I’ve mentioned in other posts how much I rely on email alerts to keep me “in the loop” of what’s going on, not only in my chosen industry, but in the world as well. While I was at a stopping point in the middle of a project, I saw a pattern emerge across my Writer’s Digest email alerts. Between December 2014 and January 2015, the concept of creating and writing better characters must have been circulating the editorial offices pretty heavily. Brian A. Klems gave us two articles (both guest posts by Les Edgerton and Anne Leigh Parrish) on the topic, and Rachel Scheller provided an excerpt from the revised edition of Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan as a third.
The writing-tip count comes in at 17, Rebecca providing an 11-point list all by herself, leaving Anne and Les a 3-point list a piece. However, each tackles the element of a story’s character from a different angle.
Les Edgerton — This article gives a writer 3 of the best ways to introduce the main character; early on, reminding us that introducing the protagonist efficiently and immediately is a great way to hook the reader. Edgerton suggests keeping physical descriptions to a minimum, characterizing with action, and instilling individuality and depth.
Even though the readers may not need “10 pages of describing hair and eye color, height, weight and all of that kind of mundane detail” the writer may want to explore exactly how their character looks, and they can use and have that information without breaking it down into an RPG character bio right there in the manuscript. I find, in writing that I enjoy, that being able to work this information in creatively is an art and one that leads to fuller, easier-to-visualize prose.
Anne Leigh Parrish — This article gives a writer 3 steps to writing a plausible character, protagonist or supporting. Because there are plenty of things to consider when creating a fictional world, like “setting, plot, pacing, voice, imagery and so on”, it is important to remember that characters are an important part of the plot, too, and if they are weak your story could fall flat.
Keep in mind, a character doesn’t have to be nice, or moral, or a pillar of the community. Decent people with no flaws or vices don’t usually make for the most interesting reading. But nor can a character be all bad, with no redeeming traits. In other words, a character has to possess one essential element: complexity.
Parrish elaborates by stating that you should know what makes your character tick and don’t hide it under a bushel . . . essentially. The reader needs to be able to discern what drives your character, otherwise he or she won’t really be able to connect. Parrish suggests highlighting your character’s motivation, physical description (she agrees with Edgerton, that minimal is best except to highlight what stands out and makes the character unique), and personal idiosyncrasies will make them readable and memorable.
Rebecca McClanahan — In the 11-point list, Rebecca shares with writers the secrets to writing an effective character description. This would probably tie in to that RPG character bio template I linked to above, but, again, not as detailed. Six of the 11 secrets focus on how detailed (or not!) to be when presenting your characters to your readers. The other secrets focus on putting your characters in action, using active language to provide descriptions, and giving them props to show the reader who your character is.
Descriptions and walking the perfect tightrope when writing them seems to be the overarching theme here. You want your readers to connect with your characters and if you stick to the “all-points-bulletin” approach you run the risk of losing your readers to mere boredom.
This is where the axiom, “show; don’t tell” would definitely come into play. Don’t just tell us your character is using a cell phone and communicating. Think about who the character is talking to and how; why is that person trying to contact your character; is your character hiding out and about to be found? Providing context, which is what I think each of these writers is trying to say, is the best way to take your character from two dimensions to three.