If you write your characters like real people, they’ll read like real people.
But, in order to bring them to life, we first have to figure out who they are. Some writers want to understand their characters before they type a single sentence. Others like to learn about them on the way. Think of it like meeting online versus a blind date.
When you meet a potential date online, there’s an opportunity to get to know him before you’re face to face. You might discover that his blue eyes remind you of a cloudy day, that he works at a law firm, loves sushi, hates politics, and lost his mom to cancer in college. After you meet, there’s still more to learn. The same goes for your characters. As the creative process works itself out, be careful not to get stuck in your “online” first impression. Be willing to be flexible. You’ll get a better story.
When you meet on a blind date, you don’t know what to expect. You’ll probably notice those blue eyes right away, but the rest might take time. The same goes for your characters. You’ll be writing “blind” at the beginning. Be careful not to plow ahead without developing individual personalities for your characters. Once you feel you know them well, be willing to go back and tweak who they are.
Give the most description the first time we meet a new character. Otherwise your reader might form an incorrect picture. Maybe you meant to write an elderly woman, but your reader sees her as a young mother. Once your reader gets a feel for who a character is, those first impressions are hard to erase.
Example: Two silver hoops stuck in his eyebrow. Long-sleeve tats started at his knuckles, crept like vines around his arms, and disappeared underneath his black T-shirt. But it was the matching silver barbells—one stapled through his nose, the other tacked to his tongue—that made my mouth go dry and gritty.
The “most description first” guideline doesn’t always hold true for a POV (point-of-view) character who’s describing herself. We’ll come back to that later.
What Does Your Character Look Like?
Think in movie terms. Having to squint at blurry characters to figure out what they look like distracts me from getting caught up in the plot. Write clear characters.
Example: Papa Joe’s trimmed mustache matched his gray ponytail. Tall, reedy and wearing a threadbare Jimi Hendrix T-shirt and a pair of wide-bottomed dark jeans, he looked like a first-generation hippie who’d found his way home from Woodstock after a forty-year detour.
For an instant “visual,” compare your character to people most readers know.
Example: Even though Dad wore his best black suit and only pair of dress shoes, the strands of brown hair sticking up on top of his head made him look early-morning rumpled. Sort of like Bryan Cranston before he went bald and Breaking Bad.
What about writers who believe less is more and that readers should create their own character interpretations? Even crossword puzzles give clues. At least offer readers some visual hints to help fill in the blanks. Otherwise, all they’ll see is a shadow of who you created your character to be.
Personality: What Does Your Character Act Like?
Personality descriptions can be as telling as physical descriptions. Not every beefy guy and busty girl will need a math tutor. This gives you a chance to break stereotypes and come up with distinctive people to populate your story.
Example: Papa Joe stood in the middle of the room shaking his backside, and what I hoped was a drained bottle of Budweiser, at a field full of life-size football players on a TV screen that covered the entire wall.
Try combining personality traits with physical attributes.
Example: Cade Brody. The guy at the top of my unattainable list. Six feet of packed lean muscle. Messy brown hair. Deep-ocean eyes. Oak Cliff’s very own tattooed and barely tamed bad boy cliché.
Example: Trace might be two inches shorter than Cade, but he makes up for it in ego.
First Impressions Count
We tend to form an impression the first time we meet a new person. We do the same when we meet a new character.
Make sure to introduce us the way you want that character to be perceived. Do you want us to swoon over him or root for her? Really think about this. Be intentional. You might come up with the most fabulous description ever, but if it doesn’t fit your character, the reader will get the wrong idea. And once ideas are formed, they stick.
Example: Emma still appeared to be in love with Derek—who seemed as oblivious as always. She was crazy to give up the sophistication of a man from Paris for a corn-fed lumberjack from Wisconsin.
How does this make you feel about Derek?
Example: Hendrix’s grandpa, Papa Joe, had been everyone’s grandpa ever since I could remember, his kitchen table more popular than Runaway’s one and only bar.
How do you feel about Papa Joe?
It’s time to talk about how your POV characters see themselves. Your point-of-view character is the person telling the story. Some stories have one, others have more. Think of a typical romance. You see the world from behind both the hero's and heroine’s eyes at different times.
*Confused about POV? See the beginning of my blog on The Ins and Outs of Internal Dialogue.
Sometimes it helps to think of the POV character as yourself. For example, you don’t think about your hair or eye color unless there’s a reason. The POV character won’t describe those things without a reason either. I don’t flip my “blonde” hair over my shoulder. I flip my hair over my shoulder.
How POV Characters Can Describe Themselves
Since it’s “cheating” to use a mirror, and a POV character doesn’t think of her own age, size, skin, hair, or eye color, what can you do?
- Compare with Another Character
Example: Unlike me, Claire spent time to style her hair. Today it spiraled over her right shoulder. The twist highlighted the natural red streaks, swirling them through the blonde like an artist had brushed paint across the strands in symmetrical lines. But it was her eyes—one vivid green, the other electric blue—that held Kyle, and every other boy we knew, in place.
