Characters are the life-breath of your novel. You want your readers to connect with them, to cheer for them, to grieve with them… to do that, you need to make realistic, memorable characters.
In my ‘What you need to think about for awesome descriptions‘ I did mention characters briefly. However, are some things to consider when creating characters.
The Beautiful People
One flaw I see with new writers, is that almost all of their characters are “stunningly beautiful.”
They bear no birthmarks (unless in the shape of some magic chalice or other “prophesied” symbol etc), no scars, no pock-ed skin or even just markings such as freckles.
They have no injuries, disabilities or anything. Their hair is always shimmery and silky, skin flawless and with glittering sapphire (or other “gem” coloured) eyes.
Just to be clear, when I use the word “beautiful” here, it is just a word that helps to describe the issue.
After all, everyone’s idea of beauty is different. Whatever your personal image of beauty is (eg: muscular, short, blonde hair) it may end up featuring heavily in your writing.
Now there is nothing wrong with having “beautiful” characters, especially if you write fantasy because that’s what it is Fantasy! But don’t over-do it.
Not every character should have “flowing hair” and “radiant skin.” Also, don’t read this and then make all your minor characters mundane or lacking in any features to compensate.
What you want is to think carefully about the appearance of your characters and why you’ve chosen them to look a certain way.
Also, consider where they are – how they live. If you have characters starting off in the slums of a medieval village, struggling to survive, then they are not likely going to have great skin, clean, shiny hair and perfect bodies. Instead, they may be malnourished, have sores, their hair and eyes may be dull from lack of nutrition.
Let’s have some Realism
Don’t be afraid to give your character wild corkscrew curls (even if you, personally, don’t like them) or a dark dash of freckles over the bridge of their nose etc.
Give your character some (again not all your characters need them) scars, birthmarks, a sharp hooked nose, a scraggly mustache, eyes that are a little too big, a well-defined mouth, a missing finger or an amputated arm… whether you go big or small, just try and fling a little realism in.
By the way, none of the above I have mentioned are flaws, they are just physical characteristics that make people different. We are different. We don’t have to create characters that are strikingly different at every turn, but just think about them when you are creating.
Build them up and let them grow in your mind.
People are different. It’s not all skin tone and gender (though you should think about that too). But our bodies are different, our walks, our speech patterns, our upbringings etc. All of this, and more, should be considered when developing characters.
Here are some additional points in the same vein
Try to limit the number of gem-coloured references you use. Sapphire or emerald eyes, ruby lips can sometimes work.
But they have been done to death, so it can be easy to fall into the trap of using them in place of more suitable words. Also, don’t use them immediately.
Maybe you introduce your character as having watery green eyes… only when angered does the true iridescent emerald of the iris’s show. See?
Try and stay away from “alabaster or milky skin.” Fantasy writers seem to love pale skin, whether it’s because we often enjoy reading vampire novels where almost all caucasian vampires are deathly white or whether Snow White was pivotal for you, just try and rein in your obvious and cliché adjectives.
The same applies to dark skin – using the description of “chocolate-coloured skin” is used a lot. Also, does your world even HAVE chocolate? If it’s a historical novel, you may find chocolate had not been created in the time period you’re working.
Try and use a reference that makes sense both to your reader and to your world/characters etc.
And remember, add in detail – freckles, birth marks, injuries, vitiligo, tattooes etc.
Do not get locked into describing the same five points (eyes / hair / skin / height / age). We are not defined by our looks and if we were we certainly wouldn’t be just these five!
Firstly, build on these. Don’t just include the colour of the hair, what about length, texture, style?
Example: The woman had long blonde hair in curls and tied up in a ponytail. It was shiny in the candlelight.
Example: The woman’s wild tresses were pinned high on her head yet still fell to the middle of her back. In the candlelight, her hair looked almost golden. Like all highborn ladies, the hair was brushed with 100 strokes each morning until it shone.
Here we have a colour, a style, we can tie in her status and a little of the culture of that status and then the texture/condition.
Before writing anything, think about your characters (this includes minor characters too). Put down the main points but what else?
- Do they walk tall and proud?
- Do they shuffle?
- Do they have a limp? If so, why?
- Are they missing limbs or digits? If so, why?
- Do they have curvy bodies, in women, is this seen as a sign of fertility?
- In men is it seen as a weakness?
- Is their skin marked, scarred? Are these accidents/birthmarks or tribal markings to show reaching of an age?
- Do they have muscles? Is this shown as a sign of low status, having to use one’s own body to work with rather than paying servants?
- Do they have rough hands from working in a forge?
- Are they always tanned from working outside?
- Do they have ink-stained fingers if they write a lot?
- What about bad breath?
- Does their hair smell of jasmine?
- Does it smell of straw and leather from working in a stable?
- Do they have a guttural gruff voice? Is that because of where they are from or because they smoke a pipe often? Or worked in a factory where the fumes injured their vocal cords?
- Do they sing?
- Are they mute?
- Do they have an accent?
- Do they stutter?
Remember what I mentioned in my earlier Description tutorial – USE THE SENSES.
