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When I'm teaching character to students, I tell them they have seven ways to let the reader know who they are dealing with.  There's the three obvious ones that we use when we meet people in our lives and are trying to figure out what kind of folks they are:

1)   Appearance.  Okay, I know you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but almost everyone does.  And people in literature aren't real.  The author dresses them and gives them features and everything else.  Even Shakespeare used appearance.  Remember Cassius had a "lean and hungry look."

2)   Speech.  Speech trumps appearance.  A character can look tough, but reveal a timid heart through speech.  Speech is composed of both what the character says and how the character says it.  Shy, bold, funny, uneducated, cynical, optimist or whatever, it comes out in speech.

3)   Actions.  For me, actions trump both appearance and speech.  The soldier who talks about how he will run when faced with the enemy, but throws himself on the grenade at a key moment reveals more about himself through his actions than his words.  Here's a cool exercise: have your character walk down the street by her/himself until he/she comes across a wallet.  Remember, no one is around.  Character will come out in what happens next.

There are two other ways we learn about character in the real world that writers don't use as often (at least weaker writers don't), but can be very effective:

4)   Control of the environment.  When you climb into someone's car, do you notice the fast food wrappers on the floor, or is it meticulously kept clean?  When you go into someone's house, what do they have hanging from the wall, stocking the bookshelves and playing in their CD player?  How a character controls his or her environment can reveal character.

5)   How other characters respond.  If you want a character to be respectable, then the other characters should respect her/him.  Remember how people acted around Darth Vader?  His character was frightening because he inspired fear in people around him.  We get a complicated and contradictory picture of Gatsby in The Great Gatsby because people respond to him (and talk about him) in a variety of ways.  You get the same effect with Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.

And the last two ways we don't have access to in real life, but we do in literature:

6)  Thoughts.  The writer can let the readers crawl right into a character's head.  You can learn a LOT about a person that way.  If only we had that option in real life.

7)   What the narrator tells us.  For newbie writers and the unpublished, this is a favorite technique and often times the least convincing.  If you go back to the first Star Wars, we see Darth Vader when the door to Princess Leia's ship opens.  We see Darth, dressed in black from head to toe, his face hidden (would you let this man babysit your kids?  His appearance works against a good first impression).  Then he walks across bodies of his own men and others strewn across the floor.  He grabs the throat of a prisoner, lifts him off the floor, asks a question, doesn't like the answer, and kills him.  Do you really need a disembodied narrator to say at that point, "Darth Vader is a bad dude"? 

Characters are more interesting if some of the ways seem contradictory.  So a character who is soft spoken, but brutal in action is more interesting than someone who matches every characteristic down the line.  I particularly like Darcy from Pride and Prejudice who turns out to be quite a different person when judged by his actions instead of his initial appearance and speech.


I have kids do this with teachers in other classrooms (I send them out with the assignment--the other teachers don't know why my kids are in their room), but you could do it with any real person you can observe unobtrusively for a while.  The point of the exercise is to make you more observant.

Pick your subject, then take notes on the following:

I.  Physical Description

A.        QUICK INVENTORY:  List the physical details about the teacher you are observing that you would give if you were filling out a missing person report.  Include height, weight, build, hair and eye color, hair style, distinguishing marks and clothing.  This can be done as a list.

 B.        UNIQUE DETAILS:  List any unique details about the teacher you are observing that would separate them from others of similar height and build.  This could be a close look at their face, for example.  Be observant!

II.  Mannerisms

A.        HAND GESTURES:  Describe how this teacher uses his/her hands as she/he talks.  Does he/she hold something? 

B.        POSTURE AND BODY MOVEMENTS:  Describe how this teacher holds her/his body.  Is there a slouch?  Is there an almost military stiffness to the back?  Does the person appear flexible, rigid, fluid, jerky, etc.?  Does the teacher move around a lot (and how is this movement done) or does she/he stay still?

C.        EYE MOVEMENT:  What does this teacher look at when he/she talks?  Is there eye contact?  Does the teacher seem engaged in the classroom or are the eyes elsewhere?  Are the eyes unusually wide or narrow?  Does the teacher blink a lot or not?  Do the eyes seem the windows to this teacher's personality?

III.  Speech

A.        TONE OF VOICE:  What does the teacher's voice sound like?  Is the delivery quick, halting, loud, soft?  Are there variances in tone?  What could the voice best be compared to?  Does the voice trail off at the end of sentences?  Does it rise at the end of sentences?  What kind of words are emphasized?

B.        WORD CHOICE:  What kind of things does this teacher say?  Record verbatim several of this teacher's utterances.  What seem to be this teacher's favorite way of beginning a sentence?  Are most of the sentences questions? facts? instruction?  Are most of the things said directed to the class as a whole or to individuals?

I think if want to create more believable characters on the page, you need to spend some time looking at real characters.  I love to watch people. I eavesdrop.  I take notes. 



( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 24th, 2007 04:39 am (UTC)
Great timing, Jim! I'm getting into characters in Creative Writing in a couple days.

Shall steal liberally. :)
Apr. 24th, 2007 11:58 am (UTC)
Hi, Patrick. I have a tendency to post whatever I'm working on in class. My SF class has short story rough drafts due on Thursday. We did dialogue on Friday, character on Monday.
Apr. 24th, 2007 10:51 am (UTC)
Good stuff! Thanks for posting it.
Apr. 24th, 2007 12:00 pm (UTC)
You're welcome. I might do a follow up today where I cleverly undercut everything I said yesterday *g*.
Apr. 24th, 2007 04:36 pm (UTC)
Good stuff, thanks for the post. And I too am a shameless eavesdropper/people watcher -- you get so many cool character bits that way.
Apr. 24th, 2007 06:37 pm (UTC)
"Control of the Environment" is something I haven't seen before in a way I found useful -- thanks!

I notice most of this is visual description. Someone whose main sense is hearing might, for example, notice the sounds someone makes while moving around. (I'm not talking about blind people here.)

Apr. 25th, 2007 04:34 pm (UTC)
Btw, I've just begun reading LEARNING THE WORLD and I'm very impressed. With the character of the caremother, he simply TELLS her attitude to her role, in about 1/3 of a page. I think this works partly because he's describing her from the outside; we're not supposed to be identifying with the feelings he describes.
May. 12th, 2007 03:20 am (UTC)
asking permission
I was wondering if I could copy your Crafting Characters and give it to a number of men in the creative writing class at Matsqui Prison in British Columbia. I'm going to be attending an Insiders/Outsiders writers retreat end of month and I am doing my presentation on Writers/Character's Block. Would put your name and info etc, whatever you'd want.
May. 12th, 2007 05:18 am (UTC)
Re: asking permission
Hi, PJ. You are more than welcome to. I'm a liberal borrower of other teacher's material. Most of the time I can't tell anymore what was original to me and what came from somewhere else.
May. 14th, 2007 06:22 am (UTC)
Re: asking permission
Thank you very much. I'm sure the guys are going to be pleased with the handouts.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )