More on the “Who?”: Developing Characters
Characters are the heart of every story, and writing characters can be one of the joys—and headaches—of storytelling. For me, once the characters come to me, they stay in my head until their story is finished. They don’t always agree with me, either! Sometimes they will stop right in the middle of a scene I’m wrestling with, turn to me, and say, “I wouldn’t do that.” (And yes, thanks to my theater background, my characters do often stop to talk to me.)
The important thing for a writer to remember is that characters must evolve throughout a story. They can’t be wholly good or wholly bad all the time. Even really good people have flaws—doubts, uncertainties, petty complaints, anxiety, irritability—and even characters who are truly evil weren’t born that way and will have something from their past worth exploring. If we want our characters to be realistic for our readers, they must be fully-developed, three-dimensional personalities. Otherwise, they won’t be believable. And they must change from the first page to the last, or there won’t be any story.
Naming of Characters: Does It Matter?
I have been known to spend a lot of time looking for just the right name for a character, but sometimes it’s just a matter of what sounds right at the moment of creation. To me, the only really important things to think about are that each name should “fit” the character (is he an “Ed” or an “Edward”?), and each should be unique enough for the reader to easily keep the characters straight. For example, I personally don’t like reading a story in which Pam and Cam are best friends (unless, of course, mistaking them for one another is part of the story). It would be much easier to keep the characters straight if it were Pam and Cindy.
Sometimes a name’s meaning can also weigh in on my decision. I actually like to search the Internet for baby names, their meanings and origins. I’ll do the same for surnames, if I want a character to be of a specific nationality. For example, in my Cat & Mac Mysteries, I did both. Cat is Catherine O’Sullivan. She was born to a Haida mother and a white father in the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia. She also happens to be a shapeshifter who becomes a cat. The name Catherine means “pure and clean,” while O’Sullivan means “descendent of the black/hawk-eyed one.” These definitions helped me define her personality and character. I named Mac in the same way. He is a man who spends his life finding and protecting the innocent. His full name is Cahal (from Cathal, meaning “a great warrior”) MacAlastair (meaning “defender of the people”). Again, his name helps to define his character.
Do I go through this in-depth naming exercise with all my characters? No, because sometimes it doesn’t matter so much. For example, I used Samantha for my heroine in A Chance for Life, simply because she was supposed to have grown up a tomboy, and I thought “Sam” or “Sammie” would be a good nickname for her. Names, like story ideas, can literally come from anywhere.
When Describing Characters, Show . . . Don’t Tell!
Readers want to know what your characters look like, and we have all read books in which the narrator simply provides a physical description of the characters. But describing a character can be more than just giving their basic “five-two, brown, and black.” If that’s all you give your readers, then you are missing a great opportunity to flex your “show, don’t tell” muscles and really tell your readers about your character while describing his or her appearance. A character description can do more for the readers than simply tell them what a character looks like. For example . . .
You could simply tell your reader what your character looks like:
Jane was short, with brown eyes and curly black hair.
Or you can show your reader what your character looks like—and a lot more…
Jane gave up on getting the brush through her wildly curly black tangles and settled for pulling her hair back in a scrunchie. She had to stand on her toes so she could see her entire face in the bathroom mirror she shared with her older sisters, who had both been blessed with their Scandinavian mother’s tall, willowy build, striking blue eyes and silky, easily-tamed blond locks. Only Jane had inherited their father’s Mediterranean olive complexion, boring brown eyes, wild black hair, and short, skinny build. On a good day, she was thankful that, unlike the other women in her family, she didn’t have to trowel sunscreen on whenever she took a walk on the beach. On a bad day, she avoided going to the beach at all, since she didn’t have anything to fill out a bathing suit with, something her sisters wouldn’t hesitate to point out to their friends.
Short, brown, and black, sure, but now we also know (1) she has a dark complexion; (2) she’s envious of her sisters’ contrasting appearance; (3) she resents her sisters’ teasing her about her own appearance; (4) she has a boyish figure (doesn’t like to wear a bathing suit in public); and (5) she thinks her life would be better—or least less stressful—if she looked more like her mother and sisters.
So be creative! What can you character’s appearance tell the audience about his or her personality and lifestyle? Character descriptions can really add a lot to the story, if you’re willing to take the time to go beyond just the facts.
Next time, we’ll look at secondary, or supporting, characters and what they can add to a story.
Questions? Email karen@ChristianEditingServices.com