Writing Stuff

How Well Do You Know Your Characters?

What makes a man cheat on his wife?

What makes a loving wife and mother leave her family?

What drives a successful businessman to murder?

What makes a reader believe these characters are capable of carrying out actions that are , well, out of character?

The answer? Creating characters that readers both care about and believe in.

Is this easy? Sometimes, it depends on how strong of an image a writer has of his/her characters to begin with, but creating an in-depth character profile is essential to creating personalities that readers can, and want, to care about.

Characters work best when you create a virtual identity for them. The character can then inhabit an imaginative space in the reader’s mind, a space that you have created. Readers go along with characters as long as the characters remain coherent (and believable). From Linda N. Edelstein, Ph.D.’s book The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits.

Creating a full-fledged, well-rounded character is the second hardest thing for me when I begin a new story (plot being the first, but that’s another post). The physical features are easy enough, hair color, eyes, body type, race, but when it comes to gestures, family background, political beliefs I tend to lean toward my own views and preferences and before I know it, I’ve put myself into the story.

To avoid this, and to spare my readers from having to put up with a two-dimensional ME, I tend to go overboard and stretch my characters all out of shape, writing stories from the viewpoint of a child, or a man, or an old person (though that’s not all that far fetched anymore *cringe*) just so I WON’T be tempted to insert myself into my characters.

My stories tend to be chewier, like a piece of tough meat, when I’ve taken the time to flesh out my characters, though I confess, I HATE making character profiles for the simple fact that it takes time, a lot of time, not to mention forethought, which is not something I have an abundance of, preferring instead to write by the seat of my pants. But I’m always glad I made the effort later on.

For instance, I was going through some old floppy disks last night and stumbled across a couple of character profiles that were actually close to being completed (now there’s a shocker, I almost completed something??). Though I have no recollection of ever making these profiles, I felt like I knew these people, that I knew exactly who these characters were, just from reading their profiles.

I know what you’re thinking. “How droll! How boring! Who has time to devote to a character spreadsheet!”

Indeed, they can be boring and certainly time consuming, but the payoff is worth the effort. If you, the writer, have a clearer idea of who your character is, then your reader certainly will. And if you have a clear-cut, sympathetic character, then that will make your story that much better. And if your story is good, your reader will remember it, and you.

(I used the word character 22 (23 if you count this time) times in a piece 538 words long. My technical writing teacher would be very disappointed in me. )

This was originally published on Write Anything, April 7, 2006.