Building Character

Posted: January 19, 2013 by jennyleelee in Jenny's Words
Tags: , , , , ,

I was watching a movie with my daughter the other day and she turns to inform me that the villain in the plot was not nice and needed a time out. It occurred to me that my two and a half year old knew what behavior was acceptable, and what behavior warranted some “thinking time,” which ultimately tells me that we are wired to respond to the character of a person without realizing that we are responding to it. Which, of course, makes me really watch my own behavior as much as I possibly can because it’s not what I say that she’ll remember, but what I do in spite of my words.

Physical actions of character often dictate the inner qualities of a person. If I see a teenager open a door for an elderly couple, I automatically perceive the teenager as a thoughtful person. If I see a man and a woman holding hands and leaning into each other, I automatically perceive love and devotion.  If I see a kid breaking all things around him, I begin to wonder about the hurt that might fueling the wreckage.

It doesn’t take much to show character in real life–we do it without thinking–but in writing, it is a real challenge.

I love to read. I love the ability to leave my world and find myself in a place with someone else, to watch the world develop through their eyes. But, I absolutely hate it when an author describes what the character is feeling by nudging me and blatantly saying, “She is sad because the glass broke.” I would much rather see how the sadness creeps up over the person, and what that person fixates on during the emotion. Does the character cry? Does she hold back the tears? Does her body tremble? Do her ears pop? The point is that character is something that is demonstrated, not something that is told.

Building character within a person takes experiences and actions–the same goes with people in our stories. Give the characters a chance to breathe, to grow within their choices, to achieve some goals, and to fail to reach others. Give them life and have them react to the world that you’ve created for them. Maybe even have the same scenario for different characters, and watch how they react differently because of their own personal character traits.

My daughter’s wide eyes and enthusiasm for trying everything around her reminds me that character is more than just words and intentions, it’s what we do that really makes a person matter to everyone else. After all, communication of character is never about what a person promises, but what he follows through on.

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Comments
  1. What a fun story about your daughter! And GREAT advice on depicting characters.

  2. sryeager says:

    Absolutely. Observation is key. Make a mental record of those actions that will endear your protagonist to the reader and make the opposition stand out as vile. So, to paint the same picture with a barn brush instead of being delicate: have your hero pet the dog and your villan kick it.

  3. K D Blakely says:

    Great description of what makes a character seem real! It takes a lot more effort to figure out and show our character’s reactions, than to just say they felt sad. But making that effort is what brings the character to life!

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