Character Development

I find creating a protagonist one of the greatest challenges a writer must face.

How to do it? There are many conflicting ideas about this, spanning from advocating descriptions to the absolute ban on the same. How best reveal character traits? A character sketch seems one way to avoid misunderstandings. It is neat, and easily done: It shall be inventoried, and every particle and utensil labelled to my will: as, item, two lips indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to them; item, one neck, one chin, and so forth. Quote, unquote. Admittedly, there are dangers in this procedure. Boring the reader is a risk, we may not be prepared to take. It seems people don’t take easily to descriptive writing these days. In my opinion, it depends. There are authors, who write so enthralling that it doesn’t matter whether they present long descriptions or if the focus is on moving the plot forward.

I believe that it is necessary to find a way to creep under the (virtual) skin of a character. That is a bold statement, but how is it accomplished? When we meet new people, we don’t know their personality and we tend to look at the outer frame. Sometimes a tick or the way they smile gives away something about the person, but it can be deceptive. All the same, we may get a ‘feeling’ about the person. It can take the form of sensing warmth pouring out from the new acquaintance, or it can be the opposite: that already gives us an inkling of what’s to come. Smell and vision are important when meeting people in the real world, but we can’t use that on paper. A queer smile, noticing a pulse, visibly beating, can chill us to the core. A honeyed voice can scare us stiff.

All these characteristics fall into the descriptive area and may not serve the purpose of bringing a character to life on paper. It is possible to drop a few hints through a grimace or a warm smile, but I believe that action speaks a clearer language in this connection. If a character talks too fast or stutters, we become alert. Letting a person tap out rhythms could indicate nervousness or irritation. It’s the little things that reveal the part of a human that he or she most want to disguise. We’re complex beings, and we rarely reveal ourselves directly.

A sweet personality can get sticky, and over time become annoying. But if we add a temperament to the sweetness, the readers may tolerate the sweetness a bit longer. These are serious considerations, but often they turn out to be unnecessary. If a character comes to life in our heads or subconscious, our part as writers becomes easier. This process may resemble an actor’s craft: gathering together little details, which could be anything from a cough to a speech impediment, helps to bring the role to life. Also, an actor or actress would spend time thinking out possible subtexts for every line their character speaks. That is another important way of connecting with the subject, not necessarily through words. We aren’t always aware of our thoughts when we speak to somebody. We are mostly aware of our feelings, ranging from disgust to anger to amusement to trust or indeed to love or lust. And we can feel comfortable with those feelings or the absolute opposite. Once we master such techniques, it may get easier to find ways to communicate character traits, without resorting to long explanations. We use our subconscious knowledge to show what’s going on. And I haven’t even touched on the way a character expresses his or her thoughts. How do they speak? Do they have favourite words or idioms that they use? Again, it can become too much. But if so, it’s always possible to let another character make a remark about it. There is freedom to find in letting characters reveal themselves through speech. Of course, that is also a workable device for relating necessary back-story.

All in all, building a fictional character is hard work. It takes time and deliberation, but most of all it takes flashes of insights, sudden ideas, and a good connection to our subconscious.

© HMH, 2018

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