The other day I received one of those emails that just makes me smile. It was a request for advice. Made me feel so awesome to be asked for advice.
My young friend, who is very artistic by nature and is in college asked, “I have a project that involves developing characters and such. I wonder if you could help me with something: it seems like developing a story is a lot like drawing a picture, you can start with the eyes or the hair or whatever. But there is a best place to start. I’m wondering, what is that best place to start? Character development?”
This is a really good question, one that all of us as writers, new and experienced could legitimately ask ourselves. He’s right. We’re drawing a picture, but not with chalk or charcoal or watercolors. We’re drawing with words, and the reader is the one who creates the picture in his/her mind by the act of reading the words. The better we draw, the better the reader can create. It’s a joint effort.
Here’s how I answered him:
Characterization. I guess, if it were me, I’d start with “voice.” And by that I mean, how the person sounds when they have internal dialogue. After that, I’d throw him/her into a horrible situation (conflict) and see how he/she reacts. That’s when character is best revealed: in the heat of battle. Does he/she turn tail and run, get snarky, turn into a vicious warrior, or what?
Physical description is less important, I think, unless there is something about the character’s physical body that has made them who they are. Like, they have a cleft palate or they are really ugly/attractive (and all the reactions from the world that are incident to that quality.)
Sometimes it does help me to scroll through random photos until I see someone I think fits the character, but not often. To me, that head voice is what’s interesting.
To clarify, that head voice can be expressed both in first person (easier) and in third person (still not too tricky, and can be mastered with practice.) Figure out how that person sounds in his/her own head, express it in words, and the reader can develop a full picture of the character’s inner being, which is much more compelling, at least to me as a reader, than a laundry list of physical traits. In fact, I’ve read novels where there’s no single detail as to the physical appearance of the main character, and yet I felt I knew the protagonist far better than in other novels where I know every single strand of wavy brown hair on a hero’s head. I think often times I read to get to know someone new, even if it’s just a fictional someone.
Character creation is one of the most important things we can do as writers in engaging readers and making them want to come back again and again to our writing.
Here’s a picture of my summer odometer in the BMW (big Mormon wagon) taken last month.
Something about binary numbers just floats my boat. 211,111. Nice. It still counts as binary if it’s 1’s and 2’s, not just 0’s and 1’s, right? I had to pull over and take a picture. Took me half a mile to find the right pull out or it’d be all 1’s through to the tenths dial. Am I the only person who just gets all excited about these little things?