(Niceville, Florida; 26 August 2021) – The inky blade of glory slashes across the page, boldly scribing out a colorful character shortly to engage the forces of darkness in a pitched battle that will determine whether whole worlds live free or die in agony.
Fiction writers willingly take on a burden not shared by the perpetrators of nonfiction work—the careful creation of crafty characters. Successful characters each have their own voice and speech patterns, habits and eccentricities, nuances, opinions, political views, dress sense, appearance, and, finally thought processes. Bringing these fictional people to life is a challenge, a joy, and part of the magic that writers weave with their wands of imagination.
Actors expend great effort getting ‘into the head’ of their character. Research method acting and you’ll discover the insanely intense lengths performers like Daniel Day Lewis go to create their award-winning performances. These talented stars are masters at getting into the persona, nay, the very personality, of their characters.
With rare exceptions, they are also doing this one character at a time. Writers have to do the same, but for multiple characters at the same time. The creation of truly believable characters is no easy task.
It’s easy for anyone to draft the following:
“I like New York-style pizza,” John Smith said, “Being able to roll up that thin crust in something like an Italian burrito is the height of good eating.”
“I prefer Chicago-style deep dish myself,” Jane Doe said, “I think it’s more filling than New York pizza, tastes better, and doesn’t drip sauce everywhere.”
Other than the most shallowly obvious aspects of basic food preference, what do you learn about these two individuals? Pretty much nothing. These ‘characters’ are but cyphers, interchangeable units who could easily have reversed the dialogue with no impact on the story.
Good writers embellish even simple exchanges, adding information and imagery that begin to transfigure these cyphers into people a reader believes they could actually meet out in town:
“I like New York-style pizza,” John Doe said, his mouth watering with relish at the thought. Holding up his craggy hands, he mimed rolling up the imaginary food as his voice took on a sultry tone usually reserved for describing the opposite sex, “Being able to roll up that thin crust into something like an Italian burrito is the height of good eating!”
“I prefer Chicago-style deep dish myself,” Jane Doe dismissed Smith’s passionate recital with a wave of her bejeweled hand. Settling herself, she began to school him on the joys of the cuisine she’d grown up in the Windy City, “I think it’s more filling than New York pizza, tastes better, and doesn’t drip sauce everywhere!”
A simple change in emphasis, alteration of one punctuation mark, the addition of some colorfully descriptive language, and a dash of biographical material on one person transforms a balefully boring, generic exercise in dialogue into a conversation between two fully-formed human beings.
The most obvious (and, for your primary characters, required) step is developing characters is crating a biography for them. The more often you use a character, the more detailed you need to draw their life story in order to keep their life’s continuity consistent. I’ve got detailed the biographies of my protagonists in the Accidental Detective series so much that I know when Isaac Shepherd and Abraham Gray are born, when they meet, even their extended family members and ancestors.
However, biography is only the start. You’ve got to pay attention to the details. Just as I demonstrated in the previous two dialogue examples, you need to show your readers what the characters are doing and how they do it. Readers need to hear and even feel the characters’ voices, passions, and opinions.
Human communication is only one-third verbal. Two-thirds of how we communicate with each other are based on the non-verbals such as body language, tone of voice, facial expression, etc. (this is why email and text messages so often go awry; there aren’t any non-verbals to give proper context to the words). Writing a novel is only going to succeed if you provide the illusion of the non-verbals for your readers. You have to vivdly narrate the actions, thoughts, and reactions of your characters so your readers can see them.
When I draft a story, I first bat out the basic narrative and dialogue, but to refrain from getting ‘into the weeds’ of the nuance, non-verbals, etc., during that first drafting stage. This allows me to get the narrative framework into place, ensuring the overall story makes logical sense. I then go back and get into sculpting the nuanced non-verbals that bring the characters to life. I aid myself in this step by thinking of my blind uncle and my actors.
Yep, you read that right. My late uncle was blind. I remember my Mom quietly narrating the action of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to him in the theatre back in 1982. She even told him when Mr. Spock raised a single eyebrow or Dr. McCoy rolled his eyes. My brother and I learned descriptive narration from her and practiced it ourselves when we’d narrate for Uncle during visits.
My other trick is to ‘cast’ my actors. I know some characters, like Shepherd and Gray, so well I can see them in my head, but I do have physical models for both based on people I know (either friends or actors I’ve seen). I’ve ‘cast’ Sam Neil, Zac Efron, Claudia Black, Angela Bassett, etc., in order to give my imagination a concrete ‘outline’ of the characters. After that, the characters begin taking on a lifeforce within the narrative, transforming from narrative creations to living people.
The creation of nuanced characters is a discipline good writers practice their entire life. It can be a difficult process, but each step taken renders your fictional people ever more believable as realistic individuals. Experiment with dialogue and descriptive language. Let your characters come alive for you in your head, and then focus on translating that experience for your readers. You just might become the writer who creates the next Sherlock Holmes, Dirk Struan, or even Macbeth!
Check out my video on this topic at: https://youtu.be/4CoHFPb5S10
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