If you are writing fiction, you should also start thinking about your characters. Creating well-written, believable, and interesting characters can make all the difference. The characters' story will evoke interest, create suspense, and draw the readers into the plot.
“If your writing is unfocused, your reader may be out of focus too. When you can't see the target, you don't know where to aim…. Clarifying your audience will clarify your thinking and your writing.”
— Patricia T. O'Connor, author of Words Fail Me
Make Your Characters Real
As you create your fictional population, remember that the best way to help readers get to know them is through their personality and behavior rather than their physicality. You will probably want to include some kind of physical description — hair and eye color, body type — when it comes time to set your people down on paper. But what will really bring your characters to life will be what they're like: how they talk, how they interact with others, what they think about, what their tastes are, what their fears are, their favorite things, their weaknesses, and the way they react emotionally to different situations. These are the things that will make them seem real and be fascinating to read about.
A Character Is Born
If they don't appear out of the blue, characters can be created from your past, your present, your likes and dislikes, your fears, your job, newspaper accounts, your friends, your family, just about anyone or anything. A character could have your husband's way of lining up the dishes by size before washing them. Another character could have your mother-in-law's arrogant demeanor. Your good friend's love of bubble gum-flavored ice cream could be another character's dietary downfall. Let your mind range freely as you create and develop characters.
Fictional characters can also be compiled by focusing on people outside your usual turf. People watching can be a great way to develop ideas for characters. When you see someone who intrigues you, try giving this person an identity. What's this guy's name? Where was he born? Does he speak with an accent? Has something just happened to make him smile that way? Does he keep adjusting his tie because he's nervous? Does he always wear dark-colored clothes? Is he meeting someone he hasn't seen in a long time? Does he walk so gracefully because he's an athlete? Do you think you would like him as a friend? Imagine personalities and traits by playing “I wonder …” and “What if …” while studying passersby; you could even have imaginary conversations with them — it's a great way to develop intriguing characters.
If you base characters directly on friends or family members, you will probably want to change something about them to distinguish them from the real, live people. Those in your immediate circle might be very defensive and unhappy if they recognize themselves in your pages — especially if you show them in an unflattering light.
Show, Don't Tell
To clue readers in on what your characters are like, try to show them rather than tell the reader about them. Telling can be boring and doesn't give readers a chance to connect their own thoughts and feelings to your words. If you write, “Mark really liked to ride his motorcycle,” you're just giving basic information. If you write, “Mark smiled as he walked up to the Harley, his long day in front of the computer disappearing with every step,” you let readers associate their own experiences with Mark's love of adventure. You also give them much greater reading pleasure. Details that relate not just to sight but to smells and sounds as well — the irritating timbre of a character's voice, the pleasantly sweaty smell of a sleeping child, the stale breath of a cornered killer — add another layer of depth to your creations.
An Example of Effective Characterization
It took Anthony forever to come to grips with what he was going to wear. The brown suit was too conservative. He wanted to look a little more casual, maybe even a little hip. Not the green sweater either. Frankie always told him he looked like a lizard when he wore it. The tan jacket. It would have to do. He slipped it on and tried to force down the twist of hair that always went its own way. Giving up, he grabbed the card with Jenna's address on it and, with a smile beginning to surface, rushed out the door.
An Example of Less-Than-Effective Characterization
Anthony spent a lot of time deciding which clothes to wear. He could wear the brown suit, the green sweater, or the tan jacket. He chose the tan jacket. After he put it on, he tried to comb his hair, but it wouldn't lay flat. Sighing, he picked up the business card with Jenna's name on it. As he left the house he smiled because he was looking forward to seeing her.
A Final Caveat
As you show your readers who and what your characters are, work hard to avoid clichés: the tough cop, the timid secretary, the arrogant doctor, the prostitute with a heart of gold. These characters are more like caricatures, and readers won't believe them. Be particularly aware of age, sex, and cultural and ethnicity issues so as not to offend your audience or create inaccurate generalizations.