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Your Fight Scene

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 boring.

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) really exists.

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.