A frequent piece of advice writers get is to put ground under the feet of their characters. Yet, advice on how to do that is limited or confusing. Often taking the advice literally, writers attempt to make certain the reader knows where the character is physically. However, the phrase means more than what city or building they are in. It also means where this character is in relation to the objects in the room and other characters in the scene. It reveals who this person is.
Characters fit into a story, into a scene, like puzzle pieces. The right pieces make a complete picture. The wrong pieces can be confusing. Creating a character that involves your reader in the story takes many unique pieces or layers. This article offers some examples of the different things you can do to put ground beneath your characters’ feet.
Making characters’ voices, or dialogue, as unique as the instruments in a symphony, helps the reader to identify with your characters. But the reader needs more. Every word in your story (or scene) comes from a specific point of view. Strengthen your story and put ground under your characters’ feet by choosing words that reflect what your character sees, senses, his values, judgments, and opinions.
George, a 36-year-old prematurely gray business manager, walked down the street.
That helps the reader see him, but it doesn’t put ground under George’s feet.
Keep it natural sounding. You don’t think: I, a 36-year-old, struggling writer with her deep brown hair tied in a messy bun, walked down the mud-streaked asphalt street, do you? Of course not.
I’m not saying don’t refer to your character by name. There are certain things you have to do, so your reader isn’t confused, especially at the beginning of a story. However, the larger percentage of your descriptions should be as your viewpoint character thinks of it. So instead of the staying outside of George, try to focus on the inner George:
George, a 36-year-old prematurely gray business manager, walked past his favorite coffee shop on his morning walk.
That’s an improvement, but you can do better.
Your senses inform you about your surroundings. They ground you every day. You don’t have to think about what you smell, or hear, or see, or taste, or feel. You just do. Make certain your characters do the same.
George sniffed the fragrant aroma of coffee wafting out of his favorite coffee and pastry shop. But he followed his doctor’s orders and walked on.
Better, but sight and smell are easy to include in your writing. For a deeper dive into your character, try to include all five senses on each page.
George sniffed the fragrant aroma of coffee wafting out of his favorite coffee and pastry shop. He paused at the green and white logo painted window and stared at the coffee drinkers within. A silvery bell rang when a woman bearing a steaming paper cup hustled out of the shop. His mouth watered. He longed for a mouthful of the bitter-sweet smoky taste of his usual cuppa. He rubbed his rough lips, chapped by the cold.
Now the reader sees where George is. We can smell and taste the coffee and hear the bell and feel the chill in the air. You still can do better.
When you go about your daily life, your mind sifts through all of your puzzle pieces of your memories and experiences. Remember to include those in your characters’ lives.
The aroma of fresh coffee wafted out of George’s favorite coffee and pastry shop. He paused at the green and white logo painted window and stared at the coffee drinkers within. A silvery bell startled him. A woman bearing a steaming paper cup hustled out of the shop.
His mouth watered. He longed for a mouthful of the bitter-sweet smoky taste of his usual cuppa. He rubbed his rough lips, chapped by the cold. But his doctor’s orders hovered in the back of his mind like the Ghost of Christmas Past, or was it the Ghost of Christmas Future that he feared? He turned away from the store and continued his walk.
Now we’re getting somewhere. But…
It’s not only our past that colors everything we sense and do. Our education and our experiences form our attitudes, our opinions, and our voice.
The aroma of fresh coffee wafted out of George’s favorite coffee and pastry shop. He paused at the green and white logo painted window and stared at the coffee drinkers within. Today’s just-got-outta-bed casual dress code made it hard to tell which ones were good business contacts.
The jangle of a bell startled him. A woman bearing a steaming paper cup hustled out of the shop and down the street. His mouth watered. He licked his dry lips, chapped by the cold. How he longed for a mouthful of the bitter-sweet smoky taste of his usual cuppa. But his doctor’s orders hovered in the back of his mind like the Ghost of Christmas Past, or was it the Ghost of Christmas Future?
He turned away from the store and continued his walk. Only nine thousand, one hundred and ninety-nine steps to go. He snorted. Thirty-six and I’m already old, broken body, gray hair, and all.
The region where we were born, the region where we live, affects our behaviors, our habits, and our word choices. Even the season and the weather affect what we say and do.
If George were less inclined to believe medical science, he might go inside the shop, anyway. A character struggling to make ends meet might look inside the shop and scoff at the posh people who overpay for burnt beans. Those attitudes will shape everything he sees and does and says. If he were born in an eastern country, he might have gone to a tea shop.
The most important piece to remember is that one’s spoken language isn’t the only way a character communicates. Often their behavior, their micro expressions, and what they don’t say reflects more truth than the words they say.
Don’t go deep for every single paragraph. If you do, you will slow your story’s pace to glacial. You might choose to use a lot of pieces revealing details about your character in the beginning. Or you might choose to sprinkle those pieces throughout your book. Use your judgment to decide which details need to be included. How do you learn to do that? Read your genre. Read and analyze how the authors you love do it.
Look at a scene you admired. What details did the author use? Why do you think the author chose those details for that scene in that book? Does it advance the plot or set up a situation in the future? What does the reader learn by the use of those details? How much of the scene is description, action, and transition?
Most of all, consider the story you are telling. Choose the pieces of your character that help convey your story’s pace, tone, and theme.
Don’t let your characters hang suspended in the air. Choose the pieces you need to put ground under your characters’ feet. Create a character whose observations, behavior, and speech make them unique from other characters in your story. A character that your readers will come to know and love or… hate.
Inquiring minds want to know: what have I missed?
Please share your favorite techniques for putting ground under your characters’ feet.
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Lynette M. Burrows is an author, a blogger, a creativity advocate, and a Yorkie Wrangler. She writes thrilling science fiction about women who choose to become heroes.
Her Fellowship Dystopia series, Fellowship, My Soul to Keep and, If I Should Die, takes place in an alternate 1961. The first Prophet saved America from the Great Depression and the war overseas. But the characters in these stories learn the rules aren’t optional. Their must choose to obey or fight back. Readers say the stories are unputdownable. Find your copy at Amazon or your favorite online book seller.
Lynette lives in the land of Oz. When she’s not procrastinating by avoiding housework and playing with her dogs, she’s blogging or writing or researching her next book. You can find Lynette online on her website, Facebook, or on Twitter @LynetteMBurrows.
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