Create Living Characters

Great characters will help you create stories with depth and complexity. Stories that will last in your reader’s mind.

Every character should have a description that you keep handy. Consistency is extremely important. You can’t have a character with one trait on page seven and another that conflicts on page eighty. You may miss it, your editor may miss it, but your reader won’t.

Unless the plot dictates otherwise, when you first introduce your character, you’ll need to provide the person’s name, and a few traits that briefly describe the individual. At this point, you are trying to set an image in your reader’s mind. If it’s a minor character, that’s about all you’ll need to do. A major character, one who appears throughout your book, needs to be fleshed out, with descriptions and traits delivered over a longer period.

There are a number of templates on the web that can help you pick the characteristics you want to describe. Most include some variation on:

Eye color

To this, describe the character’s personality, their wants and needs, how they react in certain situations, and their environment.

From your list, create a narrative that puts your character in context with your plot.

An example:

Tamika Johnson.
Since her husband died, Tameka stays in her 1940’s bungalow, sitting at the bay window, and looking out at a world that’s passed her by. She’s fifty-years-old. Or maybe younger. Hard to tell. Her hair is dyed with a half inch of gray at the start of each cornrow. Her voice is throaty and hoarse, from smoking and drinking. She has empty Jack bottles in her recycle can.

As she talks, she flicks her cigarette with one of her yellowed teeth. She is tough and smart, with a smart mouth. She favors various brightly colored, cotton housedresses, athletic socks, and pink slippers. Her home was once well cared for, but after her husband died she’s let things go. The once nice furniture is tattered and steeped in cigarette smoke.

She is sad and tears up when reminded of her husband or her late friend across the street.

Here’s another:

Pamela Griffin

Forty-five-years old, petite and still curvaceous but going to seed. Small rolls of fat bunch under her faded-to-pink Rolling Stones t-shirt, the one with the tongue. She always wears low-rise bellbottom jeans, the kind with the hem worn out in the back from dragging on the ground. Flip-flops slap on her dirty feet as she walks. Her complexion is sallow and dry from too much nightlife and too many cigarettes. Hair is bleached blonde with mousey brown roots. “I keep it short so I don’t have to fiddle with it, and it looks great.” Nobody else thinks it looks great. She had a kid when she was fifteen, but didn’t know who the father was. The kid is now thirty and in prison. She hasn’t seen or spoken to him in nine years.

She flirts, but in a proforma, sad way, as if knowing that the only takers will be drunken losers. She also knows that it’s 50/50 that these “dates” will beat her.

Can you picture these two characters in your mind?

After you come up with descriptions, you need to write a scene for each character. It can be one for use in your novel or one unrelated. What’s important is that you use it to create the flow and cadence of your character’s voice. Referring back to this scene and your description as you write your novel, will help you maintain character integrity.

Next post: A scene with Tameka Johnson

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