Few things will make me put a book down faster than blah characters. Even if there’s a great concept, lots of action, mystery, steamy romance, etc., if I’m not interested in the characters then I’m not interested in what’s going to happen to them.
So what makes a memorable character? How can you make them come to life from the very first page, and how can you make a reader care what will happen to them? This is nothing that can be totally covered in one blog post, but I’d like to discuss a few principles and techniques that can help you develop memorable characters. And Woo-hoo! I’m going to show you from my very own book. This might seem like tooting my own horn—and of course it is—but if I can’t pull off my own writing advice, why would you take it? So, here are a few sneak peaks at some characters in RUMP, all from the first few pages. Afterward, we will analyze.
Excerpt from RUMP: THE TRUE STORY OF RUMPELSTILTSKIN
“Butt! Hey Butt!”
I groaned as Frederick and his brother Bruno approached with menacing grins on their faces. Frederick and Bruno were the miller’s sons. They were close to my age, but so big, twice my size and ugly as trolls.
“Happy birthday Butt! We have a present we found just for you.” Frederick threw a clod of dirt at me. My stubby hands tried to block it, but it smashed right in my face and I gagged at the smell. The clod of dirt was not dirt.
“Now that’s a gift worthy of your name!” said Bruno.
Other children howled with laughter.
“Leave him alone,” said a girl named Red. She glared at Frederick and Bruno, holding her shovel over her shoulder like a weapon. The other children stopped laughing.
“Oh,” said Frederick. “Do you love Butt?”
“That’s not his name,” growled Red.
“Then what is it? Why doesn’t he tell us?”
“Rump!” I said without thinking. “My name is Rump!” They burst out laughing. I had done just what they wanted. “But that’s not my real name!” I said, desperately.
“It isn’t?” asked Frederick.
“What do you think his real name is?” asked Bruno.
Frederick pretended to think very hard. “Something unusual. Something special…Cow Rump.”
“Baby Rump,” said Bruno.
Everyone laughed. Frederick and Bruno fell over each other, holding their stomachs while tears streamed down their faces. They rolled in the dirt and squealed like pigs.
Just for a moment I envied them. They looked like they were having such fun, rolling in the dirt and laughing. Why couldn’t I do that? Why couldn’t I join them?
Then I remembered why they were laughing.
Red swung her shovel down hard so it stuck in the ground right between the boys’ heads. Frederick and Bruno stopped laughing. “Go away,” she said.
Bruno swallowed, staring cross-eyed at the shovel that was just inches from his nose. Frederick stood and grinned at Red. “Sure. You two want to be alone.” The brothers walked away, snorting and falling over each other.
(An opportunity to be anal without being totally unlikeable.) Keep in mind that styles vary, but the principles are the same, no matter your genre or age group.
Action and Dialogue
Action and dialogue are “showing” techniques. I don’t have to tell you that Rump is the village dweeb, and Frederick and Bruno are obviously the village bullies. We know it as soon as they open their mouths. It’s the first thing we get from them. Even the laughter of the village children, characterizes both the children as followers of Frederick and Bruno, as well as reinstating that Rump is indeed a loser.
And then there’s Red, the one character who doesn’t take part in the bullying. Rump doesn’t have to tell us that Red is a tough, and that the village kids are somewhat afraid of her. We see that from her actions and the kids’ reactions. And she’s obviously not a conformist. She doesn’t take part in the teasing, whether it’s because she’s Rump’s friend, or she has something against bullying on principle.
This would be the “telling” part of characterization, which, contrary to popular belief, is not a literary sin. You just have to develop a sense for when it’s appropriate. You don’t need to “show” every single character. Sometimes it is perfectly appropriate to paraphrase in order to move things forward. This generally applies to more minor characters, but it can also be helpful with more important characters, to give the audience a firmer grasp on who they are, how they fit in with the story, and what we might expect from them moving forward. In the following pages, Rump gives this description of Red:
Red wasn’t my friend exactly, but she was the closest I had to a friend. She never made fun of me. Sometimes she stood up for me, and I understood why. Her name wasn’t all that great, either. Just as people laugh at a name like Rump, they fear a name like Red. Red is not a name. It’s a color, an evil color. What kind of destiny does that bring?
Notice that Rump said these things after we’d already seen Red in action, so his description of her bears more weight. Rump offers a little more info on Red and consequently we have more curiosity for her. We like her, if only because she defended Rump, but maybe we’re suddenly a little wary of her, wonder what her destiny is, and how she will play a role in Rump’s story.
I saved this last for a reason. Physical descriptions can be extremely useful and effective. Afterall, everyone judges by appearance, and appearances do say things about people. Our looks can say things about our upbringing, our culture, personality, attitudes. But as much as physical appearances say something about someone, they just as often say nothing, and sometimes they’re only in the way of more important things, like a persons words and actions.
Stick to the physical details that have a significant bearing on character and the forward movement of the story. Sometimes physical appearance matters a lot, and sometimes not at all. It depends on the character and story in question. Rump describes Frederick and Bruno as “twice my size and ugly as trolls,” but doesn’t go on about their eye or hair color, or skin color, or what clothes they are wearing, because those details don’t matter in this particular moment. What matters is what Rump is up against and how he feels about his bullies. Rump doesn’t give any physical description of Red for several chapters, and even then he only notes things that are significant, like how she’s pretty small for someone who acts so tough.
In romantic scenarios, physical traits might play a little more of a role, simply because physical attraction is traditionally so much a part of romance, but even then, you can be sparing, and careful not to fall into cliches. Give us a few of the significant details, the things that really make them attractive, and then move on. Readers will forget those unnecessary details anyway, and should be allowed to form their own mental images as much as possible. Too much physical description will weigh down the forward movement of the story, which is death to a children’s novel especially.
A few more suggestions to help improve characterization:
1. Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
2. Read you favorite books, and pick apart the characters, how the author introduces them, and draws them up. What do they do to make them loveable or hateful or sympathetic? This exercise works for just about any aspect of writing you wish to improve.
3. Study real people. What makes some more interesting to you than others? Think about the people who evoke powerful reactions in you, and try to pin-point specifically what it is that you love or hate about them. It could be mannerisms, actions, attitude, their voice, etc. Oh, look, an opportunity to be judgmental and call it your job.