Every story has characters. The richness of your writing depends on how you go about developing that character into a three-dimensional being.
Today, I’m going to discuss one way to go about creating characters that will make your story shine.
First of all, what makes a three-dimensional character?
It all comes down to your prose and showing rather than telling. You can’t just describe the character, you need to bring them to life.
How do you do that?
You use every available narrative device to build your character from the ground up.
Here is one way to accomplish this task:
Think about your character from their head to their toes – imagine them in your mind before you begin to write. Some people use pictures from the internet, while others use their mind’s eye to conjure up an image.
Unfortunately, a lot of writers only think about the head. In fact if you look at some novice writers’ character descriptions, the often read something like this:
‘Jules had long brown hair and beautiful deep brown eyes.’
While this description is at least factual, we can only imagine a head with long brown hair and lovely eyes. We know that Jules doesn’t have short black hair or green eyes.
Yet, staying at head level for now, what if we said:
‘Jule’s long hair gave her a feminine look. The kohl she had started wearing recently amplified the piercing and perceptive quality of her green eyes.‘
While some may say the description here is too much, writers need to decide for themselves what is too little, or too much. And while this description goes a bit further, it lacks concrete detail and specificity.
But we do find out a few more things about Jules:
- We know what’s changed about her recently
- One aspect of how her looks hint at her gender
- Character qualities suggested by appearance (intensity, intuition)
What else can we do to help the reader envision your character?
Next, let’s think about how ‘The clothes make the man or woman.’
Mark Twain is alleged to have said, ‘The clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.’
As readers, we know that clothes, of course, make living beings of every or any gender, gender flexibility or absence of gender. In today’s world, there are more than two genders to portray, and a carefully crafted description can show who the character is WITHOUT using labels.
- Intent: For example, dressing formally (or infornally) for a job interview or conservatively to communicate respect for another culture
- Status or title: A queen’s crown, a beauty queen’s tiara
- Rank: For example, the Papal ferula or pastoral staff used by the Pope in the Catholic Church
- Personality: One person may favour concealing or baggy clothing while another prefers skimpier, revealing clothing
- Profession or educational status: A librarian’s reading glasses, a chef’s hat, an air steward or schoolboy’s fedora
Here is a character description that I’ve found in several writing sources as a good example: It conveys the hero Pip’s sister’s proud and reproachful nature in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations:
My sister, Mrs. Joe, with black hair and eyes, had such a prevailing redness of skin that I sometimes used to wonder whether it was possible she washed herself with a nutmeg-grater instead of soap. She was tall and bony, and almost always wore a coarse apron, fastened over her figure behind with two loops, and having a square impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles. She made it a powerful merit in herself, and a strong reproach against [her husband] Joe, that she wore this apron so much.
Charles Dickens, in Great Expectations (1861)
Use language to embody emotion
Creating a three-dimensional character isn’t only a task for description, of course.
You need to use the rhythm, tone and quality of the language we use in narration. All of these things contribute to an impression of character.
I really like this example of a belligerent chef who dents his pots when he’s in a rage:
Bang. He swung another down hard on a stone counter corner. A pot’s lid clattered to the floor as he plonked the dented casserole down, scowling.
These short phrases and the explosive alliteration of ‘p’ and ‘t’ sounds (known as plosive consonants) create a sense of the character’s jerky, angry movements.
Making the setting do character work
Often, we think that setting and character are two separate areas of writing.
In the last example, we wrote about a chef, his characterization as a volatile man, and the setting. I’ve already written about how to use setting to drive plot.
It is more than possible to involve setting in character description to create a richer sense of tone, mood and state of mind.
To illustrate this point, I found an example by Barbara Kingsolver to illustrate this in the workbook How to Write Real Characters: Character description – from Writers Write.
“Take this baby,” she said. […]
The child had the exact same round eyes. All four of those eyes were
hanging there in the darkness, hanging on me, waiting. The
Budweiser sign blinked on and off, on and off, throwing a faint light
that made the whites of their eyes look orange.’
Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees, p. 17.
In this scene, the author captures the moment a baby is foisted on her protagonist at a rest stop.
‘The neon light of the Budweiser sign, reflected in the eyes of the desperate woman and the child, add a layer of quiet pathos to their situation.’
Evoke habits (and changes in them)
Characters, just like people we encounter daily, are often, of course, creatures of habit. Yet conflicts and other schisms often shake us out of routines. This is one of the reasons conflict is crucial to stories. They often supply a reason for change, a reason for story.
Consider this description of a change in habit on page one of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: (from Writers Write)
‘Everything had gone wrong in the Oblonsky household. The wife had found out about her husband’s relationship with their former French governess and had announced that she could not go on living in the same house with him […] The wife did not leave her own rooms and the husband stayed away from home all day. The children strayed all over the house, not knowing what to do with themselves. […]
‘On the third morning after the quarrel, Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky – Stiva, as he was generally called by his friends – awoke at his usual time, which was about eight o’clock, not in his wife’s bedroom but on a morocco-leather couch in his study.’
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (translated by Rosemary Edmonds), p. 13.
The details Tolstoy includes – the children’s ‘straying’ all over the house like lost cats, Stiva alone on his ‘morocco-leather’ couch – provide a sense of characters’ habits and changes caused by the upset of Stiva’s infidelity.
‘…fame of his accomplishments was so widespread that on occasion distinguished visitors who had traveled from the interior on the riverboats would ask permission to see him…’
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), p 20.
The delight of the parrot’s vast repertoire of imitations (the doctor also teaches him ‘to speak French like an academician’) provides a keen and lively sense of character. This imitative prowess builds the parrot’s celebrity.