How to Craft a Character

Whether you write fact or fiction, if you write a narrative of any kind you must understand how to write a believable character. When I write fiction, characters can be challenging, particularly when writing a novel-length work. It takes a long time to write a novel (even if you’re a fast writer), so you may lose track of things you wrote about a character’s history, behaviors, or appearance. Writing non-fiction may be easier in terms of description because you more readily remember what a real person looks like, how that person speaks, and whether or not that person is friendly. Such traits in our fictional characters are not always so easy to remember, especially when they only live in our heads. Fret not, wordsmiths. I have tricks up my sleeve.

 

Many years ago I heard an interview with former President Jimmy Carter. He had just finished another novel (he’s written several), and the interviewer asked him about his character development. Carter shared that a helpful exercise he likes to use is to write a biography for each main character of his stories. When I heard this idea, a light went on in my head. Biographies? That is so clever, I thought, and then I stole his idea, which he probably also stole from some other writer. This approach works very well for character development if you know where you want to go with the story, and know how you want to utilize the characters. It can also be a wonderful exercise if you write a new character into a story, and you need to decide what kind of history or mannerisms the character may have. When you go back to writing, your characters will come to life far more readily when you have their bio in your mind.

 

Another trick I like to use when writing long-form is to keep a list of traits handy. The bio is fabulous for working out details of characters’ lives, but when you’re in the thick of plot development and the story is flying along, you don’t want to stop and read a long bio to find out the color of a character’s eyes. Instead, I like to keep short lists of hair and eye color, general appearance like height and weight, whether or not a character wears glasses or has some defining feature, and any other pertinent info that might be needed in a jiffy. I have cheat sheets for most of my characters so I avoid having to pore through too many notes, and also to avoid making mistakes when characters come and go. It gets hairy when you have a long list of characters to remember, especially if they have small parts in the plot.

 

Aside from remembering who has the suave, debonair appearance and who is short and stocky, it’s helpful to keep tabs on character traits that come across as realistic. Writers tend to be rather observant people most of the time, since our work often requires that we pay attention to our surroundings as fodder for later word painting. Next time you head out to the local café to do a little word craft, take a few minutes to people watch. If you’re paying attention long enough, you’ll notice that every single person you see has particular mannerisms which make each individual recognizable. Subtle things like the way a person blinks, sits, walks, or eats are often peculiarly individualized. We all have odd habits, too. When I sit for a long time, I might start to bounce a leg or tap a pencil. People with long hair often tuck it behind an ear; do they do it with an index finger, middle finger, or with a pinky raised? These types of details bring a character to life, and they are best noted when you want your characters to be memorable.

 

Another trait of memorable and realistic characters centers around speech. The way people phrase sentences, their accent, and their pronunciation all create a clearer image of a person in any story. It’s not always necessary to get this detailed with every character, but main characters deserve the attention. Does your hero or heroine have a speech impediment? Does he or she have crooked or missing teeth? Where did this person live and grow up—a defining factor in how a person pronounces words. Then again, did this person work on losing an accent? If so, does it slip when he or she gets upset or angry? All these questions can lead to a more well-rounded individual who comes to life on the page, full of all the millions of tiny pieces which add up to an individual’s personality.

 

If coming up with a character’s history seems like a struggle, one last trick I will share is to pillage for ideas from the real world. Think about people you know, and draw on their characteristics. For instance, if you know a person who has a habit of clearing her throat a lot, that behavior may inspire you to write just that characteristic into one of your characters (but I don’t advise doing this with a person you know will read your book unless you ask if they mind). Every person in your life has quirks and mannerisms you can use as inspiration for character qualities, and if you draw from several people in your life to create a mash-up of traits, then you have a whole new person. Again, it behooves you to make sure these traits are not those of a person close to you unless you ask if they mind that you use them as an inspiration. Many people will be pleased to have you write an aspect of their personality into a story, unless you turn them into a villain. They may not appreciate your use of their characteristics for that, but I suppose some folks might surprise you. Just be polite and ask, or go back to your local coffee shop and find inspiration in total strangers.

 

To wrap up, one last place I will send you to glean new insight is to go read books with great characters. This may seem obvious to some writers, but I know plenty of writers who forget about studying from the masters. Charles Dickens, Zora Neale Hurston, Ursula LeGuin, JK Rowling, and Kazuo Ishiguro all write fabulous characters often recognizable through their dialogue alone. As I have told many of my past writing students, one of the best ways to learn the writing craft is always to read good writing, especially in the genre you want to write. Even outside of genre, good writing is good writing. Read and you will learn, especially if you read with a pen in your hand to take notes or highlight.

 

As you work on creating your own characters, remember details matter. Readers love emotion, and often enjoy rooting for underdogs. The more quirky your characters, the more likely your readers are to remember them. Even if you’re writing romance, your chisel-chinned object of desire can still be a dorky nerd about science, or your ravishing beauty can be a sky-diving adrenaline junkie. Take the time to let us into the heads of your heroes and heroines, show us their flaws, and remember to drop hints of their past to build a world your fans will love falling into every time they read.

