» » » What’s in a Character?

What’s in a Character?

posted in: Writing Craft | 4

Good morning everyone!

When sitting down to write, what’s the first thing we think of?

CP Bialois
CP Bialois

The easy answer is the plot, but for me, I’ve found that my thinking tends to focus more on my characters. I’m a huge fan of character-driven stories, and often times who and what they are just pops into my head, but there are times when they aren’t more than a brief outline or image in my mind. The trick is to then flesh them out.

The biggest thing you will probably hear about a character is choosing their name. Honestly, I think it’s a personal choice on the author’s part. Whether we realize it or not, there are reasons we give certain characters names, so I’m not a fan of saying, “Oh, that name doesn’t work with this character.” There’s the argument that there are exceptions, such as naming a character born and raised in India Patty Aloysius O’Brian (which could prove a highly interesting backstory if you’re up to it), but again, I prefer leaving that up to the author when choosing from possible alternatives. Just because a name doesn’t sound right to us, or even a majority of people, doesn’t mean we’re right. As always, this is only my opinion, so feel free to disagree. 🙂

One of the best things I’ve found is to imagine where the character comes from. In many ways, their childhood can add so many subtle things to their personality that we often overlook them. I think of it this way: If someone grows up in Harlem, they’re going to have a different set of experiences than someone that grew up in a quiet small town or even Manhattan. The differences may be small, but it’s those little gems that can add something familiar and fascinating to our characters.

Imagine the issues someone has to deal with by growing up in the city compared to a small town. They may have to deal with the pressures of gang life compared to dealing with a clique of bullies, or working in a local store delivering groceries instead of mowing the grass. While they offer similar backgrounds, the differences can add important character traits such as being confident around others instead of nervous or dealing with peer pressure to join instead of handing over lunch money. See what I mean?

Another often overlooked thing can even be what the character wears. Seriously, would you expect a dentist or lawyer to wear jeans and plaid shirts when working, or even in their private life? Sure, they could like to wear them on the weekends or days off, but what are the odds they’d have the time or desire to wear those outside of doing yard work or going fishing?

The same can be said for a lumberjack, construction worker, or factory worker. How many of them would wear nice/expensive clothes unless they have a well-dressed function to go to?

Another example is our expectations at seeing a woman wearing a dress compared to one wearing jeans, or whether or not they wear makeup. Subtle things like these can tell our readers whether our character is a “lady” or “tomboy”, aspires to look her best or doesn’t care/thinks she already looks great.

Basically, we play into the stereotypes we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in order to give our readers our character’s background and possible personality without us having to explain everything in great detail and take up a page or more describing our characters.

Is it a cheat? Yeah, it could be looked at in that way, but it’s a cool one, right? I mean, not everyone wants to read about our characters’ background or relationships over the last year or so for the entirety of the first chapter, so why not streamline if we think it’ll work best?

By focusing on the nuances I’ve mentioned, we can help to make our characters and stories more fluid and engaging. The trick is to keep track of our creations before they get the idea to alter themselves. One of my favorite ways to do this goes back to my role playing days. Simply put, I like to use character sheets.

Character sheets are nothing more than an outline for each character. In them we can get as detailed or vague as possible. It depends on what we wish to accomplish with them

Your standard character sheets are as follows:

Name:

Nicknames:

Physical appearance:

Weapons:

Strengths:

Weaknesses:

History:

There are plenty of categories we can add if we feel the need to. Like most tools at our disposal, character sheets are as flexible as we need to make them. If you’re looking to create a character bible to keep track of their personalities or traits, or simply want to have your characters fully formed before you start writing, then give these a shot. If you already use them, please feel free to share any insights you may have. As the saying goes, knowledge is power. 🙂

As with all parts of a story, our characters can make our work memorable. It’s up to us to find what works best for ourselves and our stories. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

See you all next time! Happy writing!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this post with friends: Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInEmail this to someone

4 Responses

  1. Janet Little
    | Reply

    When you list “Weapons” on a character sheet, are you talking about actual physical weapons or character traits that are more destructive than a weakness?

    • CP Bialois
      | Reply

      Generally, it refers to physical weapons, but you use it for either one if you choose.

  2. Ed Ireland
    | Reply

    Hey Ed…You’re aware by now that I’m a pantser, but one thing I absolutely insist on is character development. I figure that a character that doesn’t make the reader feel as if he/she was an actual person is not going to grab that reader by the throat (or worse) and force them to care. Even the villain has to have a character deep enough for you to know why he or she is a complete d-bag.
    I have a story I did called Crime Scene. It was an experiment that went horribly wrong and pretty much everybody that has read it had no problems in telling me this. But they all say that the main and secondary characters are great…real enough to be your neighbor…and that I need to go fix it and re-release it.
    That is the power a good character holds over your story. If a character can make people tell you to rewrite so they can appreciate him more, then you’ve got something special. For me, character is everything. It supersedes plot, location, even writing style. Without a real character, everything else can fail. Just my thoughts on it.

    • CP Bialois
      | Reply

      Totally agree, Ed. I like good stories, but if the charactersare paper thin I can’t keep reading. For me, they are the most important part. If they’re interesting, they moldthe world around them.

Leave a Reply to Ed Ireland Cancel reply