Building Fictional Charaters One Stranger at a Time
Building Fictional Characters
One Stranger at a Time
Building a fictional character is the same thing as meeting a stranger and getting to know
her. Take that meeting one step at a time, or as the old saying goes, peal that onion one
layer at a time. With each layer you'll get to know more about that stranger, and your
character will become a fully developed person to you and your readers.
With a first meeting you get a first impression--we might not admit it, but we usually judge
people right off within seconds of seeing them for the first time. Maybe it's completely
physical judgment, or maybe it's their surroundings, but we take a quick snapshot and
make up our minds about this person, at least to a certain point.
Some of the first things we probably notice in that quick snapshot are gender, age, body
build, and hairstyle. That first snapshot is all we need in our minds to lay the groundwork
for a strong character, but remember, it' s only groundwork.
Clothing gives you your second impression. Is she wearing jeans and a cowboy hat, is he
wearing a suite? You take a better look at the clothes and notice if they are wrinkled,
faded, expensive, in style, bold, or even a work uniform. What about a cheap watch, or a
glittering, huge diamond ring? Each of those things can tell you a little, and sometimes a
lot, about the character this person is and the life this person lives.
It's been seconds, but you already have an idea in your mind about who this person is,
their station in life, and even how you feel about them. The same is true within seconds of
that character introducing him or herself into a writer's mind.
Now take a look around this stranger--your character--and other impressions might
influence your opinion. Surroundings can tell you a good deal. Is she standing on a street
corner waiting for a bus, is he standing next to a police car, is she sitting behind a
high-polished desk in a big office or sitting on a Harley Davison? What about any
possessions you can see? Just step back, pull away and look closer. Does he have a
briefcase handcuffed to his wrist? Does the building she is standing in front of look like the
rent would cost enough to support a small county, or does it look like her neighbors
probably spend as much time in jail as they do in their little cramped apartments?
Now look at how the person is standing, the expression on her face. Body language can
color in some more blank spots. Is she smiling a fake smile, are his fists clinched? Does
she walk across a room like she owns it, does he stand stiff and tall? Does she glance
away and avoid prolonged eye contact, does he cross his arms over his chest and stand
as far away from others in the room as he can? Or maybe her smile even shines through
her eyes, or he reaches out to grasp the hand of anyone he says hello to?
What about voice? Accent, choice of words, tone, volume, all tell us a lot about a person,
even before we count in what they are saying. How a character speaks may often tell us
where they are from, how educated they are, something about their temper and even their
lifestyle and job.
Okay, we've met our stranger, and we've heard them speak. That little bit and we already
have a bunch of layers pealed away from that onion. But if we want to get to know this
person better, it's going to take a lot more time and work. If we were talking about a real
stranger, one we hit it off with or had to spend time with even if we didn't, we would get to
know about them little by little, maybe over a period of years. We would learn about their
jobs, their friends, their family, their likes, their homes, their dislikes, their habits, even their
We need all of that same info to build a believable character, but we don't have years to fill
in all of the dots.
With speed in mind, and detail, take that snapshot back out. It was a good starting point,
but I bet we can get a little more out of it. Maybe there are other things in the picture that
you didn't see the first time or didn't really pay any attention to. Maybe she is holding
flowers because she loves to work in the yard and grow her own. Maybe there's a framed
photo on his desk of him and two children but no wife. Maybe she is holding a couple of
law books in her hand because she is a lawyer, or in school studying to be one. Just keep
expanding that little snapshot, maybe even take a couple of more if needed, fitting a few
more people into the frame, until you've got everything from them that you can.
You're doing great, but now it's time to get really personal.
Strangers become friends, or sometimes not friends, after we spend time talking. Even if
they ask a question and you are the one answering, they often comment back in some way
that reveals some piece of who they are to you. Of course it's not polite to meet a person
and start asking questions, much less asking question after question. But since we are
building a character here, we can get away with it. So ask. Ask lots of questions of this
character who popped into your mind. (Be ready to write down the answers, either with
pen and paper, or the keyboard.) You need to know a lot about him or her. Everything
As you do your interrogation find out where he lives, who her friends are, who's missing
from his life, how close she is with her family, who his enemies are, what kind of
possessions does he value, even if she is a morning person or needs two cups of coffee to
speak hello.. Don't forget about things like her favorite food, worst nightmare, pets, secret
dream, fears, worst mistake, and all of the rest. You don't want to just find out what his job
is, but how does he feel about it, how did he get it, who he works with, and whatever else
you think of.
Every question you learn the answer to is one more layer of that onion, one more thing that
will help your character become flesh and blood to you. Even things from her childhood are
important here. We are a combination of everything we experience in life, so the kind of
childhood your character had made him who he is and causes him to react to things the
way he does. Everything I mentioned above, when you hold the answers to them, are pure
gold when you are writing a story. It's all of these little details that will make a character
come across as true to your readers, and not just a half-formed apparition that walks
across your pages doing what you need for each scene, out of character or not.
One final note: Don't add everything you know about your character into your story. There
will be lots of things that you get answers to that you need to know because it helps you
understand how this character will act or react to any situation, but that doesn't mean the
reader needs to know all of it. If you add in that many details and that much back-story,
your reader is likely to fall asleep in the middle of the first chapter. None of us what that
result after all of our hard work.
Charlotte Dillon ~ www.charlottedillon.com
Copyrighted 2003 by Charlotte Dillon
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