By Dorry Catherine Pease
Dorry Chaterine Pease
One of the greatest challenges for any
writer is to develop characters so compelling and so real that the reader
has to know what is to come next for this friend, enemy or lover. How to
accomplish this becomes an over-riding desire and one of the major keys to
success in writing, be it a short story, creative nonfiction or a novel.
Examine Charles Dickens' mastery at
character development. In "Great Expectations," he describes Biddy, a
friend to the main character Pip.
Biddy was Mr. Wopsle's great aunt's
granddaughter…She was an orphan like myself; like me, too, had been brought
up by hand. She was most noticeable, I thought, in respect of her
extremities; for, her hair always wanted brushing, her hands always wanted
washing, and her shoes always wanted mending and pulling up at heel. This
description must be received with a weekday limitation. On Sundays, she went
to church elaborated.
In a few short sentences, the reader sees
and develops empathy for Biddy. We want to follow her, to know how she fits
into this story, to see what happens to her.
With Miss Havisham, Mr. Dickens not only
physically describes this rich and secluded character...
She was dressed in rich materials --
satins, and lace, and silks -- all of white. Her shoes were white. And she
had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in
her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck
and on her hands... She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one
shoe on -- the other was on the table near her hand -- her veil was but half
arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom
lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some
flowers, and a prayer-book, all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass.
...but also takes it one-step further and
brings Miss Havisham to life.
It was not in the first few moments that I
saw all these things... But, I saw that everything within my view, which
ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was
faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered
like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the
brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the
rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung
loose, had shrunk to skin and bone.
This is character description at its best.
What is it in these words that speaks volumes to the reader? What is it
that Dickens uses when he creates these living and breathing people?
There are six individual qualities to
consider when exploring and developing novel characters. These include
inspiration, physical aspects, personality, unique quirks, universal traits
and dialogue. Without incorporating each of these, the creation of a
well-rounded story person is limited, the reader becomes bored, and the
'great masterpiece' remains unread.
1. Most people's ideas for a character
begin with an inspiration. That inspiration can come from anywhere: a voice,
a look, words spoken, or the way someone walks. The connection between the
author and the individual needs expansion and exploration. Something existed
that caught the writer's attention, something said, 'look at me,' 'here I
am.' Find what it was that appealed, what it was that said, 'Use me, I am
your character,' and put that down in words. Fill the page with everything
that pops to mind.
2. Build a short biography, describing
physical aspects, height, weight, hair, eye color, and age. Outline your
thoughts on characteristics exploring such things as:
personality and disposition
quirks or eccentricities
fears or phobias
hopes and dreams
As you build the physical parts of this
person, give him strong traits, for either good or evil. It is these
underlying weaknesses that drive the person's behavior and in so doing the
3. Memorable characters are more than
physical. They are personalities. It is the small details that give the
reader insights. Develop concrete, vivid, easily identifiable traits to
build well-rounded people. These characters belong intricately in the story
and in the plot. Everything about them, the way they speak, think, dress,
and use body language, shows them to be who and what this story is. Without
them, there would be no story.
A technique for rounding out characters is
to interview them. Ask questions, listen to what they say and the way they
say it. You'll discover things you never expected, things that intrigue you
and will engage the reader.
As an aside, I look for images of my
character on the internet. I also often sketch my characters as they take
My husband worries about me at times,
because I talk to characters on a regular basis, ask questions, explore
4. Unique quirks mold the unusual aspects
of a character. Deeply held convictions, morals, beliefs, and mores
applicable to the society in which she lives are all traits developed by the
background and experiences of a person. These little things tell who this
person is inside and give deep insight to the reader. Find the character's
greatest fear, weakness, or vulnerability. Use this internal conflict to
drive the plot, the external conflict, of your story.
If, for instance, in an interview with your
character, you discover that in childhood a fire destroyed all of the guinea
pigs your story person was raising as pets, this can be emphasized to
explain the overwhelming need to be a driving force behind the goals of
PETA, a strong animal protection group.
Look again at Dickens' words: "On Sundays,
she went to church elaborated."
This sentence delves into Biddy's beliefs
and the goodness of her. Suddenly, she is a personality, a well-rounded
5. Universal traits are those most of us,
as human beings, identify with and feel empathy for. We all have known
love, shame, humiliation, fear, grief, guilt, and embarrassment, and so can
understand the character's reactions to these emotions. Even if we have not
committed murder or lost a loved one to 9/11, we relate to the emotions as
the character does. The sentiment is understood even if the event is
abstract. These, then, are common bonds and therefore traits universal.
For example, Pip describes the scene around
Miss Havisham as "... all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass."
We have all experienced this wandering of
the mind -- a universal trait.
Many authors know their characters, but often, in penning the story, they
fail to take the time to write how the characters see the events
revolving around them. Consequently, the reader, in trying to plow through
huge chunks of descriptive narrative, becomes bored and quits long before
the 'good' part of the story.
6. Dialogue is the answer. When characters talk to each other, they express
more than words. Dialogue can reveal not only thoughts, goals, and hidden
agendas, but also can highlight conflicts, show the perspective of the
characters, and advance the plotline all at once. If an author wishes to
show how fabulous a character looks and yet how shallow this person is, she
should use dialogue. Let shallowness come through in his words of
perception and his beauty come through the words of others.
A wonderful example of the use of dialogue
to tell the reader enormous amounts about a character comes from Anne Perry
in her novel The Carter Street Hangman.
Her mother came in a few moments later, so
quietly Charlotte did not hear her.
It was too late to hide what she was doing.
She lowered the paper and looked into her mother's brown eyes.
"Yes Mama," It was an admission.
"You know how your father feels about your
looking at those things." She glanced at the folded paper in Charlotte's
hand. "I can't imagine why you want to; there's very little in them that is
pleasant and your father will read those things out to us. But if you must
look at it for yourself, at least do it discreetly, in Maddock's pantry, or
get Dominic to tell you."
The amount of information the reader now
knows about Charlotte, her relationship with her mother, her father and the
way he runs the household, and something about the level of society in which
this family exists is immense and it all comes from a few words of dialogue.
Dialogue also allows the story-people to
view the things around them according to their own personal tastes and
"Nancy, look at that still life hanging
over there next to George Caleb Bingham's 'Boatmen on the Missouri.' How
lovely that would look on my parlor wall, don't you think?" Nancy raised her
As compared to,
"Oh my, Nancy, take a gander at that
horrible still life over there by the painting with the blacks rowing on the
river. I can't believe anyone would ever pay money for a ridiculous
painting like that." Nancy raised her eyebrows.
Oh my, indeed. Those small differences in
the way characters view objects around them add a sense of realism and bring
depth to story individuals. Story people must emulate real people.
Creating someone from nothing and
convincing others the creation is real is creative genius. It engages the
reader to the point of an inability to put the story down, and, after all,
this is for what all writers strive.
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens,
London, Published 1861, Chapter 7,
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens,
London, Published 1861, Chapter 8,
The Carter Street Hangman, Anne Perry,
Published, Ballantine Books, New York, Chapter 1, page 7.
George Caleb Bingham's "Boatmen on the
Lee Masterson, "Adding Character Depth
Through Perception" copyrighted 2003