The Writer’s Toolbox: Essentials of character

by Kate Paulk

As sort-of-kind-of promised, today’s ramble is more or less on the subject of character. Plot will likely get involved too, because I’m an extreme pantser and my plots tend to build organically from the motivations and actions of my characters. I simply can’t plot “by the numbers”, as it were.

Heck, I can’t do characters “by the numbers” either. Either I have a fully-fleshed out person in there, or I have a place-holder with one or two distinguishing features who exists solely to move things along in a particular role (this is more or less how I handle the assorted micro-characters who don’t have much to do with the piece, and may never be identified by name. Of course, periodically one of them jumps up and demands to have a bigger role and I’ve got to rethink what I thought was supposed to happen – because usually that kind of thing means I was doing it wrong).

So, characters. Unless you’re trying for a modern literature award, you need at least one of them, preferably somewhere between two and five in the major roles. One will probably be your protagonist, or lead, another probably the villain of the piece (although not necessarily – in Impaler the villain is entirely off-stage as it were. Mehmed doesn’t actually make an appearance until the second book. If he’s actually the real villain – I’m not sure there is one in that series).

Typically, there’s some kind of role each major character plays in the piece – usually something of an archetypal thing, like hero, villain, love interest, offsider… Although not always, and if you’re working an ensemble with several leads, things can get quite interesting.

That brings in a tension that we, as writers, have to balance. Often the nature of our character and their role will be at odds. A well-rounded character who has distinct likes and dislikes is not going to go do something heroic because it’s heroic – he needs to have a reason to overcome the perfectly sensible desire to keep his insides inside. This may be why so many love interests get kidnapped often enough that they come with their own fill-in-the-blanks ransom note.

Part of the art of characterization is in realistically overcoming a character’s reluctance by providing them with a reason to do something that overpowers their good sense. I’d recommend a certain amount of care with the acts of Author, though – the mountains dropping out of nowhere make a good starting point, but after that as much as possible of the story should be driven by the choices that the main characters make.

For a main character, I’d say that we as authors need to have a pretty good idea how they’re going to jump in most circumstances. Not necessarily down to what he named his first pet, but close. This knowledge doesn’t necessarily need to be on display in the book, but it’s something the author must have if the character’s responses are to feel right. A few hints seeded through the story can trickle out just enough information to make it work.

Secondary characters don’t need as much detail – they’re the supporting cast, who might get to shine in a few scenes, but aren’t going to be making plot-changing decisions. The author’s knowledge about them can be limited to how they affect the main characters, with possibly a physical or verbal quirk so they don’t all blur into each other.

The bit players don’t even need that much. If your main character is noble in a culture where servants are effectively invisible, the servants may not need names, particularly if they’re only there to perform servantly functions and be effectively invisible while your protagonist protags. They’re only going to be noticed if they do something odd, otherwise the main character will just notice that one of the servants poured him his wine.

Now for some of the details of drawing character with the minimum verbiage. This is where knowing words and their associations is invaluable. The harsher the words you use to describe a character, the harsher readers will assume that character to be. Short, punchy words imply someone given to action, longer more flowing words suggest grace and possibly a certain effeteness. When I was writing Impaler, I consistently used words that hinted at cold and control when Vlad describes himself – unless he was in the middle of a battle, where I switched to shorter and more heat-based language. The impression I was aiming for was a man who presents as unemotional, self-controlled, but explodes when something triggers his temper, or when he chooses to let it go. A man who locks his own passions down for fear of what they will do to those around him, in other words.

If you can do that kind of thing without overtly saying that this is what your character is like, you’ve nailed it, and your toolbox has the best equipment in there.

9 thoughts on “The Writer’s Toolbox: Essentials of character

  1. “The harsher the words you use… Short, punchy words imply … longer more flowing words suggest…”

    And excellent pointer toward how to achieve the effect you desire with the right word choices. Now I shall have to run off and analyze something of mine to see if I’m doing this unconsciously, or not doing it at all.

    1. It it happens first pass through, that’s fine. If not, that’s what editing is for 🙂


  2. Yes, yes, and heck yes … I scrapped two multi-chapter passages that I *really* liked, because the Charcter turned up her nose at me and said, “I’m not doing that. It’s dumb.” And I have a bit-part character who is defined almost entirely by the unlit stub of his cigar …

    1. Oh, yeah. That’s about right. Sometimes you’ve got to rearrange events to force the character to do what you need them to do. Sometimes you’ve got to figure out a different way to get to the same end.

    1. Nah. All that seat of the pants does is that you’re doing it below the conscious level, so you’re not really aware of the process. Not a fraud at all 🙂

  3. Y’know, I’ve been reading these posts faithfully, and I’m sorry that I haven’t commented sooner. But I want to thank you and to say that I’ve been finding them a tremendous help. Each post has given me at least one really good insight. I keep going, “Oh, good idea, I hadn’t thought of that!”

    So, thanks. I very much appreciate them. 🙂

    Of course, you neglected to remind me to write only those character types that fall into the appropriate victim class…. 😉

    1. Hi, and welcome! I’m glad you’re finding the posts here useful and interesting.

      And naturally I failed to remind anyone to write only appropriate class victim characters, because I don’t usually bother with victim points at the best of time. I prefer to take the “you can’t beat me, you can only kill me” view.

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