The idea of well-defined characters in storytelling is so important to us at Dapper Press that just this week we invented an adage to express it: Don’t tell me a story about tables and chairs; tell me a story about people.
What does that even mean, you ask?
It’s simple, really. Description of your setting and surroundings is fantastic and entirely crucial to your storytelling, but those are merely backdrops for your people to play around in. And if you spend more time describing the props or the scenery than you spend developing your characters, you might have a little clean-up to do.
But in this instance, clean-up is where the fun lies!
As a primer for how to approach building strong characters, we’ve synopsized three essential components. They all start with the letter D, which happened purely by coincidence…or did it?
Demeanor: Depending on the role each plays, your character’s demeanor may call for grand gestures and sweeping significance, as in a comedy or a whimsical children’s tale, or it may call for small, deliberate strokes that carefully craft natural behavior, as in a suspense novel or a reality-tinged drama. Mismatch your character’s demeanor with his or her purpose in the story, and you’ll end up creating caricatures and cartoons rather than believable characters. Even if you’re working on high fantasy, readers relate most to characters who live and breathe on the page…establishing an appropriate demeanor for each one is the quickest path to that all-important resonance we all aim for as writers!
Description: As expressed by the tables-and-chairs analogy above, there is such a thing as too much description when it comes to introducing your characters. Halting the narrative at the wrong moment to construct a full paragraph about how a character looks can pull your readers right out of the story. Give careful consideration to how much detail you include in any personal descriptions; a few well-chosen details revealed throughout the story can actually lend interest and intrigue as your story unfolds. You might also think about the emotional or narrative reinforcement that can come from strategically describing your characters, and limit presentation of their physical characteristics to moments when another character takes notice, say, or when it serves to illustrate the character’s personality in some purposeful manner. And bear in mind that, in spite of your best efforts to accurately describe the person you saw in your head when you wrote you story, your reader will see someone of their own imagining when they read it. So don’t kill yourself trying to describe every detail!
Dialogue: This is one of the most difficult aspects of fiction-writing to perfect. It’s also the hallmark of a skilled writer, which makes it very much worth practicing until you get it right. And the best practice in this instance also sounds like the silliest…but think about actually speaking your characters’ dialogue out loud as you write it. You can even read it back after you write it and adjust it until you get it all smoothed out. If it doesn’t sound like someone would really say it in the way you’ve written it (composition-wise, not subject matter-wise, of course), then it still needs work. You could even ask a cohort to lend an ear as you read, for an outside opinion. It might be embarrassing at first—especially when the barista at your coffee-shop-slash-writer’s-den starts giving you the stink eye—but it’s the surest way to nail natural speech patterns and guarantee that your characters come across as wonderfully as possible!
Of course, there are many other aspects to creating amazing fictional characters, and as many approaches to this element of the craft as there are authors. But keep these few in mind as you write, and you’ll be well on your way. Should you get stuck and need a little assistance, rest assured the gents at Dapper Press will be happy to help you figure it all out. Just give us a yell at firstname.lastname@example.org!