Characters With Personality
by Marg McAlister
My librarian and I share a passion for mysteries and thrillers. She knows my tastes so well now that she puts
new books on reserve for me as soon as they are in the system. But when I think about our conversations about the
latest story that we both loved, I can't help but notice that we talk about the characters.
Inevitably, the exchange goes something like this:
"Wasn't she a great character! I can't wait to read the next book," or
"How did I miss reading his books before? He's written another five about Character X. Can you put them on
reserve for me?"
Sometimes we talk about a good plot twist - but eighty per cent of the time, our enjoyment is based on our
involvement with a character that draws us into the story. In fact, characters are so important to the success of a
novel that I am sometimes amazed by the lack of thought writers give to (a) character creation and (b) the way they
introduce those characters.
Case in point: Some months ago someone gave me a character profile to look at. Now, admittedly, the character
profiles I see vary wildly - some are mundane lists of hair/eye/skin colour plus birthdates and star signs; others
are almost a story in themselves, containing snippets of the character's thoughts and wry observations from the
author. However, this one made the character seem so dull I wondered how it would be possible to write about her in
a way that would hook the reader. I'm going to change a few identifying details here and there to protect the
innocent, but essentially, it read like this:
Overall impression: Jody is short and fairly quiet, because she takes her work seriously. She's not either slow
or fast, just moves at moderate speed. General Physical Appearance: Jody has blue eyes with just a touch of
grey in them. Her hair is light brown and her usual expression is quiet. She is 5' 4" so she isn't too tall or
short and her weight is also moderate. She speaks in an average tone of voice. General: Jody is a
career-focused person. She is not outgoing or popular because she doesn't have time to go out much. The only
time she goes out is every Friday. Jody had an ordinary childhood, nothing special.
This is just a small excerpt from a four-page character profile - but what comes through very strongly was that
Jody is a DULL character. She is involved in her work practically to the exclusion of all else, and seems to be the
type of person that is so average that she would (in real life) virtually disappear. If your character is dull at
the beginning of the story - before you even get him/her on the page - you're going to find it hard to get excited
about this person's story. And that lack of enthusiasm is going to come across to your reader (if you ever get to
have a reader, because having a reader implies publication). So let's look at a few tips on character creation.
1. Create Characters That Interest You
Hero or bad guy, the character has to hook YOUR interest before anyone else's! You're the one who is going to
have to sit down in front of a computer day after day and chronicle this person's life. Remember that most readers
read as a form of escape - they love being drawn into the world of the story; to become engrossed in a character's
life. They certainly aren't going to be engrossed by a bore. Nor are you!
2. Don't Create Characters That Are Too Black and White - or Too Perfect
No matter how admirable your character is, she should have a flaw. That's what makes her human. While heroes
should be (for the most part) honorable, resilient, proactive and brave, they should also have moments of fear,
cowardice, depression and anger.
None of this should last too long, though. We admire people who battle through (especially if it's against
tremendous odds) - but we do need to feel that there's a chance that they'll fail. None of us is perfect, and it's
hard to identify with someone who is: too kind, too moral, too beautiful, too noble... you get the picture.
Similarly, most 'bad' people have some redeeming quality. That's not easy to find in a truly evil villain, but
we're talking MOST characters here. If you make your hero all good and your antagonist all bad, the book gets
3. Give Your Character an Interesting Quirk
You don't have to do this for all your characters, but it's a good way to make a character come to life. Case in
point: Kinsey Millhone (series character in Sue Grafton's "A is for Alibi" series) and her love of small, confined
spaces. We find out early in the series why Kinsey is like this, and from book to book Grafton builds on this quirk
in her personality. Don't be afraid to make one or two of your characters totally over the top. This works well in
humorous novels like those written by Carl Hiaasen.
4. Give Your Character a History
Sometimes I get the feeling that a character was born on page 1 and will float off into the ether when the time
the book ends. What has happened to your character in the past determines who they are today. It decides how they
will react to others, how they react to stress, and how they handle adversity. Think about your own life. When you
need a favour, you call on a friend or relative. Where did they come from? Somewhere in your past. When something
bad happens, you tend to reflect on what led up to it. You go somewhere new, and an unexpected sight or smell sends
you back to the past.
Your character's thoughts should reflect that past, so spend some time thinking about it. You don't have to sit
down and write about it exhaustively - either when creating the character or when writing about her - but you
should know where she comes from. Here's a tip: If you're creating a series character, don't map out his/her past
in too much detail - leave some hazy areas so you can build in surprises later in the series.
5. Give Your Character a Network Who does your character know - at work, at home, socially? How do these
others fit into her life? How much does she need other people? What does this network tell us about this character?
Does she attract losers? Does she surround herself with successful people? Who does she give a wide berth? Who is a
threat? Is her family so protective that they are smothering her, or so distant that this causes emotional
problems, or are they loyal and supportive?
There's a lot more to creating characters that work, but these five tips will at least give you a cast of
characters that you'll enjoy working with!
Now let's look at how you write about your characters. One of the biggest flaws I see in a passage of
writing (from both beginners and more experienced writers) is a flat recitation of what someone looks like or how
they move. For example:
"Hello," said Tina. She had artificially blonde hair and bright blue eyes fringed by carefully darkened lashes
and brows, and a body that showed she probably worked out regularly at the gym.
OK, that's not horribly bad (I've seen a lot worse) - but it's very ho-hum. This is not the kind of description
that gives me an instant mental snapshot: a 'grab' of what someone is like. Nor does this next one, even though
it's a little better:
Mr. Baines had a huge beer gut that hung out beneath his stained singlet. His teeth were yellow and crooked,
and his stringy hair looked as though it needed a wash. Red-rimmed brown eyes stared back at me
expressionlessly from under bushy brows.
