• Dirk Patton

Characters are what matter

So, after a long break, I'm finally getting back to my promised tips on writing your first book. Or maybe your third or thirtieth. Wherever you are in the process, hopefully this will give you something to think about.


Now, let's talk characters. They are the heart and soul of your book. It doesn't matter if you've created the most unique and fascinating world ever put to paper (or computer screen), if you haven't populated it with characters that are intriguing, lovable, loathsome, fascinating, relatable, familiar.... well, I'm running out of adjectives so I hope you get the idea. But just how do you do that?


First, they must feel real to the reader. And each one must be unique from all the others. Just like the people you know in real life, they should be multi-faceted. Sure, you've probably known people that aren't. There are plenty of those out there, but guess what? As boring as they are in person, they're going to be just as boring in a book. I'm not saying there isn't room for characters like that in literature, but they can't carry a story or your reader's interest for very long.


What I've found that works for me is to draw attributes from real-world people I've personally known and interacted with. I'm not saying you should recreate your best friend or favorite co-worker or Aunt Sally. But there's something unique about each and every one of them, and it's your job to capture it. Maybe your best friend loves to make people groan at a bad pun. Perhaps your co-worker is an alien-conspiracy theorist in his off-time. And what if Aunt Sally has a wild past that doesn't match the facade she now shows the world? All of these little things add depth to a character and open the door for you to have fun with them. Now that you've got some quirks for your characters, how do you use them? One word. SPARINGLY.


Take the bad pun guy. He offers you a wonderful opportunity to add some levity to a scene you're writing. To make the circumstances of the moment more human. Or maybe this one pun finally pushes another character over the edge.


What about the alien-conspiracy character? You should be able to easily crank out a couple of pages that's humorous or wacky or just plain mind-boggling by having that character get into a discussion with someone who disagrees with him. But a word of caution, don't do this just to up your word count. Readers are smart and savvy and will recognize filler when they see it. There should always be a reason in mind for every conversation your characters have. Maybe you don't get back to it until much farther along, but don't waste space and your readers' time.


Now, how to introduce your characters. I've thought about this a lot and here's what I've come up with. First of all, there's the physical. Describe them, but don't overdo it. Here's two examples:


Ex 1: She was five foot ten with blonde hair that fell past her shoulders and piercing blue eyes. Her nose had been broken once, and a small knot had remained after it healed, which was the only imperfection on a face that held a smile that was alternately pouty and stretching from ear to ear. Her arms and legs were long and toned. She had delicate fingers and toes with perfectly painted nails. With golden skin that glowed in the sun, and curves that turned all the mens' heads, she was a sight to behold.


Ex 2: She was a tall blonde with a radiant smile and obviously put a lot of effort into her appearance as she could effortlessly draw the attention of every man in a room.


The first example was from a book I recently read and the author had spent an entire paragraph on this one character's physical description. Frankly, I rolled my eyes and began skimming after the first sentence. Especially since this character was so minor that she was never given a name.


The second example is what I would have written. Now, here's a pearl of wisdom it took me a while to learn -- Let the reader form their own image of what a character looks like. Give them the basics, such as gender, age, general appearance, then let their minds do the rest. I guarantee they'll conjure up something that fits with their life experience and will make the character more real to them. DON'T get into specific physical traits unless they're important to the story.


Last but not least, revealing the layers of a character. Do it slowly. Let the story dictate when you show the different aspects of their personality. Think of it like this -- when you meet someone new, do they hand you a resume with every little detail of who they've been and who they are? Of course not. That's why it takes time for relationships to build, whether they be a new friend or a new romance. Or new enemy. Regardless, let events draw out the complexities of your characters, just like happens in real-life. Let your readers discover who they're reading about instead of force-feeding them information.



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insights on what it takes to start, complete and publish your first novel.