(I haven’t been yelled at by an English teacher in decades, so, punishment glutton that I am, I dropped this post into Grammarly.com to grammar check and see how bad it is. …I mean, how it is bad. Why it is bad? Whatever. Anyway, I hate when you, my dear readers, send me corrections, so I used Grammarly to beat you to the punch. Ha. They rock.)
The weakest link for any author is producing individual characters. Any author’s second novel will have characters who are better defined, individually confident, and more animated than the debut novel. Just compare block buster characters like Jack Reacher, Temperance Brennan, or Dirk Pitt between first and second books.
Even Lance Charnes (Doha 12) and William Davis (Pagan Moon), who both have terrific examples of distinct characters in their debut novels, have chiseled out even better individuals in their second novels*.
Where does the improvement come from? Observation.
Creepy? Not unless you follow people home and peak in their windows. (I don’t recommend that approach. The police never go for the, ‘hey, I’m an author’. …or so I’d imagine.)
When I’m in public, I look for people who are not like me: white, aging, and dull. I look for women in day-glow color, or guys with a tattoo peeking above an Oxford cloth collar.
Once I spot an interesting character, there are three things that I attempt to observe
But then comes the hard part—turning the observation into prose.
Appearance is easy. Here is an inventory: His shorts hung down to four inches above his ankles, and each leg was big enough for an elephant. He wore a wife beater under an unbuttoned blue plaid shirt and slouched enough to have the tail hang to his knee. A lightning bolt shaved into his scalp pointed to the three tear-drop tattoos running down his left cheek.
It works, but it’s a static picture. Not ideal.
You could spread it out:
Officer Bolton grabbed the man’s blue plaid shirt, tugged it to get his attention, revealing a wife beater underneath. The man turned with a deadly stare, and Bolton noted the tattoo: three teardrops running down the left cheek.
What ethnicity is he? What about the shorts? The shaved lightning bolt? First, decide on whether you need them; if you do, dole them out one at a time. Keep the reader interested.
Actions are harder. A good writer will show us actions that define the man. You can find a great example of this in the first three pages of The Invisible Man, by H.G. Wells (free on Kindle). In the first thousand words, Mr. Wells sets the landscape for the entire book.
Paraphrasing: The stranger shakes snowflakes from his shoulders and moves directly to the fireplace, ignoring the innkeeper’s offer to take his wet coat and hat. With his back turned, the stranger demands lunch alone, then thanks the innkeeper.
In five minutes reading, we have a deeply conflicted man in a curious circumstance—and we want to know why.
Emotions are the most difficult part of a character to capture. There are few chances to observe the extreme emotions of others (unless you’re a serial home wrecker) so you need to rely more on the imagination and piece together the emotions you’ve witnessed.
“There’s no one here,” she said. Her eyes darted to the right and she picked at her fingernails. I stayed motionless until she met my gaze again. Her jaw dropped. “No, really, we’re alone.”
Trust her? Not for a second. Neither the darting eyes nor the worried fingernails alone would make you doubt her but together, they spell out angst. Eye movement alone would indicate a lie. Fingernail picking alone would indicate worry. Together, they build a more powerful picture.
I’ll touch on character in dialogue in another post because that topic requires a lot more attention.
Who is your favorite character writer (examples)?
* Black Karma by William Davis is on sale now, South by Lance Charnes will release this fall.
Category: On Writing