You might be wondering what's wrong with the description above. Mostly, it relies on fairly cliched images - the
beer gut, the stained singlet, the stringy hair, bushy brows. Sure, a character may possess all of these things...
but how might you present them so you convey personality to the reader, as well as appearance?
Sue Grafton again comes to mind, because she 'does' description so well. Here is an excerpt from T is for
Trespass. In the passage below, note that while Kinsey is waiting for a response to her knock at the door, she is
observing a 'walk on' character: a neighbour. Thanks to the description of the setting in which the character
(Gladys Frederickson) lives, including the neighbour, we get a sense that this place (and therefore the character)
At 2.00, clipboard in hand, I arrived for my appointment with Gladys Frederickson. She and her husband lived in
a modest house near the beach on a street being overtaken by much grander homes. Given the exaggerated prices
of local real estate, it made sense for buyers to snap up any house for sale and do extensive remodelling on
the existing residence or raze the entire structure and start from scratch.
The Frederickson's one-story frame house fit the latter category, not so much a fixer-upper as something you'd
bulldoze, pile in a heap, and burn. There was a shabbiness about the place that suggested years of deferred
maintenance. Along the side of the house, I could see that a strip of aluminum gutter had come loose. Below the
gap a clump of rotting leaves lay fallen in a makeshift compost heap. I suspected the carpet would smell damp
and the grout between the shower tiles would be black with mildew.
In addition to the wooden porch stairs, there was a long wooden ramp that extended from the drive to the porch
to allow wheelchair access. The ramp itself was mottled with dark green algae and doubtless became as slick as
glass whenever it rained. I stood on the porch looking down at the ivy beds interspersed with the yellow blooms
of oxalis. Inside, the dog was yapping at a rate that would probably earn him a swat on his butt.
Across the side yard, through a chicken wire fence, I caught sight of an elderly neighbour lady setting out
what were probably the annual Christmas decorations on her lawn. These consisted of seven hollow plastic
Santa's helpers that could be lighted from inside. Also, nine plastic reindeer, one of which had a big red
nose. She paused to stare at me and my quick wave was rewarded with a smile laced with sweetness and pain.
There had once been little ones - children or grandchildren - whose memory she celebrated with this steadfast
display of hope.
I'd already knocked twice and I was on the verge of knocking again when Gladys opened the door, leaning heavily
on a walker, her neck encircled by a six-inch foam collar. She was tall and thick, the buttons of her plaid
blouse gaping open across her ample breasts. The elastic waist on her rayon pants had given way and she'd used
two large safety pins to affix the trousers to her shirt, thus preventing them from dropping and pooling around
her ankles. She wore a pair of off-brand running shoes, though it was clear she wouldn't be running any time
soon. On her left foot, a half-moon of leather had been cut away to provide relief for her bunion.
"I'm Kinsey Millhone, Mrs. Frederickson. We have an appointment to talk about the accident."
"You're with the insurance company?"
"Not yours. I'm working with California Fidelity Insurance. I was hired by Lisa Ray's attorney."
"Accident was her fault."
"So I've been told. I'm here to verify the information she gave us."
"Oh. Well, I guess you'd better come on in," she said, already turning her walker so she could hump her way
back to the La-Z-Boy where she'd been sitting. As I closed the front door, I noticed a collapsible wheelchair
propped up against the wall. I'd been wrong about the carpet. Theirs had been removed, revealing narrow-plank
hardwood floors. Staples that once held the padding in place were still embedded in the wood, and I could see a
line of dark holes where the tack strips had been nailed.
The interior of the house was so dense with heat that the air smelled scorched. A small brightly colored bird
was fanning its way like a moth from one drapery to the next while the dog pranced across the sofa cushions,
toppling the stacks of magazines, junk mail, bills, and newspapers piled along the length. The dog had a small
face, bright black eyes, and a poufy cravat of hair spilling across its chest. The bird had left two white
poker chips of poop on the floor between the end table and the chair.
Gladys hollered, "Millard? I told you to get that dog out of here! Dixie's up on the couch and I can't be
responsible for what she does next."
What makes Grafton's character description work so well?
- She gives us details that make us believe - the leather cut away for the bunion, the safety pins fixing the
woman's trousers to her shirt, the neighbour's 'smile laced with sweetness and pain'.
- She puts her characters in a setting that 'fits' her description of them, and tells us a whole lot more
about those characters and the way they live - the staples left in the floor, the dog running over the junk on
the sofa, the bird leaving poop on the floor, the loose gutter, the algae on the ramp. Think about how you can
integrate characters and setting to give your readers a vivid image of who your story people really are.
Here's a final example from the same book - a different character, and an excerpt that demonstrates how you can
create a quick impression of a character in just a few words:
I was washing up afterward when Melanie knocked on my door. Her black cashmere coat was form-fitting and long
enough to bisect her black leather boots. She'd folded a wide black-and-red paisley shawl into a voluminous
triangle and secured it across her shoulders. How did she have the confidence to carry it off? If I tried it,
I'd look like I'd inadvertently walked through a clothesline and gotten tangled in a sheet.
Notice that the above example accomplishes two things: it tells us what Melanie looks like, but it also tells us
a little more about the viewpoint character, Kinsey.
Bottom line: Make your characters interesting not only for the reader's sake, but for your own - and
convince us that they're real through insightful description of both the characters and their setting.
© Marg McAlister