Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Writing interesting characters

In Issue 55 of Writers Ask, Bret Anthony Johnston suggests making characters more likable by giving them at least one annoying habit ("We can't identify, not completely, with perfect characters, so as readers we resist and retreat from protagonists with flawless skin..."). OK, got it—I found this a fun and uninhibited task. My characters began tapping their feet nervously, clearing their throats, or clutching their steering wheels in heavy traffic until their knuckles turned white.

To make them more fully realized and interesting, Johnston also suggests answering a series of questions about each character you're creating. His list of questions included: "What does your character most want?" (some people have said that the answer to this question is the basis itself of a short story), and "What does your character most regret?" But the question I found easiest to answer was this: "What is in your character's wallet/purse?" Unfortunately, every character I have created since reading this has now carries an unusual purse or has an overstuffed wallet—a trait I rarely pay much attention to in real life. It became the first thing I wanted to describe about them when I got around to putting them down on paper.

I'm sure Johnston meant these few questions as a launching point, to inspire writers to pay more attention to detail, and to avoid writing about themselves. To simplify this exercise, you could make a list of intended/planned characters and assign each an outstanding characteristic. Or create some kind of rotating list of questions to answer about your fictional characters (which I will attempt in another post).

The problem for me with all these exercises is that most of my fictional characters don't begin as a visual presence but a voice. They start talking to me as invisible companions that accompany me during the day—like an ongoing internal seance. Perhaps I should try to see what they look like as they speak to me, or ask them what they really want, or what's in their wallets. Yet I'm afraid if I question them, at least while they're still trying to introduce themselves to me, they might vanish. It's probably better for me to write down the conversations (as much as I can remember them), then go back and embellish and add descriptions and stated desires after they've had a sufficient chance to confess their souls.

1 comment:

HelpfulPapers said...

As a visual learner, I would be truly grateful to writers who could create visual imageries in their stories. And yes, some annoying features can make characters more likeable and more realistic.