One of the most thrilling aspects of writing – at least for me – is the concept of creating your own world. One that may or may not conform with the rules and laws of our own – that exists entirely in our minds, and is ruled only by our imagination. When you visualize any world, it can (but doesn’t necessarily) consist of many components – animals, buildings, streets, rolling hills, 4-wheelers blasting by with the muzzles of uzis protruding from every window – the list goes on and on.
What makes the wheels go round and round, in the world in your head and the one in which we live?
People. Characters, in the writing venacular. Warm-bodied denizens and heroes and ne’er-do-wells and Average Joes ands victims and you get the idea.
Close your eyes and visualize a tree. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Stick with me here, I’m going to make a point. Any old tree, it doesn’t matter. It’s your tree, so I could give a hoot. But what’s important is that you see it clearly. Did you? The breadth of the leaves, the expanse of the limbs, the roughness of the bark, the size of the trunk? Okay, now that you have it in your mind, how would you write about it? Something like -
“Jack settled underneath the massive oak to think about what he’d been told about his father. The towering limbs waved gently in the warm summer breeze, while the broad leaves shaded him from the glowering sun. The smooth, peeling bark exuded a welcome coolness against his sweating back. Soon, despite the startling news that had sent his mind reeling, he started to feel himself becoming drowsy. “
Not too difficult, right? A couple sentences, and anyone reading it would have a pretty good idea what you had in mind. Why? Because I had a few picture of the tree in my mind, and was able to convey it to paper. Elementary, Watson, ol’ boy.
Now, let’s do it again. Picture anyone you know in your mind. Wait, that’s too easy. I’ll choose. Let’s see…okay, make it your boss. Is he or she tall? short? heavy? blonde, redhead, blue eyes, green? No problem, you can get any or all of that down on paper. (Just don’t info dump – never info dump!)
When you think about it, who gives a tinker’s damn what color anyone’s hair is, anyway? And unless you’re penning a psycho-thriller about some nutcase who’d gonna level the Olympic Stadium during opening ceremonies, bulging muscles a story don’t make.What’s really, really key is you haven’t mentioned anything about temerament, habits, speech patterns, how their hands fumble with their shirt buttons when they’re nervous or their eyebrows squeeze together when you’ve missed a deadline.
Whole ‘nother ball of wax, ain’t it? We’re complex creatures, particularly from a psychological standpoint, and that’s where the problems start for the writer. I’ve read many reviews over the past few months, and one of the chief demerits I’ve read goes something like “All the characters were wooden, and they seemed to all talk the same. I often had a problem telling one from the other.”
Why would that be? Simple. The author didn’t take the time to see his own characters. He created them, gave them a name, a hair color maybe, and perhaps a body. He saw all the physical aspects. But he didn’t make them come alive. Was it a farmer? Did he give him a voice gruff from smoking too many cigarettes on his tractor, a readiness to laugh? A movie sireen with the petulant temper of a grade schooler who brooks no nonsense from anyone who she considers inferior, and who’s strident whine can be heard clearly in her wardrobe trailer, giving the director a good dressing down?
Do they have a personality?
That’s what sets us apart from one another, causes wars, peace marchs, sporting events, technological advances, and art. Us. Humans. And making all the characters in your book the same is on the literary level with draping elk steaks over your shoulders and walking into the tiger exhibit at the San Diego Zoo.
Not too long ago, I read a short story that contained absolutely no character descriptions whatsoever. No physical attributes, no reference to clothes, hair, or height. Gender, period. Yet, I knew as much as I needed to from the way they talked and acted to move me right through the story and enjoy it immensely. See, the author knew, and was able to convey it to me, the reader.
Conversely, when I wrote my debut novel “The Clearing” (Yes, this is the traditional Shameful Book Plug), there was one character that I didn’t have firmly in my mind. Consequently, partway through the story, she did some things that were totally out of character from how she was portrayed at the beginning of the book. I had a few reviews that called me on it, and I’ve just finished revising those errors and re-launching with the corrections.
Thankfully, all unfortunate situations typically have a bright side (Except that time my bicycle’s chain came off, I rocketed to the bottom of the hill and launched out over this field full of blackberry bushes. Never have found the up side to that one.) I used all those pretty red flags I’d been given with my errors in The Clearing when I wrote my new anthology (waaaaait fooooor iiiiiit) “Restless Souls: 3 dark fables”, and I’m comfortable that all my little character-type hootinannies are well-defined and unique.
When you dream up your characters, figure out who you want them to be. Their likes and dislikes, foibles, and peculiarities. Dr. Frankenstein had a high old time, and you will too. Then, when it’s time for them to interact in the book, that badass biker or chicken-necked accountant is ready to come blasting out in all their glory. You simply have them act like – well, like they act.
If you can’t do this, then all your characters are going to be as flat as Wiley E. Coyote after launching an Acme rocket – and I know a place that sells great elk steaks.