Creative Writing: Characters

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by Gina Burgess

Creating a truly good story is not only an art, it is a skilled art. There are certain skills in creative writing that do come naturally. Some people have a way with words that are incredibly interesting, while others have to work to get the same effect. However, character development is something that no one can just sit down and do unless they are a scholar of human nature.

Georgette Heyer was such a scholar. Her mastery of character development was so powerful you did not have to read a name to know who was talking in the dialogue. She had distinct personalities similar to Jane Austin’s, although not quite as striking. For example, in The Black Moth the evil character Devil Andover is actually the same person as Satanas the Duke of Avon in These Old Shades. Same characteristics, same mannerisms, the same syntax of speech, the same man. What is so interesting about this character is that Devil in The Black Moth is the person you wish to die because he is so evil, while in These Old Shades you soon develop a great empathy for him and hope for his salvation.

Some good tips for character development come from The Creative Writer series (Addison-Wesley, 1998) but I don’t know which one because I didn’t notate where the prompts came from, however, I added the illustrations and narrative.

1. Give physical details about the character within prose. Don’t just list long, black hair, ruby red lips, curvaceous body, wearing sneakers and an evening dress. Do it creatively.

Her raven black hair shimmered under each street light as she ran up the street. Her lips looked dark red in the dim light and were parted as she panted for air. The tail of her evening dress was tucked into her belt, showcasing each of her delicious curves. The slap of her sneakers echoed down the empty street and was accompanied by screeching tires and manly shouts to stop. She ignored them all.

2. Describe the physical environment surrounding your character. (See #1). You get the feel that it is night, urban, and in a part of town that might be industrial because it is deserted, but lighted.

3. People the character associates with. (See #1). She’s being chased by men who have at least one motor vehicle. You know they want something from her, or want her for something otherwise they wouldn’t be chasing her… or are they?

4. The things the character does. We don’t know this from the first paragraph, but we know she’s planned for this run because she’s wearing sneakers with an evening dress. We know she is in shape or she would have planned a different kind of exit from wherever she was. She knew she’d be followed, she knows her enemy. She has a lot of growth to do because she didn’t plan very well, and because she’s running down an empty street. Is there safety anywhere on that street?

5. The things the character thinks and says. Keeping this consistent is not as hard as it seems. You can picture a person you know (in fact, I recommend this) and follow the same kind of syntax this person uses, same kind of whacky word (when I say Crikey, who do you think of?), same kind of mannerisms. Make your character as human as possible. Emphasize a frailty. But don’t make your character a caricature (unless, of course, you are writing humorously). Especially, do not force your character to do something that is uncharacteristic unless you talk about it as uncharacteristic. Forcing characters into action that they ordinarily would not do is a classic story flow dam. I know one author who fills out a personality test on each character. Her characters breathe on the pages. They are vibrant and alive. You feel their fear and joy. It’s powerful.

Craft Question: How do you insert attributes of your characters into the narrative. Care to give an example?

2 thoughts on “Creative Writing: Characters”

  1. You just reminded me that I really need to read that Heyer novel (The Black Moth). I hear so much about it, Georgette Heyer really was the master of the Regency novel and distinct characterization. Great tips!

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