Building Characters from the Toes Up
From perfectly pedicured toes to the top of sleekly coifed hair, physical appearance is a reasonable step for a writer to take when building characters, and most writers do. Visualization is important so readers can get acquainted with a new character, but please, please, please, keep in mind that characters are more than auburn hair, hazel eyes, muscles, or a Barbie-doll physique. Appearance is only one aspect of things to take note of when building characters. Readers want to know what makes your characters tick and what elements of their persona make them different from other characters in your story. When describing characters my advice is to keep it short. Less is more.
The way the writer depicts a character’s appearance is important. If your female protagonist is a skinny bitch, allow another character to illuminate the reader with this info, perhaps through dialogue. Avoid clichés like having the character stand in front of a mirror while you, as the author, describe their features ad nauseum. BORING!
As for your hunky hero, instead of describing his muscles on muscles, have the heroine cling to him while riding on the back of his motorcycle, arms around his tight abs, thighs close to his firm glutes. Now that’s a turn-on, not a turn-off.
Craft personality traits, your character’s actions, or lack thereof, and their unique or bizarre characteristics with care. Don’t tell the reader your character is nervous. Show them by having your character twirl their hair during a stressful scene. If your character has an accent, make that clear through dialogue. Show a workaholic character staying late at the office or ignoring their spouse. If one of your characters is a self-injurious cutter show the reader what leads them to this dysfunctional behavior.
Walk around in your characters’ heads and get some things straight. You need to know simple things like chronological and emotional age. Did they have a crappy childhood? Is your forty-year-old character emotionally stuck at age fifteen because their parent’s tumultuous divorce messed them up? Does he/she act out, make bad decisions and choices? Is your teen character (pick a clear age) forced to take on an adult role in his/her life? Do they grow up with the weight of the world on their shoulders? Why?
Take your characters with you to the doctor’s office, out to eat, to the grocery store, and on a date. How would they react in certain situations? What would they typically say? What triggers them and why? Are they keeping secrets? Do they experience anxiety? What are their worst fears, their dreams, their biggest hopes? Do they lack courage? Have they lost their place in the world? Maybe they’re arrogant, stuck-up, and speak in condescending tones to those they feel are beneath them.
What do your characters care about? What’s at stake for them? Are they obsessed with an ex, their career, their family, the idea of being rich? Are they social climbers or social chameleons? What quirks set them apart? Remember, no one likes a perfect character. They need to grow and achieve even after experiencing setbacks.
Authors who don’t fully flesh out characters, sometimes end up with chaotic, Frankenstein monsters, stitched together with too many different parts.
So, how do we approach this?
Some writers, want to know everything about their characters ahead of clicking fingers on the keyboard. Character building worksheets may come into play, so all abilities and attributes are in one neat and organized place. Others take a middle-of-the-road tactic by considering several but not all characteristics, keeping the established ones in mind and playing the rest by ear as they write. Some eliminate both of these and free-style the whole way through, allowing their characters to develop with the story. I use a combo of these approaches depending on individual characters.
While there is no wrong or right way and you should do whatever works for you, I think it’s important to ask questions about the personas you pen. Doing so will help to construct a well-balanced character or a perfectly unbalanced character. As an author, you need to know your characters inside and out whether you know them ahead of time or as you write.
As writers, we can assign any number of traits to our characters, but we don’t need to list all their features and idiosyncrasies in a one and done way. Readers don’t need to know all the backstory. That’s for you as the author to know. Too much exposition is, well, too much. Too many details are boring and tedious to read. Agents and editors will likely insist you purge the minutia anyway. It’s better to let things unfold in an organic way, one that flows easily and is sprinkled throughout the story in a show, don’t tell technique.