Greetings to all the storytellers out there. Let me start out by first wishing you a peaceful Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Then by sharing how delighted I am to be part of the Story Empire crew. I never tire of chatting about the craft of writing and hope to share some observations and insights as well as hear your thoughts and learn from you.
Though I won’t turn down a book with a riveting plot, I’m a lover of great characters. For me, characters are the glue that keeps me stuck to a story. I thought I’d start my Story Empire stint with a series of posts about Crafting Rich Characters.
As a new story takes shape in my brain, character profiles dutifully tap across my laptop. Whether you write character bios down or store them in your cranium, this pre-work may pay off with greater character depth and more complex relationships. In addition, the process of writing may flow with greater ease. My characters are immensely cooperative in telling their stories when they know who they are.
The easiest part of building a character profile is physical appearance. Hair color, eye color, and height are worth keeping track of, but they aren’t going to grip the reader’s attention.
Readers have vivid imaginations, able to “see” the books they read without every single detail spelled out for them. Give them a few glimpses of stand-out qualities, and they’ll fill in the rest.
With that in mind, physical characteristics should be memorable, and when it comes to secondary characters and bit actors, a distinct detail can be more memorable than a name. Readers may not remember Louis from six chapters ago, but they’ll recall his twitchy eye or snaggletooth smile.
Remember, even beautiful people are imperfect. Your main characters are more interesting (and relatable) if they have flaws like the rest of us. I have main characters with frizzy hair, a bent spine, a missing eye. One has a birthmark on her face.
One caution—for main characters, I wouldn’t recommend horrible breath, a perpetually snotty upper lip, or weeping sores. Instead, pick a flaw that readers can overlook as the character’s personality grows on them. With secondary characters and bit players, go for it. Make them memorable with something unique.
Some Physical Characteristics:
Glass eye, cleft chin, crooked teeth, chewed nails, scars, moles, beady eyes, rumbling or squeaky voice, birthmark, limp, half-lidded eyes, bushy or thin eyebrows, greasy beard, unusual smell, missing an ear, jowls, a wrinkled neck, massive freckles, pointy mustache, a rash, narrow face, sweat stains, pimples, large feet, excessive hair, etc.
Gestures and Mannerisms
Gestures and Mannerisms encompass another aspect of the physical character. They’re distinguishing habits that help define characters and make them memorable. Instead of how they look, it’s what they do, often without thinking.
Some gestures and mannerisms:
A character may scratch a rash, pick his teeth, clear his throat, snap fingers, trace an old scar, purse his lips, fidget with a button, wink, sniffle, spit, raise one eyebrow, stroke a beard, rake his hair, pick his nose, talk with his hands, avoid eye contact, massage his fingers, crack his knuckles, stretch, pick a scab, etc.
To finish off appearance, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention quirks. These are distinctive behaviors that go beyond gestures and mannerisms. I’ve used these with both main characters and secondary characters.
Won’t eat anything green, corrects improper speech, loves bad puns, doesn’t like to be touched, afraid of heights, a neat freak or complete slob, brutally honest, laughs at the wrong time, never smiles, complains constantly, takes cap naps, has no sense of direction, cries easily, always hungry, extremely polite, sings gospel in the shower, over or under-dresses, only wears red, and owns pet snakes, etc.
Some Additional Tips
- People watching is a great way to pick up unique descriptions.
- Some of the best physical descriptions will also tie into the plot (consider Harry Potter’s scar).
- Have your characters’ physical qualities do double duty. What do they convey/reinforce to the reader about the person? Perhaps your character wears wrinkled shirts and mismatched socks because he’s newly divorced.
- Use gestures, mannerisms, and quirks as action beats in lieu of dialog tags.
Jarod scratched his belly. “I’m hungry. Got any snacks?”
- Don’t overdo it. Too much of a good thing (belly-scratching or beard-stroking) will create an echo and pop your reader out of the story.
- Consider the power of exceptions: the character who always tells the truth, suddenly lies about something. Mismatched-sock guy enters the chapter all dressed up!
- Choose your main characters’ qualities carefully. A main character with a limp is fine, but you’re going to have to deal with it throughout the book. With secondary characters, take some creative leaps.
- Avoid cliches. If you’ve read it a hundred times, like “emerald eyes,” think of something else.
That concludes Part 1.
In Part 2, we’ll look at more aspects of the character that are observable: Attributes and Traits, Skills and Talents, and Occupations and Interests. And we’ll mix them up a bit.