Knowing Your Characters – Part Three

For readers to enjoy your book, it is most important that your characters and their behaviours are believable. I remember in my early efforts at writing, I created good characters who did everything right, and bad characters who did everything wrong. It was really hard for me to give my good characters any flaws, or to give the bad guy credit for doing anything right or having any redeeming qualities.

It took a lot of rewriting to shape believable characters for my first novel. But trust me, it gets easier. Think of any person you know and like a lot. Are they really perfect? Just because we easily forgive their shortcomings, doesn’t mean they are perfect and have no flaws. We just like to bury those flaws. Look hard and you will find a flaw that your character might have which the reader will forgive, but which also makes the character more human.

The same goes for someone we may not like. If we took the time to get to know them, we would have to admit that they’re not ALL bad. Give your antagonist some redeeming quality. You’ll be surprised how the reader will then care about what happens to him, or at least feel some empathy for his situation.

Using these flaws effectively can help enrich your novel and make it easier for your readers to believe what your characters do, and it enhances our emotional involvement with those characters. If we don’t care about the characters, why bother to read the book?

So we have to know our characters if we are to tell their story. We need to know their long-term goals and their short-term goals. We don’t want the reader to wonder, “Why would he do a thing like that?”

In building the background for the character’s motivation, we might work in some family background, some incidental things that help the reader understand why the character would react the way he does as the story develops. Short flashbacks can lay the groundwork for what has shaped the character’s emotional growth, his attitudes, and his ways of dealing with situations that will come up in your plot.

How else do readers learn about the characters?

  1. The author can simply tell about the character. This is probably the easiest way but not necessarily the most convincing.
  2. Have the character tell about himself.
  3. Have another character tell about him. (This way is more believable.)
  4. Show what the character is like by his actions.

All of these methods can be used, but the last one is probably the most effective and the most believable.

Body Language

If you take the time to find stronger verbs when the character is doing anything, you can often come up with something that more precisely describes how the character behaves. Does he stand or does he slouch? Does he limp? If so, why? Does he move erratically or are his movements smooth? Find the verb that accurately describes this.

For every action the character does, consider whether the verb you use is the best one to describe his particular way of doing things.

Emotions

You can show the character’s emotions using physical descriptions (sweat beading on his forehead, slumped shoulders, furrows in the forehead).

Another way is to show some action that tells how he might be feeling. Is he drumming is fingers, sighing heavily, flexing his jaw muscles, squinting or rolling his eyes, waggling his head, lifting his chin, biting his lower lip?

Dialogue

What a person says and how he says it can tell you a lot about how they are feeling and about what kind of person they are. This is a huge topic and I would like to deal with that in a separate post.

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Meanwhile, study the people around you and make a note of their flaws and their redeeming qualities. You’ll be surprised how useful these can be when you incorporate them in your writing.

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Knowing Your Characters – Part 2

All people have their own peculiar mannerisms. Sometimes they are immediately obvious to others; sometimes they are only noticeable in certain situations (possibly when emotions are running high). A person may make a certain movement with their arms, legs, fingers, shoulders, or facial features when they are particularly anxious or stressed, fearful, angry, or even when they are anticipating a happy event.

It may help your story to give your character some “tell” to bring the reader into the character’s state of mind to raise anticipation whenever this “telling” action happens. In my novel Julia’s Violinist, Karl had a tell. His eye twitched when he was angry and the reader knew that perhaps some explosive action was building.

Other “tells” could be:

slight shrugging of the shoulders

facial tics of all sorts

slight jerks of the hand or shaking of the wrist

rubbing the thigh

squinting the eyes

wringing the hands

stammering

stretching

quivering lips

chewing fingernails

twirling a lock of hair

biting lower lip

quietly humming a few notes

taking a deep breath through the nostrils.

“People watching” is a good way to gather a collection of ideas for flinches, tics, or subconscious behaviours to add to your list of possibilities.

When you’re sitting in the car waiting for someone, or if you’re in a coffee shop,  always try to have a notebook handy. It’s a perfect time to do some people watching. You may not have time to see the repetition of a mannerism, but you can get ideas for some small actions that you can develop into an ongoing “tell” in your novel’s characters. Jot down the most obvious behaviours or anything special you notice about passersby and you’ll soon have quite a collection to choose from when building your character.

Even if you don’t pick up on a flinch or a nervous tic, you might notice some other bonus — a wild flair in the way they are dressed, or a different gait — something special about that person, that you can use to give your character some unique identifying trait.

If you have introduced the behaviour subtly in previous scenes, the reader can, in later scenes, surmise who the character is without him or her even being named.

A few examples:

“You can’t do that. I won’t let you.” His cheek twitched, as he backed away.

He hummed a few tuneless notes and picked up the carving knife.

She worried her thumbnail down to the quick. She knew what was behind that door, but it was her only chance to escape.

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The unique behaviours you choose for your characters need not, and probably should not, be too weird, so as to remain believable. Neither do you want to overdo the frequency of the unique behaviour appearing. A small identifying trait that pops up once in a while is usually enough.