I met Bryan Thomas Schmidt last year when I was looking for a roommate at World Fantasy Convention. Turns out, he’s written a scifi/space opera that’s been summarized as “Moses in Space!” His first novel is out–he’s written a tremendously fun throwback story that reminds readers of Star Wars. Here’s Bryan’s guest post with tips for writing with better characterization. He makes a number of good points, and I was able to pick up some nice ideas from his article:
One of the keys to good storytelling that hooks readers is creating relatable characters. What are the tricks apart from character naming to accomplish this challenging task?
To start with, create individuals not stereotypes. Yes, characters have a story function. Yes, some of them are even like tropes, filling necessary roles like comic relief, the buddy, the confidant, etc. But that doesn’t mean you should stop there and fail to flesh them out. People are unique, no two the same, and so should it be with your characters. Each character should respond differently to a particular situation from any other character. For example, fight scenes, can often be a place where characters blend into one and all react the same. Instead try treating such common scenes as opportunities to reveal character through uniqueness. How would one character fight differently than another? Work this in and your story will be richer, your characters stronger. There are many other common scene types where you can similarly emphasize the uniqueness. Look for them.
Second, each character should have his or her own vocabulary. People use words differently, so your characters should as well. One of the best ways to distinguish and develop characters is through dialogue. Educated people use more sophisticated words, while less educated people structure sentences differently. Think of this as you develop each character’s voice and use it to set them apart, create conflict and develop them throughout your story. Vocabulary, in fact, is far more effective than attempting to create accents. Phonetically, accents already pose problems and can even devolve into silly or, far worse, confusing dialogue styles which detract from the story.
Third, another way to develop character is by choosing the protagonist whose point of view will tell particular scenes. I tend to consider who has the most at stake in a particular scene and make the scene happen in that POV but there are varied theories. Whatever your method, your characters can be developed well through use of POV. For example, I had a scene where a couple are fighting. At the same time, an old enemy is stalking them with intent to do them harm. I told the scene from the enemy’s POV, even though he never interacts with the couple because it allowed me to further both the romantic storyline and the antagonist’s storyline in one scene through his internal monologue as he witnesses their discussion. Three character arcs and two plotlines were thus furthered in one short scene.
Fourthly, People’s tastes vary, and so should characters’. What they wear, how they choose it, etc. can be a part of characterization. Everything from color to fabric choices to scale, formality, and even clothing cost can be used to establish character. We use such things daily as we observe others to determine things about them, and readers will use such details as clues to define characters if you include them. Sartorial Style can be a tool for characterization.
Fifthly, we all have our favorite do-dads, don’t we? Things we take with us everywhere we go. The cliches for women are purses and for men, perhaps, favorite hats, but we all have something. Sometimes it’s small enough to fit in a pocket. Other times, it’s carried around for all to see. Props are a great tool for revealing character. Spend time observing people around you. What props does each person have? Keep a spreadsheet or list of potential props for characters. Yes, when writing fantasy or science fiction you might have to be more inventive than just copying from a list you made at the mall. That’s called writing, dears. In any case, props can add great flavor and speak volumes about characters.
Sixthly, who a person spends his or her time with says a lot about them and so use it to develop your characters well. Fellow characters, animal or otherwise, can be great for revealing character. We see how they interact with each other and we learn volumes about who they are. Think about it: what would the Lone Ranger have been without Silver or Tonto? What about Batman without Robin? There’s a reason Michael Keaton quit after two movies: he was lonely (Ok, that might be just a guess).
Seventh, it seems obvious but sometimes it’s easy to forget to dig deeply into a character’s past for material to develop the character. Even things you know about them but don’t include in your narrative can be of value. All the experiences of that character’s past serve to shape who he or she is becoming, from determining responses to various stimuli to emotional hot points from happy to fearful. When your character seems to become stagnant, review what you know about his or her past, then ask yourself if maybe there might be more to uncover which would help you as you write. You can only have too little backstory, never too much. It’s core to the internal battles all people face and will enrich your ability to write your characters with depth and broadness that stretches outside the boundaries and limitations of your story itself.
Lastly, another that seems obvious, but developing your character’s likes and dislikes can take you all kinds of places, especially when you examine how they might clash with those of the characters around them and even the attributes of the world around them. All kinds of instances will soon arise where you can reveal more of the character through actions resulting from these traits. In the process, your story will have built in conflict and drama and perhaps even humor you might not have thought of before. Character traits are a great way to add spicy detail to your story, surprising and entertaining readers at the same time. And don’t just limit yourself to personal preferences either. Character traits can also include physical ticks like clenching hands when angry or a slight stutter or even a limp or other defect.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.
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