- What do they LOOK like?
- What do they SMELL like?
- What do they SOUND like?
- What do they FEEL like?
Now move to mannerisms – quirks. We all have them. Whether it’s checking your bag twenty times to make sure your keys are definite in there. Or cracking your knuckles. Or how about humming if you’re nervous? Or pinching the bridge of your nose when you’re stressed.
Think about your own quirks, think about your friends and family’s quirks to give you some ideas.
Believe me, you will suddenly start to see them. It can be as simple as twisting a lock of hair around their finger, or flicking their thumbnail against their pinky fingernail… but these little quirks add to the tapestry of the character.
Make your characters 3 dimensional. Start small and build up. If you are not sure how to look at the above. When you get to mannerisms, expand that.
- Why does your main character crack his knuckles?
- Did his father do it and he’s picked up the habit?
- Does he like doing it to remind him of his father now passed away?
- Why does your female character hum when she’s nervous?
- Did she use to do that as a child to drown out the screams between her parents when they argued?
It is a lazy writer who only makes notes on the basic descriptions. Basic is fine for minor characters, however, even minor characters should have something about them.
Remember these little quirks can add a whole new dimension to your characters and bring out personality/issues/backstory. These can then spiral out into NEW ideas whether for the story you are writing or maybe another.
Example: I have a character in one of my novels, he is a Port Master who takes the tithes from the ships when they dock. He is in the novel for one small scene. I give a minimal description but during the scene it comes to light, he is taking tithes that he does not record in the log book.
He justifies these as he has been robbed several times and each time, the amount lost has been docked from his wages.
By stealing monies, he is protecting his wage. When my partner read the scene he made a comment on how much he liked the Port Master scene. These minor parts can really catch a reader.
Add in some props
You can bring out a character with props, not just mannerisms and descriptions.
- Does your main character carry a cane?
- Does your heroine smoke a pipe?
- Are they drunkards, always seen with a flask tucked in their waistband?
- Is their satchel tatty and worn?
- Is their horse well-fed, while they sometimes go hungry?
- Why do they never take the locket off?
- What is the ornate key for they keep around their neck?
Don’t Tell Me Your Character’s appearance
I am your reader. I do not want to read a whole paragraph about the looks and quirks of a character every time one is introduced.
The rule of thumb is to give about two or three pieces of description when you introduce a character and build the picture slowly throughout the story.
Example: So, we meet a traveller on his way to the next village. For a young man, he is walking with a severe limp usually seen only in the elderly.
On his feet, the tatty boots are falling apart from the long journey he has undertaken and is no longer giving him protection against the stony path.
From this we learn he is young, he has travelled far, maybe he is poor and has been unable to buy new boots, looks scruffy?
Already from this, you will have an image in your head and I have not yet told you his eye or hair colour. Don’t assume the main descriptions need to be the usual five. Be different when introducing a character.
As a reader I want you to show me your character (think show don’t tell).
I want to see the desperation as he fights to stay out of the tavern. I don’t want you telling me he’s a drunk.
I want to see the young woman hiding behind her veil, with only the scars in her eyes to tell me she is no longer the beauty in the realm. I don’t want you to just tell me her face was slashed by a scorned lover so she hides it.
Take the time to learn about your characters before you introduce them to your readers. Let them grow and develop.
Don’t Pigeon-Hole Characters
So you have created a character and planned him/her to do something specific and to be a certain kind of character.
If you stick rigidly to this, you may find your writing becomes stagnant and stunted. One reason for this is your character should naturally evolve and change and develop as you write.
If you try and keep your character pigeon-holed to the original design, you are not doing your writing justice. Many writers state that characters do sometimes appear to change in a way they never expected and this can change the writing.
Don’t get me wrong, you are still the writer and a character should not dictate your writing but you must understand your work will evolve and your characters may change from what you originally started with.
However, do try and plan for this. Don’t start with a shell of a character and write them into your story. If you are planning on a long story / a novel series then think ahead about where your character is going.
Maybe you won’t know exactly what they are going to be going through in book 5, but you will probably have vague ideas.
Consider working out your characters’ development even loosely so that they don’t drag your story off script.
Finally, if you want to write good characters get out and People Watch. This is great if you have to wait for buses or travel on the train or be in any place where there are random people walking, sitting, talking etc.
The different looks of people can inspire you. Maybe you haven’t got the image of your realm lord or queen or maybe you just can’t picture the shopkeeper fully.
Take the time to watch how people move, walk, talk and stand as well as their general looks. See how they favour one hand over the other, how they react when talking or watching other people. Human behaviour is a wonderful inspiration for characters.
We react in ways we don’t even realise, body language etc – as a writer try and be aware of such things and develop your skill.
Quick note: Do not be obvious, staring at people can upset, annoy or intimidate people so remember to be subtle and respectful.
As a socially-anxious person, if I caught someone overly staring at me it can push me over the edge I stand on… so be nice and respectful… these people you watch are helping you – don’t piss them off or offend them.
I have created a simple 2-page character profile chart template that you can use to develop your characters.