 

 

 

Introduction to Logophile

Hello, writers. It’s nice to meet you. My name is Elaine Snyder, and I’m a writer. Let me start by sharing a little about myself. I’ve been writing since I was in high school, and reading the dictionary since I was in elementary school. Reading, in fact, was my first love affair with words, but I when I started writing bad poetry in high school, I got the writing bug and never recovered. In case you remember my old blog, Flying with the Falcon, I want you to know this isn’t my first rodeo as a blogger. I’ve had many blogs in the past, but Flying with the Falcon was probably my most interesting. Ending the Falcon blog was hard for me, since I actually grew to look forward to the writing, and felt a connection to those lovely people who came to read my writing once in a while. So here I am again, back to blogging because I can’t seem to stop myself. This time, I want to serve writers, my tribe of wacky nerds who love words enough to do strange things like decorate with books, name their pets after famous characters like Gandalf, or who always win at Scrabble. This blog is a gift for you, because I love my fellow writers and want them to have a place to visit and coalesce with other writers. We are often a lonely tribe, but we belong to each other.

Each week I plan to write a blog post about writing, whether it’s writing skills I can share, tips on getting into a writing habit, or hints about indie publishing. As I get things going, I hope I can invite a few bloggers to share some of their wisdom here as guests, because I don’t know everything there is to know about writing. I know, shocking. But I want this to become a nice place for writers to come chat in the comments, share on social media, or find some good material to inspire you. Whether you’re in a great place as an experienced writer, or you’re a knock-kneed beginner, I hope to serve you all. I have found after more than 30 years of practicing the writing craft that I still learn new things every day, and I still believe I will be practicing until the day I die. Along with writing tips, I will occasionally share indie books, both as reviews and in groups to showcase them. For those of us who are dedicated readers (as I believe many writers are), I would like it to be a spot to come find some new reading, while you also help support indie authors.

Just for the record, I want to plug indie authorship for a moment. I’m pleased to see a gradual shift happening in relationship to self-publishing, because this choice to publish oneself has often been seen as a vanity, rather than a serious pursuit to a writing career. My personal story with indie publishing boils down to wanting to maintain control over my hard work and creative energy, rather than turning over most of the profits and all of the rights to a publishing house. When you throw away your creative control to a group of strangers who may not have your best interests at heart, your stories may never have a fighting chance to be discovered by an audience. There are lots of reasons to go indie, freedom probably being a major reason, but despite that freedom, it’s a hard road. All the finances fall into the writer’s lap, along with all the marketing, emailing, social media, jacket copy, cover art…it’s a long list of jobs for one person. There are probably indie authors who have help, or who can pay people to do these jobs, but most indie authors I know are doing this work on their own. For this reason, I hope readers will learn to give indie authors a better chance at being read, especially if you can maybe look past the slightly imperfect cover art, the book summary that’s a little awkward, or the bumbling on social media. We’re busy folks wearing too many hats, but most of us are dedicated to our craft. Try a sample of the writing for free on your Kindle, even if the jacket copy has mistakes. You might be pleasantly surprised. Of course, there are lots of authors who aren’t serious and didn’t go the extra mile to make their work its best. I’ve read plenty of terrible indie books. It’s still worth the time to read a sample to give an author a chance.

To kick off this new blog, I want to share with you one of the most meaningful statements about writing I’ve ever heard:

“In Judaism there is an old tradition that when a young boy first begins to study, the very first time, after he reads his first word in the Torah, he is given a taste of honey or a sweet. This is so he will always associate learning with sweetness. It should be the same with writing. Right from the beginning, know it is good and pleasant. Don’t battle with it. Make it your friend.”

This quote is from Natalie Goldberg, in her book titled Writing Down the Bones. It’s one of my favorite writing books, because it reads like a conversation between author and reader, and because her main intention seems to be to deliver a sense of love through her words. At least, that’s how it feels to me. I’ve read this book over and over, like reading a love letter that still brings tears to your eyes after years of wearing it thin in your hands, the words nearly etched on your tongue. I wrote a blog post not long ago about Natalie Goldberg turning me down for an interview, a story you can read if you’re interested. Even so, I still love her writing advice. It’s gentle and kind, and it’s what I hope other writers will be when it comes to their practice. Be gentle and kind to yourself, writers. The world is heavy enough without adding more weight to your life. Allow writing to be a delight, because it can be.

When you come to this little internet cafe, bring yourself a cup of coffee or tea (even a little wine…or whiskey, if that seems necessary), and make this a sweet moment to take in some ideas, be curious, hear from wise writers about the craft, and maybe feel a little lighter about going back to your story, article, or poem. Bring that sweetness with you as you write, a taste of chocolate, a handful of berries, or a spoonful of honey. Savor it as you travel far, far away in your mind, listening to voices having discussions in places you created. As your eyes stare at the ceiling, relish the idea that you are the spindle for the words you wind into stories, and your stories are meant to be shared with anyone who is looking for them. And they are looking. If those stories are ever to be found, you must be brave enough to unlock them from your fists. Magic happens when the time is right. Suddenly your words will explode into life and your tribe will appear, those happy souls who have been waiting to hear from you.

And so it begins. Logophiles, I am so excited to serve you. I know this is going to be fun, fulfilling, and I hope you enjoy the material I look forward to offering. Soon I am  planning to share a few indie books in a post to introduce a few authors, so stop by if you’re looking for a new literary fiction read. Those will be the books I plan to showcase this week. When that post is published, I’ll offer a sign-up for an email list if any of you would like to receive this blog in your mailbox, and I will make certain to place it on every post so you can sign up anytime you like. For now, I hope interested authors will feel free to share my post anywhere you like. It will be fun to connect online and help each other grow and learn. Until then, happy writing! Remember, make it sweet. Savor the creative time, because it’s yours.

 

*For indie authors in need of help during their writing and editing process to self-publish, I am here for you. Please check my freelancing page to learn about how I assist indie authors.