Character Matters

Originally posted October 31, 2009

What's the one thing every story needs? (Aside from a competent author) Characters. A well conceived character can bring endless potential to the story line, offers plenty of interaction with other characters, and can be entertaining in his/her/its own right.

One habit I have gotten into as a writer is to be constantly on the lookout for characters, even ones I have no immediate use for. I have become something of a people watcher (common among writers, I understand), and the results can be interesting. I make a game of it. Whenever I see someone who might be an interesting character, I try to come up with a brief description that captures their essence, and then I squirrel them away for later use. Here are a few examples of actual characters I have seen:

The kid behind the counter was a surly brute who looked like he'd just stepped off a U-boat, and when he asked, 'Would you like fries with that?' I had to resist the urge to click my heels and shout, "Jawhol, mien Herr!" (At a MacDonalds in Naperville, Illinois)

Little Mister Bad-ass: the sort that would piss all over the toilet seat, then cuss you out if you object. (In a grocery store in Southern California)

She was straight off a flying saucer, and she had an uncanny gift for being everyone's best friend in the world after five minutes. (My next door neighbor)

As you can see, these nuggets can serve as the groundwork for some interesting characters. (Not necessarily nice ones, mind you; but stories do need their villains.)

I have also applied this practice in my stories as a means of introducing new characters while avoiding tedious infodumps. A tight two or three line description gives the reader an initial image you can build on later as needed. Here are a few examples:

The Admiral's voice was a glacier that threatened to grind junior officers under. I was sweating, with good reason: for a white-haired bantamweight, his fury was a thing to behold. (From 'In The Course Of Diplomacy')

She was short, only 5' 3", with curly honey blond hair and big green eyes. She was centerfold material once, but didn't like to think about the sort of men who would turn on to a center spread of her now. Her image in the mirror looked like a hunted animal. (From 'Trial')

The Captain climbs stiffly out of the humper's front seat, rubbing his eyes and gasping in the stifling midday heat. The weight of his clumsy exposure suit is almost too much in his condition. Dizzy from his sudden move, he sags against the vehicle, mops his sweaty forehead, and struggles to put it together, cursing his fatigue. (From 'Nature's Way')

Note how these descriptions not only give us a visual image of the characters, but also give us some idea of their circumstances and state of mind. These descriptions, all of which introduced these characters in their respective stories, provide a framework that further elaboration can be hung on. Good character descriptions like these can set the course for the character's growth and their impact on the story line throughout the book - or in some cases, throughout a series.

Playing the character game can also be an education in human nature, something writers need to be hep to. This is especially true if you want to develop characters who don't match the everyday norm. You can do no great wrong to observe homeless people, attend sensational trials to watch the suspects (and lawyers), go to political rallies (especially radical ones), spend time in a cop bar, or a hospital, or a military PX. People are the strangest animals; seek them out and get to know them, and your writing can only benefit from the broadened perspective.


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