What exactly makes a character likeable? Is it the things the author tells us explicitly? That the character is this tall and looks like this type of person? Or is it something more? When I was in writing classes during college I often struggled with developing characters that were relatable. To me I knew so much about them and how could my classmates not know what I knew about the character. To make up for that confusion I began to deviate away from how I wrote and I started writing things like:
Kidera has a big fat nose with a wart on the end and she has pale skin that is similar to a piece of scrunched up paper and her eyes are glassy blue with red rims. Her breath smells like alcohol and she glares at me with a smile full of crooked yellow teeth.
While there are many physical characteristics explained there is little to no subtext and that means that this character is one-dimensional. Compare to the paragraph below. Again, not perfect but for demonstrative purposes it will do.
As I sat in my chair I noticed that Kidera’s aquamarine eyes seemed to be veiled by a glassy sheen and the edges of that sheen were blood red. She raised a wrinkled hand and scratched her cheek; it sounded like two pieces of sandpaper being rubbed together. After a moment she pulled a flask from her waist pocket and took a sip. My nose wrinkled as the burning stench of hard liquor reached my nostrils. Her lips were only slightly less colorless than her pale features except for the bluish purple bags that seemed permanent residents under her eyes. I grimaced as her bloodshot gaze met mine. Her lips parted and revealed a mouth full of jagged teeth.
Here is a short exercise:
Write down everything you gleaned from the first paragraph. Ok, Now what about from the second paragraph? Make sure to also write about what you are getting from the subtext. When writing, subtext is often more important than what is on the page. Skilled writers use subtext to further the reader’s understanding of a character. The question is- how do writers master the art of subtext?
For some, such as in the snowflake method, the idea is to start off with one sentence and expand on that. Which is a great way to start except for when you have about a million ideas as well as lots of opinions about what your character should be like. Then having to select one sentence can be a bit confusing. An alternative way to write your characters into life is to write a sample paragraph or even several pages. Get all of the word vomit out so that you can sift through it and decide what will work and what won’t work.
My main character in Duchess of Dark Mercies, Laila, has gone through a minor name change as well as some adjustments to her demeanor, physical appearance and her role in the story. Many of the things I know about her I discovered only after writing a lot of junk scenes. The best way for me to develop characters is to free write. To let my mind wander for a bit. Then after I find I’ve hit a wall I go back over what I just wrote, I take a piece of paper and I start to jot down things I notice about my character. I used the 5 W’s (Who, What, Where, When and Why)
Who is she talking to? (etc)
What does she wear? (etc)
Where is she in the story? (etc)
When is this taking place in the plot? (etc)
Why does she feel that way? (etc)
Once I start doing this I find that a whole lot of details start to stretch out and expand. Each time I pause and exam my character their world grows a little clearer. This is especially important when you get to motives. What exactly does my character want? Sometimes, the characters tell you before you even realize it. Sometimes you start reading a scene from your book and it dawns on you that your character really wants x,y, or z.
When writing use it to exam yourself and your own strengths and weaknesses. Just be careful not to superimpose your problems onto your character. Remember you are writing fiction; not your autobiography. There are exceptions to every rule and I think a good example of this is Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried . This is where a writer uses a character with the same name but makes sure to draw a line between reality and fiction. When I read the book back in ninth grade it was hard for me (as a reader) to separate the character Tim O’Brien from the actual living breathing Tim O’Brien. His characters are gritty and real (they are sticky). Even after all of these years I still remember how I felt about his characters. When you write fiction, the driving forces are the characters you create. Readers stick with the character even when everything else fades away. As you go about your life pause and watch those around you. What are they telling you subconsciously? When the world is spiraling towards being technology centered step back and focus on the humans around you. Listen to what they’re telling you even when they aren’t speaking. Take what you glean and start to figure out how you would describe each person. If you were to give an artist and description of them what would be important? Create sticky details that will last even after the reader turns the page.