“Your characters are so fleshy.” I got this comment about my work the other day and beamed with pride. One of the biggest challenges for writers, particularly writers of fiction, is to lend life to the characters they create. Here are a few things to think about as you’re clicking away at your NANOWRIMO goal or having your go at the Great American Novel.
At its core, character-building is illustrating with words. Remember your stick-figure phase when you were a child? All four of my children created drawing after drawing of stick people when they were little. By the time they had about a semester of kindergarten under their belts, they started adding flesh to those bare bones in their drawings. Ahh, enter the hordes of “penis people” displayed like Van Goghs on the gallery of honor—the refrigerator!
Alas, my #1 is so colorblind that Major the Great Dane has a better sense of hue. He fell in love with a galaxy far, far away and left the art supplies to his younger sisters. #2 dabbled in tempura, but could never quite find dimensionality. #3 filled notebooks with Warrior Cats in various media and poses, but failed to progress beyond caricature. #4’s sketch work leaps from the page, capturing mood, movement, and tone with a mere pencil (or lately with those $70 sets of special markers).
#4 accomplishes graphically what we writers strive to accomplish verbally. If we want our characters to be believable beings who spring from a string of words, we have to create what your literature teacher called round characters. In other words, we have to go all fleshy! This skill, Gentle Reader, is the closest thing to magic I know.
I’ll bet you can see Huckleberry Finn, Jo March, Owen Meaney, or that poor little dead girl from The Lovely Bones with perfect clarity as you read Twain, Alcott, Irving, or Sebold. I’ll bet you can feel Daisy’s entrapment, Jane’s betrayal, Lucille’s giddy freedom, or George’s heartrending mercy as you read Fitzgerald, Bronte, Childress, or Steinbeck.
You can taste those green tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café as they crackle in Idgie’s frying pan. You can hear Mack’s anguish as he wrestles with grief in The Shack. You can smell the astringent odor of death as Robert kisses his father’s blood-soaked hands. Flagg, Young, and Peck understood the power of rounded, dynamic characters to drive story.
So, where do you start? Try beginning with the 5 senses. Put your character in his scene or situation, then put yourself in his head. What does he see? Hear? Smell? Taste? Feel? The key here is to rattle around inside that head—the character’s head, not yours. Take your time. It may seem a little clinical at first, but this is the way to get to the good stuff…those emotions, mindsets, attitudes, prejudices, foibles, and beliefs that will pack pounds on your character.
We’ll talk more about crafting character later. I would love to hear from you about other ways you put flesh on your characters! In the meantime, don’t forget to read. Here’s a list of authors and titles I’ve referenced above. All of these folks “get” a round character!
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain
Little Women Louisa May Alcott
A Prayer for Owen Meaney John Irving
The Lovely Bones Alice Sebold
The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte
Crazy in Alabama Mark Childress
Of Mice and Men John Steinbeck
Fried Green Tomatoes… Fannie Flagg
The Shack William P. Young
A Day No Pigs Would Die Robert Newton Peck
See all “The Author Life“