Detailing Your Characters

Last week, I talked about writing a character to feel real, to feel human. Though I offered a few examples, I never really went into much detail on what you can do to make a character feel real to a reader, just that realness was vital. Now, I’d like to go through some small things you can do to really connect with your audience. These are taken both from my experience as a consumer of media and as a writer, so my experiences won’t be the end all of this discussion. As Barbossa said in the first Pirates movie, this code isn’t a set of rules, more like guidelines for other creators.

Step One: Know Who Your Character Is, or that is to say, the broad hook; big ideas and major features. What is the one or two things that summarize your character at their most general. I’ll be using a player character from a D&D campaign that I run as an example. His name is Tom Arlo and he’s a hit man. His broad stroke, to borrow a film industry term, is his profession and his sociopathy. Tom is a character that canonically doesn't have emotions, or at least not a wide range of them. He is played that way too, not forming much of an attachment with the party members aside from his boss ordering him to accompany them as muscle. The party’s doctor had previously saved his life and was the one person Tom actually trusts in any capacity. So, Tom’s broad stroke is a distrustful, sociopathic hit-man with very few friends. You already have an idea of how he’s played don’t you? These strokes are the very core of a character but they are also the most generalized and stereotypical information about that character. Ultimately, this information is surface level.

Step Two: Iterate. Iterate. Iterate. Once the bare bones of your character has been established, flesh them out. Don’t stop to think about what parts work with each other just yet, only fill in all the details you can. What is their favorite drink? How do they stand? Do they cross their legs or arms when seated? When everything is quiet, how do they behave? What about when it’s loud? How do they feel about crowds? What are they afraid of? This is the longest section of the character creation process in many ways, though some may find it easier to heap on details than to cut them out. Continuing with our Tom example, he’s a sniper, so many of his mannerisms are related to that, including his quiet and withdrawn posture. He often stands off to the side of the group or places himself right next to the doctor, hands behind his back but ready at any moment to whip out his side arm and start shooting. He’s tense and almost always on guard and it shows in how he behaves. He also doesn't drink or smoke, despite what the stereotype might suggest. So in subtle ways he both breaks the hit-man archetype while also playing into it..

Step Three: The Cutting Room Floor. Now, this is the part that’s going to hurt your soul if you’re anything like me. Of all the steps this might be the most important, and that is knowing what to get rid of. What muddles the image of the character too much. In shorter works having a more simple characterization is preferable but for long running works some complexity is better. This is the step that requires you to know the needs of your writing ahead of time. Now, find those little points of contradiction and bring them all together in your head. What works with the character here? What doesn't? Where can these details fit in smoothly, naturally? If your character is on the Asperger spectrum or if they are LGBTQA+, what is a way you can give the audience that information without flat out stating it? For this step, think about presentation. Think of the medium you’re using and the personality of your character. Tom is not a person possessed with the spirit of romance, so his interactions are often cutting and curt. His behavior then states his lack of interest when compared to other members of the party who interact with those they fancy upon occasion. The key for presentation is subtly, don’t baby your audience by laying all the details out in their laps; give them time to dig into your character and really think on them. When you give your audience time for engagement in these stories, they really get immersed in it.

Step Four: Put A Little Polish In It. Now that you’ve cut away the scenes or details you don’t need your audience to know and hopefully have thought about your medium and how your audience will engage with your character, it’s time to smooth out the rough edges. This step is entirely dependent on how the audience is going to engage with them. If it’s a film, go ahead and start outlining your script, if it’s a stage play or some other form of prose writing, bring them up to a peer for a bit of review. On a comic or some sort of short animation this is the stage you want to start hammering in character design and how they’d look in animation key frames or on a reference sheet. To put it simply, you’re going to need some help, an outside opinion or twelve to really make sure the characterization is clear and effectively communicating who they are; don’t be afraid to ask for advice, it might just inspire you. And from here on out I can’t really advise you in creation anymore, as this is when you let your creation free to adapt and evolve into the final product. In Tom’s case, it’s the game itself, the player growing more invested in Tom’s interactions and building him up more as events play out in Tom’s life. Personally, I can’t wait to see where all of my player characters go in the story we’re writing together. Hope this gave you some ideas of your own. As always, keep writing!