Your Novel’s Characters are Real People

Your Novel’s Characters are Real People

I love having conversations with people who have lived exciting lives; they’ve leapt from waterfalls with an 80-foot drop, fought Texas Longhorns and lived in the Sahara. Ok, I don’t personally know any of those kinds of people. But I do know those who, are in unconventional living situations, overcame fierce personal battles and are living their dreams. It is always interesting to talk with them.

funny bullfighting

 

But honestly what I love more are those conversations with ordinary people, on ordinary subjects. You know, they are unpretentious, unassuming souls living their lives in simple fashion. It is from these people that I’ve learned the subtleties, the idiosyncrasies that make people who they are. For the most part it has been these folks who have taken precedence in my work. Their mannerisms are not calculated or contrived; they are simply being themselves. If you can capture the essence of this group in your writing you can create clear, vivid pictures of any character you develop. In these people lay the core of who we all are—even those waterfall jumping, bull-fighting folk.

Compare it to an artist who draws a straight illustration (like the kind a developing artist would create) and contrast it to one who shadows and shades to catch the nuances of attitude and demeanor. It is this capturing of character that is crucial our work. It means that we allow people to… be and to express themselves as we watch, listen and take note. It allows us to move away from the cookie-cutter characters based on some T.V. show or some cliché. If you want to know what a dumb blonde is really like, watch one. Listen to what they say. You may find yourself observing a dumb brunette or someone who isn’t dumb at all, but just perceived as such. O.K., you’re writing about Laura’s rapper boyfriend Ty. Well, insist on meeting one (or someone like him). You might discover that when he opens his mouth and speaks that he is not the empty-headed, one-dimensional thug you originally thought him to be but is indeed quite intelligent, maybe even a Yale graduate? Capture the rapid blinking of the eyes when someone is nervous, the way she continuously clicks her nails together or picks at a pimple on her face.

 

Jay's self image 2

Capture the totality of the characters. Write about their scent–too much perfume, the scent of perspiration mingled with fading cologne. Write about how she never gives a full toothy smile as she is hiding some disfigured or bad teeth. Talk about her thinning hair and how she keeps it in a bun but hints of her scalp peek through the thin strands like the moon light through thread-bare curtains.

Am I the only one who looks at people and find myself writing a full-fledge description of their appearance and mannerisms (It’s fun and a little annoying when you can turn it off.)?  Remember unless you are writing about aliens or vampires your characters are real people. And even vampires are real people—sort of.

jays self image1

Do a personalized sketch of your protagonist. What makes him tick? Why is he always angry? Is it because his mother was verbally abusive? Is this why his anger is mostly geared towards women? Tell us about his mother. What was she like? Was she slow moving? Were her words spat sarcastically? Was she condescending? Describe the specifics that make her stand out—or not, for that matter. Show us the relationship between mother and son. Describe how his palms would become sweaty when she entered the room and how he could never raise his eyes to her. Build your character block by block. It doesn’t have to be described in one long expository paragraph (please don’t) Take your time. Interweave it into the story. Have fun with it. And most of all make us believe it!

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