By Ellen Buikema
Every writer dreams of developing characters who continue to lurk in a reader’s memory long after the story is over. Memorable characters, well-rounded dynamic beings who grow and change over the course of a book, will make a great story even better. Often static characters, who remain unchanged throughout the story, can be memorable too. However, every character must show emotions the reader can relate to if they want to achieve “memorable” status.
Emotion, which is a blend of energy and motion, directs action. The four basic emotions -- happiness, sadness, anger, and fear -- can be woven into your characters’ frameworks to cement them into the reader’s mind.
How can you do this?
The following physical descriptions may be helpful to use while writing your characters’ actions to indicate these four emotions:
To indicate anger:
For fearful looks:
A reason to exist
Your characters live in a world you’ve built for them that is just as real to them as our world is real to us. Characters need a reason for being to keep the story alive and in motion.
Balance of strengths and flaws
Whenever I read a book or watch a movie I feel very uncomfortable if there isn’t balance, or at least someone to have faith in. The first time I watched The Night of the Hunter I had the worst time until the children found a sensible adult to help balance the pursuing murderous, grifter character, played by Robert Mitchum. (I based the main antagonist for my WIP on this nasty fellow.)
In order to be well-rounded characters, the protagonists and antagonists require both strengths and weaknesses. A character without flaws is unnatural and irritating. Think of the fun you can have giving flaws to your antagonist! Perhaps she has an irrational fear of bunnies or a revolting personal habit. This website on Character Flaws is comprehensive.
Internal and external conflicts
Internal and external conflicts are obstacles to the character’s goals. Both force your characters to grow and change. These tensions create conflict and propel the story forward. Consider how internal and external conflicts might collide. A character may be fiercely independent yet find himself in the middle of a disaster and need help from others to survive.
Your characters may have unusual speech, repetitive gestures, or walking patterns. For her distinctive walk, actress Marilyn Monroe had a half inch removed from one of her shoe heels, adding to her swinging gait.
Mannerisms help the reader understand the character’s self-image. For instance: “He sat at the kitchen table, eyes glazed while he chewed his fingernails to nubs.” This sentence gives us a good understanding of the character's frame of mind. He is showing us how he feels. Mannerisms can also show how one character feels about another. For example: “The sixth-grade boy sauntered up to a girl from his class and punched her lightly on the arm, grinning a sloppy smile.” He definitely had a crush.
Consider the physical and mental health, and how the character has been affected by family and local environments. Was she ignored as a child, leading to a great need for attention? Did he grow up well-to-do and then lose everything as a preadolescent, completely changing his personality? This background information doesn’t need to be included in the story, but truly helps the writer understand character motivations.
Research Homework for Your Story
One or more of your characters may have a physical or cognitive disability, be of a culture foreign to you, or have an unusual ailment or psychological profile. The character’s believability will stand or fall squarely on research. Today’s readers are more diverse and discerning than ever before.
Internet searches are helpful. If at all possible, find and interview professionals in the needed areas and add their names to your acknowledgment page if they’d like to be included. In my most recent book, The Hobo Code, I needed information on a psychopath and wanted to be sure I had the correct profile. I happen to know a retired forensic psychologist. We had a lovely, albeit weird, luncheon discussion all about psychopaths.
Layer your fictional folk with emotional reality. Finding perfection in the imperfect will give you beautifully flawed and memorable characters.
What do your characters need? Do you tend to favor certain emotions in your characters? What type of characters do you have the most fun writing?
Author, speaker, and former teacher Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Work In Progress, The Hobo Code, is YA historical fiction.
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