The Creative Spark!—Getting Into Character

You must have a story to tell.  Deep down, we all do.  But to tell a meaningful story, we must expose ourselves through our characters: share our desires, fears, pet peeves—or those we’ve come across in others or those begging for an escape from our imagination.

According to The Open University, to write convincing fiction, you need to dissect “your character’s inner life: what they want, think, remember, resent, fear, dream, deny.  ….  Focus on your character’s contradictions and conflicts in order to create a complex person and also to generate plot …” (66%).

That’s how you begin to shape your character.  But how do you reveal your character through story? The Open University says to reveal characters, use any of “the six key methods identified by Novakovich – summary; repeated action or habit; self-portrait; appearance; scene; combination of techniques” (58%).

Let’s analyze each of these six methods for revealing your characters:

Method 1: Summarize your character.

“Link the character traits that strike you as the most important ones, and you’ll have a complete character summary” (50%).

Think of the lyrics in the Tom Petty song Free Falling:

“She’s a good girl, loves her mamma
Loves Jesus and America, too
She’s a good girl, crazy bout Elvis
Loves horses and her boyfriend too, yeah yeah.”

That’s a good summary of a character.  Could you take this character summary and craft a story?  Your story would be unique, as would be your character, as your eyes have seen a world no-one else ever could.

Method 2: Reveal your character through habits.

“Repeated action or habit: This is the most common notion of character – the expectation of how a person will behave in a given situation, based on the observation that she has behaved like that many times, that she has the habit” (52%).

You could write, “Every morning, without fail, she’d put out cat food in the backyard for the chirping magpies.  She’d then, without fail, take to sizing up the birds.  ‘Are they too fat?’”

What might this habit say about the character?

Method 3: Have your character give a self-portrait.

“Self-portrait: The writer may let the character introduce himself to us” (52%).

If I gave a self-portrait to a character, it might say:

“I’d die for love and for God.  Everything I do surrounds the two.  Sorely, past blunders, and the betrayal of a brother, bred a great regret: unrequited familial love.  No amount of ‘I love you’s,’ no amount of flowers, no amount of prayers, bridged the chasm.  Just cold words for consolation.  Sweeter than silence, to say the least.  But mostly silence.

I’d retreat if not for the good book.  Reconcile a brother, sister, mother, it says.  But how? Flowers and fawning seemed less daunting.”

Method 4: Let your characters come alive by revealing their appearance.

“Appearance: Image is not everything, but it does account for a lot.  Through how a person looks, you may try to infer what the person is like – but appearances may be deceptive.  Still, to suggest the person’s character, you may select and interpret details, to guide the reader’s expectations”  (53%).

I recently saw an image of a woman in her fifties or sixties.  She had dyed blonde long straight hair.  She wore no makeup, but had a pretty face, albeit a double chin and about fifty extra pounds.  She wore a star necklace and a hippy-like dress.  A younger photo of her revealed a beauty, although she was, even then, just a touch too heavy.

What might you infer about this woman based on her appearance? (And what might you infer about the narrator?)

In reality, she had a near death experience and claims she went through an alien abduction.  I love this woman, and her story means the world to me.

But could you have guessed, based solely on her appearance, that this was her walk in life?  Appearance is telling!

And could you have seen that “her appearance points in the direction of the key conflict of the novel” (53%)?  She was struck by lightning multiple times and had multiple near death experiences.  Now that’s  conflict!

Method 5: Characterize through a scene.

“Scene: In a scene you set your character in motion.  Especially if she’s speaking, you can show us the character in action, without needing to summarize and generalize, although you may supplement the scene with a summary” (54%).

Screenplays and plays—at least the script versions—are big on dialogue.  Take this dialogue:

Sharon: “Did you?”

Walter: “Everything but.”

Sharon: “Is he alive?”

Walter: “More alive than ever.  I need a doctor.”

Sharon: “A doctor?! The only ward we’ll see is in prison!  Walter dear, I’ll fix you.  I’ll fix this.”

Walter: “Like you fixed him? He struck first.”

Sharon: “He gets mad.  Bat swinging, gun slinging mad.  Many nights, dear Walter, death struck hard, dragging me to its underworld.  Each time, I barely fled.”

Walter: “He’s coming for me.”

What does this scene reveal or hide about the three characters? You might view Sharon as a schemer, and Walter as a weak follower, possibly the lover of Sharon.  You might also view the third character as an enraged wife abuser.

If that scene scares you, you’re not alone.  Most movies scare me, even sarcastic comedies.  That’s why I read nonfiction—and spiritual books.  (If you recall, what just preceded is a self-narration style of character reveal.)

Method 6: Combine techniques to portray your characters.

“Combining techniques: Most developed character descriptions combine two or more approaches.  During the course of a novel, we see a character in the ways the author chooses for us.  That, too, is lifelike – you hardly ever experience all the aspects of a friend right away.  It takes time – different situations, communications, perceptions, and thoughts” (55%).

We can never have too many friends, the saying goes.  Create a friend through your writing, and the world grows less lonely.

Now you know how to reveal a friend in writing.  Better still, that friend, ultimately, is you.

Open Learn: Free Learning from The Open University.  (2019).  Start Writing Fiction: Characters and Stories.  The Open University.