Characters

by Jerri Gibson McCloud - July 2003

 A story is something happening to someone you’ve been led to care about.  Someone you have identified with while reading a novel, memoir or short story.  

That is it.  Without a reader’s emotional connection to your protagonist, good plotting, descriptive details, or great settings, won’t keep your reader interested after the first few pages.   Your reader MUST care about your protagonist.  

Well, now that we’ve said all that, how do we create these characters? 

1.  Each choice you make concerning your character’s traits, situations and relationships should draw readers to your character emotionally and make them care. 

2.  What is the character’s emotional core?  Is she weak or strong, honest or dishonest, intelligent or dull?  What about her character that will draw the reader to her on an emotional level?  Remember, we don’t have to love our character.  Even with a bad character, we will continue to read to see if they get their just rewards.  Villains have goals that reveal their emotional core as well.  Give your character a good emotional trait whether they are good or bad.  Villains get away with things because they portray something good.  Perhaps they have a winning personality—irresistible.  You’ve got the idea. 

3.  When introducing a character, imagine what her motive is.  It may involve other characters as well to create a conflict that keeps her from accomplishing her goal, be it parental intervention as in memoirs, a husband/wife preventing a great opportunity for one or the other, etc.  As you introduce a character, you could tell outright what the character wants, but in most cases, it is best to show the motives in action.  Make readers see, hear, and occasionally touch and smell and taste your characters.  Bring readers close to your characters; make them feel their emotion.

4.  To catch a realistic image of something, to express it, you have to exaggerate for emphasis.  Your reader must construct an image from what you tell/show her.  The more striking the features you offer as a hook, the easier it will be for your reader’s imagination to work with it and to identify your character throughout your story.  Each time an event takes place with the protagonist you have a visual image of her—the way she walks, speaks, dresses, etc.  Some visual characteristics:

5.  Express the images of your character in detail.  Show them in motion, using their hands, how they tackle their hammers, put ice in a glass, type on the computer, talk on the phone, cut their food, etc., etc.  Make your characters come alive in an interactive way—the way they interact with their setting and other characters and their observers.

6.  Reveal your character through communication with others.  Use dialog!  Other ways are what she writes, her strategies, whether she is extra nice or extra harsh, when she has an important goal.  Is she always in a hurry—not time to linger with a friend? 

7.  Speech.  Does she have an accent?    Remember, don’t carry an accent or speech style through the narration or with other characters.  Use only in the dialog of that particular character.

8.  For a general impression, you might use a metaphor to describe your character as an animal—teddy bear (soft), elephant (size), etc.  If she is thin, has long hands and legs, she might be a mosquito or a dragonfly. 

9.  Are your descriptions sensory enough?  Do you give enough colors, sounds, smells, sensations?  If you say she’s beautiful, delete it.  It says you plan to accomplish an impression of beauty but fail to create the impression.  Show the beauty through your description.  If you says she’s nervous, delete it as well.  We can see she is nervous through descriptions such as nervous tics and trouble breathing, etc.  Are your details striking?  It’s far better to have a few striking details that your reader can visualize than a bunch of vague, unfocused and crowded images.  Examples:  birthmarks, tattoo, hairy chin, mole, etc. 

10.  Other emotional traits to think about:  Curiosity—wants to know everyone.  Conflicted conscience—good vs. evil, etc.  Altruism—selfless characters who try to help others.  Victim—we’ve all come in contact with people that love to be the victim.  Victim can also be someone victimized by parents, bosses, husbands/wives, killers, etc.  Finally, Love.

Look around you.  Look at your family, your relatives, and friends.  You can find so many examples that are beginnings for your character.  Combine them.  Mix them up and have fun. 

Remember, if you establish an emotional bridge between your protagonist and your reader early on, your audience will willingly cross over into your character and not want to stop reading. 

Jerri Gibson McCloud ©2005-2012

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