My hair. My eyes. My face. Sort of. I brushed my fingers over my low ponytail. Claire pulled off our unusual traits in a way that said unique. On me, they screamed mutant.
- Get Creative
Example: I’ve been an adult half a day, and it already sucks. Eighteen. A joke of a number the court picked that proclaims me ready to deal with grown-up crap when I haven’t even graduated from high school.
- Focus on Personality
Example: I chewed on my pinky nail, mangling my day-old, raging-red manicure. Maybe I was paranoid. Maybe I only imagined that prickle scraping up my spine like a thorny sixth sense.
- Have Another Character Comment
Example: “Not the way to get the guys.” I pulled the towel off Jennie’s shoulders to reveal her new swimsuit.
She grabbed it back and looked at me. “Some of us don’t have a Barbie body or a tankini tan.”
When POV Characters Can Describe Themselves
Earlier, I encouraged you to give the most description right up front—except when a POV character described herself.
Why hold back? Because real people don’t think about themselves in terms of descriptions. They think about their physical and personality traits in terms of the world around them.
Give us enough to start to form a picture, but don’t be afraid to take your time to build a description based on the POV’s internal thought or to use other characters to color in the holes.
Example: (First physical snapshot of a POV) I knew by the time I called the Plano police the SUV would be gone, and I’d be the one in the report—Kate Thomas. B Student. Blonde. Seventeen. Ridiculously paranoid.
Example: (First personality snapshot of a POV) Telling the truth. Dodging drama. Staying invisible. Painting butterflies on my toes. Things I used to be good at. I glance at my perfect pedicure. I’m down to one out of four.
Sometimes a person’s view of himself can be inaccurate. He can elevate or demean the way he sees himself. You can use that to your advantage in your story.
Make Your Characters Pop
Another way to make characters real is to make them stand out.
- Physical Differences
Example: His clothes matched the sparse office décor, but not each other. Brown-and-orange striped tie. Gray dress shirt. Black pants. Brown shoes. But it was the slight limp slowing his progress that drew my gaze.
Example: Vi and her lavender bedhead spill into the room from the hallway, crumpled pantyhose in one hand, yesterday’s dignity in the other.
Example: Dad scrapes a hand over his buzz cut. Front to back. It’s what he does when he can’t find words. He probably should be bald by now.
- Speech (Accents, Dialect, Inflections, Pet Words)
Example: “This thing is new, you know?” Pitching my voice in that perfect place between arrogant and sexy, I pull Jess back against me. “We’ll have to see how the week goes.”
- Body Language
Example: David’s waiting on the porch, one hand in his pocket, the other on the railing, eyes narrowed like I’m on his clock, and he’s mentally docking my pay.
Example: Alek smelled like Abercrombie & Fitch. The cologne. And the store.
Example: Sunlight streams through the wall of windows, highlighting Vi’s lavender bob and brightening her fuchsia suit. Twenty years past her party-queen prime, she still somehow manages to rock both those colors.
Example: I sprinted down the back stairs to the laundry room and grabbed the keys to Lola, my middle-aged beige Corolla.
Avoid Being Vague
Readers don’t like to be confused.
Don’t introduce a character with a nameless, faceless pronoun. Don’t use a pronoun where it has no name to refer back to. Especially when you’re opening a new scene. You might think you’re being mysterious. You’re not. You’re being frustrating. A generic “she” or “he” could refer to anyone.
Example: Tucking my earbuds into my pocket, I follow him out of my room. “I can drive myself.” Or stay home and spare my self-esteem a few thousand skid marks.
“Vi offered to come get you.” Dad throws the words over his shoulder. The first words he’s said to me all morning.
*Dad needs to be in the first sentence, not him.
Write your characters like real people, and they’ll read like real people. Your character should act and react like you would if you had his background and personality. When in doubt, put yourself in the scene, close your eyes, and play it out in your head.
Have any other hints to add? Post them in the comments!
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An encourager at heart, author, editor, and writing coach Lori Freeland believes everyone has a story to tell. She holds a BA in psychology from the University of Wisconsin and currently lives in the Dallas area. She’s presented multiple workshops at writer’s conferences across the country and writes everything from non-fiction to short stories to novels—YA to adult. When she’s not curled up with her husband drinking too much coffee and worrying about her kids, she loves to mess with the lives of the imaginary people living in her head. You can find her young adult and contemporary romance at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog and writing tips at lafreeland.com. Her latest release, The Accidental Boyfriend, is currently free on the Radish app.
Lori Freeland Author/Editor/Writing Coach
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Gabriel Wade isn’t a werewolf, he just plays one on TV. Jessica Thorne has never had a boyfriend, she just writes teen romance. But they both know what it’s like to have their lives ripped away. To be crazy desperate to get them back. To suffocate in the restless ache of losing someone who’s still here.