The dominant impression gives us a good start to characterization, but what makes one unhappy teenager like Dorothy unique from another unhappy teenager like Katniss Everdeen?
Remember a character’s unique traits will determine how they react to anything in the story.
So what really makes a character unique? The same things that make real people unique…
1) PHYSICAL ATTRIBUTES
Many times authors start with a physical description of their characters: sex, color (skin, hair, eyes), body (height, weight, body fat, muscle, bone structure), facial features, etc. Physical attributes may or may not be as important in the beginning of character creation as determining a character’s internal attributes…unless, of course, the physical attribute affected your character’s experiences growing up.
Were they treated differently because of their sex or their skin color? Were they teased because of their weight (whether too fat or too thin)? Has their height affected the way they perceive the world? Perhaps they were unable to play a sport because they were too short, or they always slouched to make themselves look smaller if too tall, or perhaps they owned their height and were proud of it. Does your character have a physical deformity, disability, or illness that affected their life? Any of these things can make a character unique on the outside and the inside.
Sometimes determining the physical attributes first can limit us later because they can affect our character’s experiences. We can always flesh out the physical attributes later. I believe experiences are more important when creating a character.
2) EXPERIENCES (Backstory)
Everyone experiences things differently. Many times this is due to the physical attributes we have as mentioned above. We experience things differently in our daily lives and those bigger life-defining moments that can cause emotional trauma. These events are where your characters’ fears and wounds stem from.
In Building Character (Part 2), I will go into much more detail about this. We’ll have an in-depth discussion about wounds, flaws, emotional needs, negative coping skills, character arcs, and more.
3) POINT OF VIEW (POV) or PERSPECTIVE
Point of view or perspective is the way your character views life. Perspective plays a HUGE part in what makes a person unique. It shapes their views of the the world and of themselves. Their POV stems from their background. Their history. Their wounds and fears. This is where their coping mechanisms come from. See Building Character (Part 2) for more on this.
Your experiences and perceptions in life create your beliefs. What you believe is what you perceive to be true based on what you have experienced. You character may have religious, cultural, and political beliefs. Beliefs about what’s right/ wrong. Beliefs about the world, other people, and themselves. See Building Character (Part 2) for more on this.
Attributes are traits that will help the character achieve the story goals. It’s easy giving our main characters positive traits because we want our heroes and heroines to be awesome people, but it’s important to also give them flaws. I like to use Negative Trait Thesaurus to help me come up with their flaws.
Personality is made up of your temperament, attitude, thoughts, beliefs, behavior, and character. A character can be bubbly, brooding, quiet, annoying, etc… Again this stems from their backstory.
7) QUIRKS, IDIOSYNCRASIES, & HABITS
Unique habits and mannerisms can make your characters distinct and memorable. Some of the best quirks are those that end up aiding the character or contributing to the plot in some major way. In Legally Blonde, Elle Woods’ quirky knowledge of fashion and haircare (specifically perms) enables her to solve the case and make the real killer confess on the witness stand.
8) SENSING THE WORLD
People sense the world differently based on the five basic senses, sight hearing, smell, taste and touch. I will expand on these and other senses in Building Character (Part 3).
9) COMMUNICATION HABITS
The way people communicate reflects their thoughts, beliefs, and personality. Some people are loud and say what is on their mind, while others are more withdrawn and like to keep personal things to themselves. Some people are excellent at reading body language and using their body language to communicate, while others don’t see anything past the words coming out and don’t understated how their body language is affecting a conversation.
10) JOBS/ HOBBIES
What do your characters do for a living? Are they royalty, a billionaire, military, a caregiver, a baker, a vampire slayer, a starship captain? Do they play an instrument, a sport, or practice marital arts? Your characters will view the world through the eyes of their job or hobbies. They will use vernacular from their areas of expertise.
Look up your character’s particular hobby or job and write down the words unique to these jobs. For example medical words, military words, martial arts words, cooking words, theater words. When writing, try to use these words when in your characters point of view. Use these words to help you change up cliches. Instead of my female warrior (who doesn’t cook) using the saying,” That’s the pot calling the kettle black.” She might say, “That’s the blade calling the cutlass sharp.”
When making comparisons use words that your character would think or use. Read the following smilies, and see if you can tell something about the different characters saying them:
His warmth covered her like a flannel blanket.
His warmth covered her like a mink coat.
His warmth covered her like a faux mink coat.
Talk to people who have your character’s career or hobbies. Read their blogs. Visit social media groups. I like to google, Top ten things only a (marine) (a chef) (a mountain climber ) would know. Or You know you’re (from NJ) (a cowboy) (a cat person) when… and see what comes up.
Everyone’s humor is different due to what we’ve experienced and how we perceive life. I don’t write comedy because it seems what I find funny, others don’t and vice versa. Oh well. Everyone is different. My characters are much wittier than I am. What took them a moment to say on the page probably took me hours or days to come up with.
Intelligence stems from many things including our beliefs, social aptitude, emotional awareness, experience, and brain health. Is your character book smart, street smart, emotionally smart…or perhaps an evil genius?
Everyone has different creative talents like writing, art, music, cooking/baking, etc.. Creativity gives the world thinkers, adventurers, and visionaries. Is your character creative?
How our characters interact and the relationships they form depends on their backstory, perspective, and beliefs which I’ll discuss more in Part 2.
Once you decide who your characters are—either before you start writing or in the revision stage—make sure they are consistent throughout the book with their backstory, POV, beliefs, and personalities. If not, they will come across as unbelievable to the reader and the reader will be thrown out of your story. If a character is going to do something inconsistent with the person you built, then he needs a good reason or motivation for being inconsistent. For example, a cop who doesn’t run in to a situation to help someone because the last person he helped got hurt. Make sure you show the character struggling to change or arc throughout the story. More on how to do this in Building Character Part 2, which will be available on the blog on Wednesday, December 2.
Remember, how a character reacts to anything in the story will be determined by the traits that make them unique.
Stay safe out there!