On Writing: Characters with character

I think character development is one of my weaker skills as a writer. Not that I think I’m terrible at it, I actually think I do a journeyman’s job of it. But I don’t think I’m especially good at it compared to, say, Mark Twain, or John Steinbeck. Still, I think I’ve learned enough and gotten enough nice comments about my characters that I might have a thought or two about characters that would be worth hearing.

The most important thing to me as a writer for creating characters that are memorable, is to be able to visualize them myself. And I don’t mean as a two dimensional¬† image. I mean as a living, breathing person, with mannerisms and unique traits. I’ve heard other writers talk about “getting into the skin” of their characters, and I think that’s what they mean. They mean visualizing not just the character’s physical attributes, but their personalities, their motivations and their histories.

The next most important thing for creating memorable characters is to write readable dialog. That’s one of the hardest things to do as a writer. People have a natural feel and expectation for how people talk in real life, and they have developed a similar natural feel and expectation for how people should talk in books. They aren’t the same. People in books rarely, if ever, stammer or stutter, or wander down a side thought, or sneeze or hiccup… And if they did, you’d grow tired of the repetitive nature of reading the dialogue anyway.

While you can do a lot with narrative descriptions of the character’s movements and visible characteristics, the vast majority of the reader’s impression of that character will still come from the things that character says to other characters, and how they say them. So the magic of character development is the creation of the illusion of natural speaking, with variations of that illusion for different characters, using that illusion to give the reader an accurate view of that character’s personality, and how it contrasts with the personalities of other characters.

My approach so far has been to write dialogue that is direct and addresses the story’s needs. I rarely attempt to embellish the dialogue unless there is a story reason to do so. I just try to have the characters say what THEY think is the most important thing to say, and to write it such that it sounds like something that character would say. And that means every character should have a voice. That voice can be broken down into attributes like “optimistic” or “bitter” or whatever, but in the end it has to have a consistent whole that comes through the text when that character speaks.

I think I’ve pulled this off a few times, but I still struggle with the sheer number of characters that you have to manage in complex story lines. I consciously go through dialog after I write it and ask myself “Is that something she would say?” I reword a lot of things after asking that question.

How a writer forms that holistic view of a character and brings it to life is a personal thing. Some find photographs that represent their character’s looks and personality. I think that’s a great idea. But I worry that I might end up putting Sandra Bullock into one of my stories. I use character profiles which list a number of attributes for each character, along with notes and links to other characters. I find myself flipping back to those profiles many times, espeically in the early phases of writing. But over time, as that character solidifies in my mind, I need to check less and less.


About seandgolden

Husband, father, author
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