Here are the final things you, as the writer, need to know about your story people before you begin to tell their story. (Again, thanks to Margaret Coel for her talk about story characters at the Tony Hillerman Writers Conference last weekend.)
The first is: what does your character look like physically? Some authors describe characters sparingly, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps using people they know or imagine. Other authors describe their characters to a tee, down to eye and hair color, weight, flesh color, clothing, teeth, mouth, ears, etc., etc.
Such intense description is seldom necessary. Let your reader fill in the gaps from simple phrases. If you are writing in the third person, description is easy. You can have other characters talk about twinkly eyes, curly hair, deepening wrinkles, as well as make judgment calls about the way the character dresses, walks or talks. And your first person character can describe other characters these same ways.
Describing your main character when writing in first person is a little harder. Other characters can make comments to the main character about appearance, clothing, or whatever, using sarcasm or compliments. And your main character can use inner dialogue – their own personal thoughts – to describe him/herself. (Example: wow, my eyelids are really getting droopy. Should I consider plastic surgery?)
A good tool might be to assign a physical characteristic to your character that has influenced his/her interior life and affected self esteem. Does she think her eyes are too small, her nose too big, her legs too short? Has someone made negative comments about this feature to the point that she is ashamed, and cannot cross a room or walk down the street without thinking that others are judging her? Does she walk quickly to avoid such assessments? Does she keep her eyes downcast so she doesn’t see the reactions of others? Does she avoid mirrors, photographers, or any exposure to the looks of others?
The second question to answer about your characters is, what are their core beliefs? The answer could be their religious affiliation, or maybe their basic belief about why humans exist. As long as the character’s actions go along with his/her core beliefs, things go smoothly. But what if the character acts outside their beliefs, say he/she commits murder when that person overwhelmingly believes in the sanctity of life? Conflict has been introduced.
The third, and final question to ask yourself about your character is another one that defines their attitude and their actions: What is your character’s TRIBE? What other people do they feel a kinship to? Family may be one tribe, but here are some examples of others: teenagers, mothers, wives, church members, club members, military personnel, executives, librarians, writers, doctors, persons in recovery from addictions, cancer survivors, widowers, academia, singles, parents of missing children, and so on. Determining your characters tribe can do a lot to tell you about their psyche – and the types of things they will say during their internal dialogue, as well as during interactions with others.
That’s it – for now – on characterization. Next week – watch for posts on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I’ll be talking about Setting, Book Openings, and Book Endings. Hope you’ll join me.