By Russel D McLean
When it comes to character, its easy to believe that just by telling the reader their characteristics that you’ve done the job. Your big protagonist walks on the page and you say, “Jason was a big man, who was friendly when he needed to be but in the end always did the right thing even if it meant having to push someone out of his way. He had a temper that flared up but underneath that lurked a loving heart that regretted having to use force.” I’ve read a number of stories down the years during my years as a short story editor that described such characters before going on to have a story where the aforementioned Jason did nothing to show these characteristsics. At all.
Character is about specificity in portrayal.
Don’t tell us what your characters are like.
Make them unique in action and dialogue. You don’t need to know their life history in detail, but you do need to know least some of the following:
1) What word(s) would they never use?
2) Do they externalise or internalise anger?
3) How would they react to a sudden shock? Ie, would they make a joke? Flinch? Punch the nearest person?
4) What is their favourite joke? Do they even know any jokes?
5) Where/how do they drink? Eat?
Think on these points. Dramatise these points. Take your characters out of their comfort zones. Write a couple of little scenes that may not necessarily have to do with your plot that show your character dealing with situations where they display these traits. Perhaps you have them forced into a restaurant where they would not normally eat. How do they react? How do they look at the menu? Deal with the service? The other diners?
If your character “values friendship above all else” howsabout you show us how he does this? Make it important to the story. Show me Jason sacrificing something he wants for the sake of a friend. And show me whether he boasts about that fact or keeps quiet. Because even that shows his character in one way or another.
What happens if their best friend has betrayed them even in a small way? How do they then confront this other person?
Get to know your character in action. Get to know their specificity and show it on the page. If they conform to a genre type, find out what makes them stand out from others of a similar type. Indiana Jones is a great example of a hero who conforms to type and yet has a specifity in the way he talks, the way he reacts differently to teaching a university class and hunting for treasure and especially in her very unique fear of snakes (and the way in which his need to find the “fortune and glory” trumps this fear).
But always, always show us these traits being employed in the services of the story. In the services of drama.
The advice I always give to would-be writers about their characters is this:
Dramatise them, don’t summarise them. If you tell us what a character is like, it often means they are about to display none of these traits. But if you show us what a character is like, we will believe in them. We will come to love them.
And so will you.