Some Notes on Writing Characters

  • A facet of a character’s personality can surface in several ways. Imagine a character who wants to avoid anything unpleasant. – such as only wanting to see perfection and not wanting to see the bad side of life, can be shown in their actions, from being fascinated by the outside to hating a new television because it displays imperfections.
  • A personality trait is not just one dimensional. It can be viewed from all angles of the character’s action. That is to say, personality traits don’t exist in a vacuum. Everything a character does will be indicative of the whole of their self.
  • What a protagonist notices is not just for the reader’s benefit. Write what the character would notice, not what you would notice. What the protagonist notices is also dependent on their personality. Not all protagonists will notice how pretty a butterfly is, they may instead notice its wriggling hideous body or the decayed flower. This is probably the most important take away. Describe the character’s inner landscape by how THEY describe the outer landscape.
  • Characters do not follow the path of the story’s plot, they follow the PATH OF THEIR CHARACTER
  • The people that character’s choose to surround themselves also reflects their personalities. Characters DO have agency in who they choose to spend their time with, and if they feel they do not, that is part of their character. Other characters should be less FATE crashing into the protagonist to force a confrontation, and more the people that particular protagonist is attracted to.
  • If a character represses one of their traits or emotions, it will surface after extreme stress or in small ways throughout the day. Example: A character who tries to convince himself that he is in love with his girlfriend will have bizarre and complex dreams at night of getting away from her, be passive-aggressive, or stay out late avoiding her while telling himself that’s not what he’s doing.
  • A character in extreme stress or grief will respond to stimuli in somewhat unusual, but not necessarily DRAMATIC ways. Not everyone will scream when encountered with bad news. Sometimes, they will just go make a cup of coffee or bite their lips.
  • Do not reference a character’s personality traits directly. Show them through their reaction to stimuli. This is “Show not tell” at its basic. You can’t just tell me that a character has a temper, it needs to be proven. (An interesting twist would be a character who tells us they have a temper, but is actually quite mild-mannered and has been led to believe they have a temper by someone else.)
  • Explore the stress of everyday occurrences. Find out what bothers your characters, riles them, their thought processes when exposed to a normal frustration.
  • The character is not set on a trajectory, pushed forward by fate. In real life, almost nothing is pressed upon you unless you seek after it. In stories, almost the opposite is true, and cardboard-tasting characters go on wild rides of destiny that have no context because their personality doesn’t match the circumstance.
  • If something extraordinary is going to happen to your character, your character should be extraordinary. I want to see less “Everyday Joe gets amazing adventure and hot girl.” What has your character done to deserve their adventure?
  • Individual speech and thought patterns can be reflected in the cadence of prose.
  • A character should not be broken or “wrong” to cover up the writing flaws of the author. If the character is broken, it should be because she serves the purpose of the story, NOT because the writer doesn’t know how to write any other way.
  • Characters rarely say what they are thinking or feeling. It’s almost always indirect, and in the indirectness their personality shines through. It is not in truth that the character is revealed, but through their particular flavor of lies.
  • The character is not always (usually) aware of their flaws. What the character does in response to stimuli, they often consider normal even if it’s aberrant.
  • A character’s personality can be revealed in the way that other people react to their behavior. Maybe their friends are used to your character’s bad behavior and will react to it pre-emptively. I.E, cringing when they know he’s about to snap, trying to talk him down, asking him does he “really” need another beer?
  • How does one determine personality? It’s at first, in appearance, but this isn’t just the way someone dresses. It’s their posture, where their eyes go, the way they position themselves in space, whether they have a “clean” face or a “dirty one”, how their facial expressions change and how quickly, how their clothes fit, whether they have clean fingernails or not, the state of their hair, musculature, their response and physical reaction to your language, if they recoil at any noises, if they flinch or lean forward. Even the physical space that you’ve found in them. All physical appearance traits tie back into history and personality.
  • People do not remain static. This idea of “static” and “Dynamic” characters in fiction is absurd. All characters are in a sense dynamic, they change based on the circumstance. The girl who fell in love with her awkward first boyfriend is not the girl who is at thirty, struggling over ice and ash with her dead husband echoing in her ears.
  • Experiences shape who we are. We are not static creatures stumbling through events unchanged. Each event will slightly alter the course of how we respond to the next event.
  • Through a dissonance of action and thought, sometimes true personality and motivation can be revealed.
  • It’s indicative of a character what they choose to obsess about. Obsessions indicate in a sense, some kind of intelligence and personality. (Whether it be video games, 19th century French novels, girls with blonde hair.)
    • And obsessions are related to the person’s life trajectory and history
  • A person’s desires often contrast their current situation. What one wants, is often, what one doesn’t have. Or what one must constantly have. A desire indicates a lack.
    • The character is often unaware of this lack, but it ruptures through them in small ways. In their language, dreams, the thoughts they choose to illustrate the current situation, dialog
  • A person’s coping mechanisms is indicative of their thinking process
  • I’m reading a Margaret Atwood story (Alphinland) and it contracts and then expands, hinting at internal structures that define the rest of her decisions, and then laying them out in full detail. She hints at Alphinland and then later describes the whole process. In this way we’re not blindsided by the development or influence of Alphinland, but it makes sense nestled inside the middle of the story.
  • The moment when people begin to behave differently than they usually do, is the defining moment of a story.
    • Or when people’s behavior, unchanging, begins to affect the world so dramatically that it forces them to confront themselves
  • Oftentimes key phrases, seemingly out of context, repeat themselves to cement the “quest” of the character. Atwood’s “Pull yourself together!” They can seem odd, and out of place, but slowly come into meaning. Not even the character’s themselves understand why the phrases repeat in their heads. It’s mostly a subconscious process, that may only be realized days, months, years, later.
    • This definitely happens in real life as well. The phrase “A Gentle hell” comes to mind.
  • The environment and weather (especially if it’s unusual weather) can serve to bring some of the character’s personality traits into sharp contrast against the environment.
    • But the weather is not merely a reflection of the character’s “inner turmoil” (Although it can be.) What’s more important is how the character confronts the weather and their reaction it.

NOTE: I wrote this list while reading Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress, which is an excellent example of how to write characters. I’d also recommend anything by Raymond Chandler.

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