In order to flesh out a character it’s a good idea to make lists of attributes for each character. However thorough, you must then write scenes to fit each character. That is, each scene that you write when this character appears should reveal what you planned for him or her when you made your list.
Of course as the story develops, any character may take on a different persona than you first imagined. That’s not a problem. Amending the original sketch will suffice, keeping in mind how the new character image affects all the other characters and the story overall.
I’ve always been interested in how characters are set up in stories. However, it’s no longer good enough to list features and attributes in paragraph or outline form, which seems like we’re looking at a person from head to toe and describing what we see. That’s vital, but characters do something while they act out who they are. Sometimes one thing they do can set up the reader’s impression of them for the entire story.
Here’s my list of traits for my minor character Randy Osborne in my paranormal Egyptian suspense novel, The Ka:
- Highly educated
- Physical anthropologist
- Works with biochemistry and genetics
- Mama’s boy
- Totally insecure
- Always eating
- Short brown hair, always greasy and matted
- Clothing always wrinkled
- Kinda short
- Embarrassing to be around
- Obnoxious, to cover insecurities
- Not very well liked
- Dislikes Chione (the protagonist)
- Thorn in everyone’s side
Here’s Randy’s character sketch in paragraph form:
“Everyone looked to Randy, who stood supported with a hand on the back of a chair, flagging a leg back and forth as if his underwear might be caught in the wrong place. Then he lifted the leg a couple of times in a last ditch effort to end his discomfort. His personal habits were reason for a good snicker among the tight knit team, who could politely ridicule one another, then laugh. At times, criticism from any of them seemed all in jest, a way this group of high-strung colleagues dealt with stress. At other times, Randy’s behavior was repulsive. He seemed to take great pleasure in eating all the time and, thanks to his mother packing his lunch, he always had an ample supply nearby to pick at. His continual weight gain and lack of personal hygiene turned people off. He always looked sweaty and wrinkled, and his hair matted. No one relished the idea of sharing a tent with him in the heat of the desert. Finally, he reached behind himself and gave the seat of his pants a tug. Not the kind of professional posture one would expect from a Physical Anthropologist who worked with genetics and biochemistry.”
This is similar to the paragraph I wrote soon after making the list of attributes for Randy. When I got to the part in the story where I wanted to show him in action and give the reader the full blast of what they could expect from him, I was shocked to find I had already written what I needed!
This paragraph appears soon as Randy appears in the story. We know full well what to expect from him as the story proceeds.
Readers know that all characters go through what is called a character arc. That’s when the character starts out as one persona and then changes to another before the end of the story. Sort of like the good-guy-gone-bad or vice-versa. Randy goes through a shocking metamorphosis but, well… I think I’ll leave that for the article on character arcs.
Please visit Mary Deal’s website for more wonderful articles like this one: Write Any Genre.