Thursday, January 28, 2016

Deepening Character

Sit back in your chair, put your coffee or wine or whatever to the side, and close your eyes. Picture a good friend. Could you describe the person sufficiently well so a stranger would recognize that individual in a lineup? Good writers often provide a single telling characteristic that uniquely identifies a character whenever readers meet them. Jug ears, a stutter, a limp, a Jersey accent in Mississippi; all could be unique traits.

Some authors provide long and detailed descriptions of characters, sometimes stretching to paragraphs. Do we remember those details? Let’s check: I say Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, what comes to mind? Ruby slippers. Pig-tails? Probably not a long description that the pig tails were only braided half-way, tied off with white ribbon and curls left loose to flutter in the breeze. That’s all accurate, but really, who cares?

Now let’s consider whether we are interested in more or less information when it comes to motivations. I suspect readers often become dissatisfied with a story because the motivations and actions do not seem consistent to the reader. How can that happen? Probably because the reader hasn’t learned enough about the real character to justify the actions the character takes. That may be because the author does not know the character at a deep enough level.

I can’t count how many times I have heard authors say something to the effect that “my character just wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do; they insisted on doing X.”

Okay, second time to close your eyes. How well do you know your good friend? Do you know her deepest secrets, her fears, her desires? Really? Turn it around: does a good friend know EVERYTHING about you? Of course not, we all hide parts of ourselves from others.

When I teach an online self-editing course for fiction authors, one of the assignments I give is:

Choose a character and have them reflect on a secret or a fear or anxiety. Have them tell you about it. How did it come about? What does it feel like? What might make it go away? This is like brainstorming: all ideas are welcome, no censuring or self-editing as your character blathers away. Remember to write in first person present tense.


When authors really let their characters tell them what they feel and fear and want and why, the words flow out onto the paper and often they are a huge surprise. The result provides the author with a deeper understanding of why that character does what she does. And, the author now has the wherewithal to give the reader enough insight so the reader also understands.


Authors: Do you think this exercise would help you understand one of your characters?

Readers: Does this make sense from your perspective, or is this a bunch of academic mumbo jumbo? Or are you someone who relishes the long, detailed descriptions of Thomas Hardy and is willing to take character actions at face value?

~ Jim



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