Thursday, May 6, 2010


I attended this workshop on characters and learned the most amazing things. The first thing I was told is that the center of your character lies in their ability to care about something. This will make your reader care.

Example: Assume that Joanna Mott is married, insecure about her looks and her identity, and is devastated by her discovery that her husband is having an affair with their attractive single next-door neighbor, Felicity. As a reader you know that Joanna has abandonment issues from childhood, though presently she doesn’t even know the word exists. She simply feels unattractive. You know from the narrative that she was left in the care of her aunt as a child and grew up with her female cousin, Miss Alabama.

Now you have the makings of a sympathetic character with an element about which she truly cares. You’ve made her a wife who feels extremely unattractive with rational insecurities who desire more than anything to keep her marriage intact. You’ve assigned a caring element to the character and thus have committed her to a stance by which she will live.

This is the character’s dominant dynamic. You can now write with more assurance that you know where you are going. The character who cares passionately about something, and is willing to make a stand because of it, is worth bothering with.

Alfred Hitchcock said it best:

“First you decide what the characters are determined to do, and then you provide them with enough characteristics to make it plausible that they will do it.”

Then ask yourself what makes them tick. Here you are free to be creative, so long as it’s plausible, for no one ever knows undisputedly what causes people to behave the way they do. Why does the rich housewife steal? Was she poor as a child or is it the thrill of pursuit when she gets away with it?

Next remember that character is always linked to contest. Scarlett is nothing unchallenged by the Civil War. What are Romeo and Juliet without the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets? “To Kill a Mockingbird” is left adrift without the prejudices of the south coupled with the fragile innocence of Boo Radley.

Another good thing to do is tag your characters. Give them names that distinguish them, names that evoke images and feelings in the reader’s mind before the characters even begin their journey with the reader. Assign them characteristics that make them stand out. In the story above regarding Joanna, she has arms as long as a monkey’s attached to hands as small as an infants. As a child she was known to swing from anything that dangled, causing her aunt to fret that her limbs would get even longer. Now fully grown, she tucks them one across the other, anxious for others not to notice. Regardless of her efforts, they notice.

Add contradictions. Play against the norm. Surprise the reader, especially with the villain. Give them human qualities. If the antagonist is after the protagonist’s husband, craft a scene where the antagonist is wounded when she is put down in public by her mother, who favors the younger brother and sister. The antagonist may be an evil, conniving husband stealer, but this scene will show she’s also very human.

Next, give your reader some idea of how your character looks, but allow enough room for them to use their imaginations. Use tags. Scarlett’s main of hair is a tag. Auntie Mame’s cigarette holder is a tag. Kojak’s lollipop is a tag. The list goes on. Get creative. Instead of your character having a cat, how about a miniature pet pig she takes for walks on a leash?

Years ago when I was selling insurance, a client had two of them. They climbed under the table where we sat and tried to eat my shoes.

After this, you will have to identify your characters abilities, speech, mannerisms, and attitudes. Only then is your character fully-fleshed. Once you’ve done that, simply give your character something to do. Put him in a tight spot. Craft that which your character wants more than anything and send him on his journey in pursuit of it, with plenty of obstacles in his way.

When you design a sympathetic, flawed character, you have the first element of a story. When you construct that which is important to him and why, you have the inner essential of a story. And when you take that flawed character with his specific passions and rationalized behaviors and place him on a path to discovery and change, you have the makings of a story worth reading.

And always remember the core of your character lies in his actions. If Joanna, in my example above, is terrified of being abandoned and swears she will do anything to keep her husband from leaving her and does, think how effective it will be when she finds she can not only let go and move on, but triumphs because of it.

This is the essence of characters we can’t forget. They have human fears, human desires and the ability to rise above their circumstances, to conquer, and to change. These are the characters we can’t get enough of.

The teacher who spoke to me of what makes a good character left me feeling I could indeed create memorable characters. I just had to follow the rules. I can do that. I know you can, too. When you are working on your next novel, may you be blessed when creating your characters. May you find the right words to bring them to life. May you dazzle your reader with their antics. And may they forever leap off the page.


Jackie Lee Miles is the author of Roseflower Creek, Cold Rock River, Divorcing Dwayne and All That’s True (to be released January 2011). Visit the website at Write to the author at


Anonymous said...

Good advice and an amusing essay to boot.

Karin Gillespie said...

I agree with your your take on characterization, Jackie. I think it's very important that a character have a primary desire and proactively goes after what he wants so the readers can root for him. It seems like a simple thing but a lot of writers don't make their characters' desires clear enough (I've certaintly made this mistake) or create characters who are more reactive than proactive.

Laura S. said...

Great advice! It reminds me of what Anne Lamott says in her novel Bird by Bird about character: how without a strong character, there's no plot. Characters create the plot. With the tips you mention, a memorable character could create a memorable plot indeed!

Anonymous said...

Some interesting thoughts on characterisation. Thanks for sharing.

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