Creating Characters, Part II

Creating characters, as mentioned elsewhere on this site requires more than physical description. A characterization journal is useful in keeping track of interesting speech patterns, thoughts, actions, and reactions, all necessary components of strong, memorable characters in fiction.

Character Speech Patterns

When creating characters, do you hear them speak? Giving fictional characters distinct, authentic voices makes them more engaging, but don't rely on imagination alone.

Listen to people in restaurants, on the train, in a line-up, or at parties, and recreate their speech patterns in your characters. Do they speak in bursts of excitement? Do they drawl, or speak with clipped authority? Carry a notebook and record anything that strikes you for use later.

I once saw a re-enactment of an emergency room drama. An addict pulled at her sleeve, obviously proud of herself. "I've got worms," she said, several times, in a high pitched and self congratulatory tone. Her doctor ordered a stool sample, but as a nurse attempted to usher her out of the room, the addict raised her sleeve to expose an open cavity she had dug into her arm.

"I've got worms," she said again, and pulled an earthworm from the wound.

Her voice, as recreated by the actor, with that proud inflection, resides in my memory and in a notebook. One day, I will challenge myself to find a role for this character and will build a fictional life around this one sentence: "I've got worms!"

Character Thoughts

Like us, fictional characters think in the same unique voice they use in speech. Additionally, their thoughts reveal an otherwise hidden side of themselves, so keep them "in character" even when they are silent. One may be obsessive in private, another silently critical. One may daydream often, while another doesn't waste a minute. Their thoughts will reveal these characteristics.

Avoid creating characters who think and sound too much alike. A protagonist that wonders who turned the damn heat up is much different from one who thinks, Goodness, it's warm in here. Readers should be able to immediately distinguish between characters based on their thoughts and voice, even without prompts or dialogue tags.

Is your character outwardly cool, but inwardly jealous? Does he skew the truth? Delude himself? Is she self-congratulatory, or always thinking the best or worst of others? These private thoughts and feelings allow readers to know more than other characters know. This is a good way to create tension.

For example, if readers know that the antagonist is inwardly plotting against the protagonist, readers will be suspicious of the antagonist's offer of help, and will be silently screaming "don't believe him!" You will involve reader emotions as readers become protective and hope for the safety of the character at risk.

Creating Characters That Take Authentic Action

Every action is preceded by a motivating desire. We eat because we are hungry. We retreat because we are afraid or repulsed. In life, sometimes we know why we act, and sometimes we don't.

Experienced writers understand the motivation behind every character action. Selfish characters will be motivated differently from generous ones, according to their beliefs and values.

A fictional character that drops money in the bowl of a street beggar may believe that the beggar needs the money, or that giving money to the poor is the right thing to do, or that the coins will help someone.

A different character may pass by without contributing anything because he believes that the beggar should work for his money, or that the money collected will be spent at the nearest liquor store. These thoughts and beliefs will colour all of each character's actions, not only this one.

Understand your characters' belief systems, and what caused the beliefs (whether or not that information is in the story), and use this knowledge to make each character take consistent and convincing action.

Creating Characters That React Appropriately

Focus on differences more than similarities, as differences create tension. In life, the most memorable people you've met are not conformists but people who stand out as different from the crowd.

Make characters equally memorable by focusing on differences that will incite conflict. Characters may laugh at others when they run up against their differences. They may try to knock differences out of the way. They may manipulate, cajole, and bully. They persuade, discuss, or acquiesce. But always they react in ways that affect others.

If two characters plan to live together and both dream of a little house in the country with a white picket fence and a lilac bush, you have no story. If one dreams of an inner city condo, and the other dreams of the house in the country, readers will want to learn how they resolve their differences.

Whatever the characters choose to do, differences demand a response; similarity does not.

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