Competing with God: Making Fascinating People

Stein (from which the examples of this paragraph are taken) says: “There’s a book called Characters Make Your Story that you don’t have to read because the title says it all: Characters make your story”. Readers want to fall in love with your characters, they want to know them and they want them to be so interesting that they can’t shut the book. And to get your readers to know your characters, you have to characterize them. You can achieve this goal:

  • Through physical attributes
  • With clothes or how they wear clothes
  • Through psychological attributes and mannerisms
  • Through actions
  • In dialogue

Don’t just characterize them: show them while they talk and act. You can use exaggerations (“he weighed two tons naked”) or comparisons (“he was Wilt Chamberlain tall”). But avoid clichés: for sexy women you can talk about their hairs, for men their voice. And keep them visual: “he walked against an unseen wind”. You can also use characterization to help your story, for example psychological attributes often connect to the story (“if you got in a car with her you’d find that her sentences were at least ten miles long”).

And most important: avoid protagonists with a weak will and antagonists badly behaved. Readers want assertive characters who want something badly and now.

To develop a character you can use these non conventional questions:

  • Does he behave differently at home, with the family, with strangers, with old successful/unsuccessful friends?
  • Does he speak to other people in a way they find offensive? Does he realize that? Does he apologize?
  • If he had a reason to shout, what would you hear? If he never shouts, what thought is he repressing?
  • Does he use figures of speech or particular expressions? Conscious or unconscious mannerisms?
  • What’s his attitude toward himself? Does he reveal it through some physical tic?

You usually want extraordinary characters, and what makes them extraordinary are personality (specialness, charisma, eccentricity, temperament), disposition (toward people and places, predisposition, mind-set), temperament (how he reacts, how he confronts with new things), individuality (concrete details that define his identity), eccentricity (it’s the heart of strong characterization, an unusual manner of behavior, dress or speech).
You can also use contrasts (a character well dressed who picks his nose).
Somerset Maugham said “You can never know enough about your characters”, and when you have trouble improving the characterization you can view your character from a different perspective: make him complain bitterly, imagine your adult character secretly dressed in children’s clothes (why is he doing that?), imagine him old, or in the nude, ask him questions that are provocative; can you see him trying to fly or kiss everyone at a party?

About other characters:

  • Villains: you can use a slightly disturbing mannerism, or thinking about how they behave with people they don’t know. But you have to avoid villains badly behaved
  • Minor: pick one characteristic that makes them unique

To have a swift characterization you can use the clash of differences between characters, and the process of identifying different worlds can be accomplished through markers: easily identified signals that will reveal a character’s cultural and social background. Clothing can be a marker (designer jeans), a characteristic of the body (black under fingernails), the public conduct with children (screaming vs dressed-up), mannerisms (scratches his crotch), where and how food is consumed, vocabulary and expressions, attitude toward travel, actions they do (at the restaurant, does he complain or overtips?).
There are some questions that can provide markers: what influenced his life? What has he tried to change without succeeding? What family tradition had a good or bad influence? What is the single most important factor in the villain’s upbringing that contributed to his conduct?

Even Stephen King provides wonderful advice for creating good characters – along with other unmissable tips – in his “On Writing”. I will summarize it in my next blog post, so if you want it delivered to your inbox, just enter your email address here and you will get this and the next posts about creative writing – for free:


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I’m also collecting all these tips in a book – if you want more information, you can visit this page.

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