Imagine this: The character’s name is Wyatt and he’s a gunslinger; stoic, heroic, but sometimes ruthless. He’s steady under pressure and at his very core believes himself to be the American Western version of a warrior monk – calm, serene, and prepared for anything. It’s said that he once took a bullet in the shoulder during a shootout and didn’t even flinch. He also has a habit of fidgeting by cracking his knuckles, shifting his weight from foot-to-foot, hawking loogies, and… wait… cracking his knuckles, shifting his weight and hawking loogies? That doesn’t sound right, does it?
Creating compelling and believable characters is one of the most important, most talked about, yet hardest parts of writing.
As writers we get no shortage of advice and instruction (this post included I guess?) on characterization. What we hear runs the gamut from: “Make them three-dimensional,” “Give them a particular way of speaking,” “Make sure they grow through the story,” “Give them an inner struggle,” “Make them empathetic,” “They must be at least 6’3,” “Blue is their favorite color,” “They should be a carbon copy of you, the writer,” etc.
Basically, there’s a lot of great advice out there, but a lot of bad advice, too. The unfortunate truth is that there’s no amount of concise instruction that can help us create a compelling character entirely – it lies somewhere between excellent craft, gut feel, and magic. That’s why some authors can create the most amazing and compelling character of all time and follow it up with a piece of paper that’s been cut into a stick figure with three legs in their very next book.
But there is a craft to creating characters – that’s 1/3 of the ‘craft, gut feel, and magic’ trio – so there are things we must get right.
There’s no point in talking about everything we already know (don’t bore your readers, Dave!), so instead I wanted to talk about two specific things that I find to be the most important parts of characterization. Of course, there is SO MUCH MORE that goes into creating a compelling character, but today (part 1 of 2) I wanted to write about core traits and self-definition, and their connection to mannerisms.
I chose this particular topic (to be explained soon) because it is a small but exceedingly important thing that a lot of aspiring (myself included) and established authors often get wrong. When they get it right, though, you notice – the character just feels real, feels like a walking and talking person you actually know and understand.
Understanding the Core of Your Character
Authors start their characterization sheets in many different ways – sometimes it’s with an image of a person, or a line they deliver, or an inkling of what they would do in a given situation. Any way you start, most of us usually flesh out our characters the same way; we jot down what they look like, a bit of their backstory, what they care about, habits or mannerisms they have, etc.
Then we delve a bit deeper. Here, again, there are different techniques we can use: written interviews with the character, writing down a monologue in their own voice, brain-dumping disparate ideas of things they do or say.
The above parts are levels A and B, and unfortunately this is where a lot of us (again, myself included) stop.
Let’s write up a quick example for fun!
Felix is a tall Samoan man with large hands and a wide smile; he cares deeply for his friends and possesses an utter lack of laziness, with the idea that anything can be made or fixed given the right motivation. His most poignant memory is the the day he finished building his own house, and the happiness he felt at giving the keys to his wife and watching his kids run up the lawn to the front door.
This is a great start, and I’m already tempted to call it a day and move on. Indeed, for a lot of secondary characters this would be sufficient. But for the 3-6 main characters in our stories we are actually a full step short of uncovering a crucial part of Felix’s character that will drive his actions through the duration of the novel/short story/movie/TV series.
Let’s say Felix is stuck in the wilderness with a group of friends. Among these friends, for whom he cares deeply, he takes on the role of provider as he builds things to help them in their situation. Step C comes from asking questions given these traits and this situation. If Felix sees himself as the provider for his friends, and the last group of people he provided for were his wife and children, how would he react if one of these friends is killed? How would he react if one of them is threatened? What would he do to save them?
For Felix, building and giving something to someone is akin to an agreement to protect them and give them shelter, like he did for his family. He would stop at nothing to protect or save that person.
There! That is something we can work with throughout the course of a story. Whenever there is conflict and you aren’t sure what Felix would do or say you can come back to this concise character trait as a guide for how Felix would react under duress. It may not seem like we’ve gone that much further than Steps A and B, but it is so important to have a trait like this written out so we can keep it in mind when conflict arises.
But we aren’t done here, either – we should go back to the top (level A) and begin our questioning again to see how many of these important core characteristics we can find. Sometimes one is enough, sometimes you need 3-4 for someone like your protagonist/antagonist.
Mannerisms that Make Sense
Sure, I might crack my knuckles and hawk loogies for no reason, or for some reason that is entirely inconsequential to who I am at my core, but by no means does that mean it’s okay for your character to do so. How does that help the story? How does that help the reader understand and empathize with the character? How does that build him/her up in their minds to be a living, breathing, possibly larger-than-life person?
Many of us assign random mannerisms to our characters in an attempt to make them more memorable, but in the end we only make them more cliche. We say they crack their knuckles, or smirk a lot, or stand up straight, or twirl their ring around their finger as a nervous habit, smell their own feet every night before bed, whatever… but isn’t that just a random attribute you gave them? How much more powerful would it be if what they did was very uniquely them.
What if, because Felix uses his hands to provide for his friends, and the act of doing so constitutes a contract of protection in his mind, he shakes hands with them as a greeting rather than giving them a hug or a wave? What if, instead of shuffling from foot to foot as a nervous tick, he wipes his hands on the front of his pants as if he just finished making something, even if he isn’t working at the time?
Now that is a character that is consistent, that makes sense, that is starting to be memorable. Not only do they have a certain core belief that defines their actions in many situations, but they also outwardly reflect that part of themselves, which reinforces it in the readers’ mind.
So let’s go back to Wyatt. Yes, incongruous characteristics or mannerisms can sometimes be memorable, but only if you create those aspects of the character correctly and for a particular reason that will come up at some point in the story. If it’s just a random attribute that’s added to try and help the reader remember the character… cut it or replace it. If Wyatt is a serene warrior monk maybe he closes his eyes and takes a long, deep breath instead of hawking loogies. Or perhaps he grew up rough and hawking loogies is the one habit from his youth he was never able to break – there, now you have two traits, on that reflects Wyatt’s core characteristics, and one that is incongruous but makes sense and tells us a little more about him.
It’s important not to make the mistake of thinking that because the mannerism is the final thing we arrived at it is thus more important than the core trait. That could not be more backwards. The core trait is what will drive a lot of the character’s desires and reactions through the whole book – the mannerism is an outward manifestation of that trait. To get to the core trait ask how your character would react in certain situations given what you uncovered on Level B – keep going until you arrive at something that the character uses to define himself/herself and will drive their actions through the whole story.
If you only get one right, get the core trait right. If you can get the trait and mannerism right, voila, you’re that much closer to a real character that people will believe, remember, and care about.
This is just the tip of the iceberg – it’s helpful to go through this process multiple times for each character so you have several core characteristics and can decide which one is the most important (and how good would the internal tension be if two of these characteristics came into conflict with one another at some point? What would the character choose then? How would they have to change their beliefs because of it?).
I could go on and on, but I don’t want to bore everyone to death – authors are smart enough to understand something the first go round. So I’ll wrap up here.
This characterization concept is described in incredible detail (among other great tips) in Brandilyn Collins’s ‘Getting Into Character‘, which I would recommend to anyone who wants to up their characterization game.
What do you all think? Does this characterization technique sound like something that would help your writing? Anything else you would add?