Dealing with Characters

Character (in this context):

  1. The combination of traits and qualities distinguishing the individual nature of a person or thing.
  2. A person represented in a play, film, story etc.
  3. An odd, eccentric or unusual person.
  4. An informal word for a person; he’s a shady character.

To craft a really good character (so I’m told) you need to know what they look like, have some idea of their history/back-story, and to not only be able to describe how they act and speak, but why. Some writers create a card for each character or write out a page detailing all this information. Others say there’s a cast of people alive in their head screaming to be let out, and they imagine it’s a bit what being schizophrenic feels like: all the different voices and personalities in the one brain.

Whatever your method, once you’ve got your character(s), you need to decide how to present them to your reader in a way that makes them come alive. Okay. But. . . This is another place where personal preference comes in. You need to consider what sort of story you’re writing, how much you’re going to reveal of the characters and at what point, decide if you’re going to use direct descriptions, speech, implication or oblique references, what you’re going to leave to the reader’s imagination and intuition. . .

And you thought coming up with the characters was the most important bit!

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Sometimes it helps to consider what you yourself like as a reader. Do you like your characters handed to you as a scale model with a card giving all their personal information, or do you like to find out about them a bit at a time? Do you want a full physical description and to be told in great detail all their motivations, or do you want to be left to build your own image.

Or think of it this way: if a group of people were asked to describe the same person, everyone would do so differently. Most might start with appearance, especially if they don’t know the person being described well, but even then, what’s blonde hair to one might be brown to another. Then there’s personality, habits, way of moving, the possibility of suggesting motivation for why actions are taken. (That was a strange look. Do those two know more than they’re saying or are they thinking about something else entirely?). . . And it’s good to remember that a single word can be used to imply either a lifelong habit or an unusual action.

I guess the real kicker is, however you decide to present your characters in your story there’s going to be some who like it and some who don’t. It’s another reason your work could be accepted or rejected, because even if they like the storyline, if they don’t like how you present your characters/feel they aren’t ‘relateable’ to/think they aren’t realistic enough/have some other issue with them, they won’t take your story because character construction and presentation is one of the major points looked at. (As far as I know the main things looked at are: plot, pacing, character, setting, spelling and grammar sort of stuff, if it fits in with what they do, and whether they can sell the story.)

Do I have any insightful advice to help deal with this issue? I guess the more you know about your characters the better it’ll be for your writing on the whole, but at the same time most of what you know will probably never make it into the story. It’s like when you write a scene and then have to cut it out because it isn’t essential to the plot. Besides that, I don’t really have anything that I’d call ‘helpful’, since for me presentation depends on genre and the effect you want, and each of my characters develops in a different way. Sometimes starting with appearance, others with the beginnings of a personality, or a situation the find themselves in. Sometimes I actually don’t know all that much about them, and others they spring forth near fully-formed and being all demanding. Basically I write how I’m comfortable writing and in a way I would enjoy reading, and hope for the best!

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