Building Character in Your Characters


  Character is defined as the nature, quality, temperament or moral fiber of an individual. Adults become the child and its environment. Much is said about slum children or ghetto children or even one-parent children, their disadvantages and the poor likelihood of their success. I dispute this. While disadvantages are just that, disadvantages, character makes the person.

  What about your characters? I know they do not spring full-grown from your mind and fall glibly upon the page. Somewhere deep in your psyche they undergo conception, birth and childhood. You set them upon their course and direct their movements. Are they cardboard cutouts, mere automatons upon which you heap the trials of Job or Jonah or are they flesh and blood people who live, love, yearn and die?

  Characters make the story. Indeed, without them, there is no story. Doesn’t it follow that a compelling story needs compelling characters? What would Moby Dick be without peg-legged and whale scarred Captain Ahab or Lord of the Rings without good-natured, loyal Samwise? Not only your protagonist, your antagonist and host of supporting characters need lives as well. Who cares if a cardboard cutout dies a violent death or if a spineless, sniveling whiner threatens to destroy the galaxy?

  Just like a child, you develop them from the ground up. Reading is visual but the images are created in the reader’s mind by your words. Help your readers by giving them a framework with which to work. Describe your characters, not coldly and clinically as if they are admiring themselves in a mirror, but in bits and pieces as the story unfolds. How do they move – boldly, timidly, with a limp? What color hair – red hair brings connotations of quick anger or taunting as a child (Towhead?) Long black hair often denotes sultry, exotic. Is their face stern, jolly, handsome, scarred, fat, thin? Do they speak with a lisp, in rhyme, with a foreign accent? Do they play ball, jog, smoke, sit on the couch and chug beer and eat pretzels?

  Look around you. There are millions of characters out there, each with a story. Just take a typical bar (Or pub in the UK). Are your characters as varied as the people sitting around you? If not, they should be. Above all, your characters should be individuals with which the reader can relate and form a bond that lasts until the end of the story and hopefully farther. Your characters determine the direction, the scope and the theme of your story as much as the story develops and grows your characters. Like individuals, they grow from their testing their environment, the obstacles you place in the way of their quest, whether it is saving the world, winning the big game or finding the perfect mate. Both grow together, story and characters. Nurture them well.

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