Characterisation

This post was hosted by the lovely Madeline Dyer during the Heart Search Blog Tour. She asked me to write on something I’m quite passionate about – characterisation. Here it is:

There’s no easy way of saying it, so I’ll be as blunt as a spoon. It doesn’t matter if your story is character-driven or plot-driven; if you don’t breathe life into your main cast then your story is like a decapitated chicken – dead from the neck up! So how do we make sure our main characters come alive for the reader?

Okay, so here we have our two main characters. Let’s call them Paula and Fred. At the moment they are like cardboard cut-outs. Sure we could add a bit of colour by saying Paula has black hair and hazel eyes, and Fred has ginger hair and blue eyes, we could say they are tall or short, thin or chubby or variations in between. We could go one stage further and include that Paula has a tiny scar above one eyebrow or Fred has a wart on the tip of his nose; it’s a start – it gives the reader a little something to picture – but is it really breathing life into them? The simple answer is, no.

We need to give them personalities, emotions, hopes and dreams, in short we need to make them realistic and relatable.

You need to spend some time getting to know Paula and Fred; find out what makes them happy or sad, angry or soft and gooey, what their aspirations are, whether they are essentially good or bad and what makes them tick. Once you’ve gone through this process of building a personality profile for them you then need to make that personality come alive.

The most effective ways are through dialogue and through showing their emotions.

So if you were writing a scene where Paula was angry about something Fred had done and she was giving him a serious tongue-lashing, the worst thing you can do is just pen the obvious drivel some writers call dialogue. Put yourself in Paula’s shoes and make the dialogue realistic to fit the scene. It’s okay for Paula to stutter in her anger and call him names. It’s fine for her to get her words a bit mixed up in the heat of the moment. Isn’t that what happens in real life? Now think of how Fred might defend himself (if he does at all – that’s your call. He might be the type of guy who holds his hands up, admits he’s dropped the ball and wants to make things better) and make his dialogue as realistic as hers.

Now we’re getting somewhere. But what is the magic ingredient? Showing!

Think about the expressions on their faces and describe them. No you don’t have to go to the nth degree, but a phrase like ‘her flashing eyes narrowed and her voice was laden with venom’ paints a very strong picture for the reader to get hold of. Now think about body language or gestures they might be using. ‘Fred held his hands up as if to ward off her words, taking a step away from her’- again this allows the reader to form an image of what is occurring in the scene. Using small phrases to show how your character is feeling and reacting to a given situation makes them much stronger, which culminates in a story which is now much more interesting than two-day old dishwater.

The vast majority of readers want to connect with the characters in your story, they want to feel their emotions, be able to picture the scene and see how each person is behaving, some even want to imagine themselves as either Paula or Fred. But they can only achieve this if you bring those cardboard cut-outs to life.

A quick tip to help you with characterisation is to people watch (and no I don’t mean for you to stare at people until you get a punch on the nose or a visit from someone wearing a uniform and carrying a badge). Take snippets from what you see and hear around you. When you’re out shopping or at the movies or wherever, watch how people relate to each other and listen to extracts of their discussions. Make mental notes or even better, carry a notepad around with you and if you see or hear something you think you could use, jot it down.

All your characters need to be given life; they need hearts and minds to make them relatable and speech to make them realistic.

 

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Describing People Part Three: Gestures, Expressions, and Mannerisms

This is the last in this little series and, in some ways, is probably the hardest to work with. We’ve already looked at describing faces, but here are some things to think about to take your descriptions to the next level.

First, let’s think about expressions. Facial expressions can be written about in general terms using words like grimace, frown, smile, grin, but when we use these words we’re not really showing the emotion. Some of the time you can use these types of words and they work well, but there are times when we need to take this to a higher plane.

So let’s look at a few common ones, how we can take description to the next level and these tips will help you with other expressions.

Frown: What happens to the forehead when someone frowns? Does it crinkle? What happens to the eyebrows and the skin between them? What happens to the eyes? What happens to the mouth?

Very attractive, Mr Gibson!

So instead of writing ‘he/she frowned’ consider ‘his/her forehead furrowed and the eyebrows hooded over eyes that blazed with consternation. His/her lips tightened, turning down at the ends’. Looking at it as a reader, what sounds more interesting?

Smile: What happens to the eyes? What happens to the mouth? Is any other part of the face affected?

So instead of writing ‘he/she smiled’ consider ‘his/her eyes sparkled, crinkling around the edges, mouth upturned revealing dimples in the cheeks’

Puzzled: Again, think about the different parts of the face. What happens to them when someone looks puzzled?

So instead of writing ‘puzzled’ consider ‘his/her eyes rolled upwards as if seeking answers from above and his/her teeth clasped around their bottom lip’

If you have trouble picturing what happens to different elements of the face during a particular expression, try this: stand in front of a mirror and think about something that will make your face contort into the expression. Now look at your face one part at a time. Start at the top and work your way down, noting down how each feature behaves. As with my previous posts on Describing People, type the information into a spreadsheet or other file for future reference.

If you want to use words to convey emotion (as in frown, smile etc) here’s a link to Daily Writing Tips for a list of 100 facial expressions and what they depict. http://www.dailywritingtips.com/100-words-for-facial-expressions/

 

Although some people might argue gestures and mannerisms are the same thing, I beg to differ. To me, gestures are the way people use their bodies to emphasise what they are saying. Mannerisms are things they tend to do unconsciously and can often give away their true feelings. This is why I have split them into two sections.

Let’s move on to gestures. If you can get in the habit of watching people when they are talking, you can pick up a vast array of gestures to add to your ever-growing list. Here are one or four examples:

Shrugging the shoulders – this is a classic one, but can work very well. People do this, often without realising they are.

Gesticulating with hands – lots of people use their hands when they talk as a way to emphasise what they are saying. Just imagine a fisherman talking about something they caught and using their hands to show/exaggerate how big it was (or the one that got away, lol). Another time people use their hands a lot is when they are excited.

The One That Got Away?

People cup their chin in one or both hands for a variety of reasons. They might be pensive, fed up, sad or even daydreaming, so this gesture can be used in a variety of settings.

Rubbing the back of the neck – people don’t only do this to ease aches and pains, they sometimes do it when they’re stressed, worried or if something frightening or awesome makes the fine hairs on the neck stand up.

Mannerisms are things we all do unconsciously. Sometimes they are things we’ve seen our parents do when we were children and mimicked them, sometimes they are movements we’ve developed on our own. I know I’ve ‘inherited’ a mannerism of my dad’s, but it was only fairly recently I realised it was something I did too; it’s a certain way I place fingers on my face when I’m concentrating or reading.

Some people rub their nose or pull on their ear lobe when they tell lies. They don’t realise they do it and that it gives them away.

Some people rub their thumb against their first two fingers on the same hand. Perhaps they do this when they are anxious or upset.

I know someone whose tongue peeps between their lips when they concentrate. Some people drum their fingers when impatient and some people chew on their pens when they are thinking.

 

A final thought for you to consider: Body language is used to good effect every single day of our lives, whether we realise it or not – like tilting your head to the side when listening to someone speak, for example. All these descriptions and more can be added to our writing to give our characters more depth, more believable, more real. Never forget, you need your readers to connect with your characters and they can’t if you don’t give them something tangible they can relate to!

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series and found it useful. If nothing else, if it’s provoked a few neurons to fly around and fire a synapsis or two in the brain then this has achieved what I set out to do.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts on this and the rest of the series!

Previous posts in the series:

Describing People Part One: Faces

Describing People Part Two: From the Neck Down