When you left the cinema as a child, did you dance off down the street, convinced you were the Gene Kelly character? Nowadays, are you the hero or heroine whenever you read a novel?
The cinema hero probably owed more to the skills of the actor than the writer. One thing's for sure - you got to know him pretty intimately during the big picture. But the successful writer can make you "see" characters without the aid of pictures. And the most successful characters in fiction are the ones you identify with or feel you know.
At the risk of sounding obvious, writing and reading are complementary activities. The writer must engage the reader with realistic characters. And the reader should be able to say, "That's me!" - or, "I used to know her."
Characters are the driving force behind the plot. They're not vehicles, dragging the plot behind them like a trailer. You live your life, it doesn't just "happen" to you. You do things, say things that reveal who you are - and so should your characters. To the author they must be real because he/she breathed life into them. They have a name and a history.
Start by naming your character, giving as much thought to the exercise as you would to naming a newborn infant. Don't fall into the anachronism trap - names "date" a character. An old lady wouldn't be called Billie-Jo, for example, any more than an old man would be called Darren. Look in phone books and baby-naming books. Try collecting names off gravestones. My all-time favorite is Hypatia Jiggins, exhumed from a cemetery in Portsmouth, England, the birthplace of Charles Dickens. He was a master of the name game, with every name giving a clue to the personality.
It was Dickens' friend and sometime collaborator Wilkie Collins who wrote The Moonstone with its unforgettable fictional detective Sergeant Cuff, based on a real-life police inspector. Note the brisk efficiency encapsulated in the name "Cuff". A well-chosen name should always tell you something of the character.
Wriggle under the skin of the person you're creating. Give him strengths and frailties. Mannerisms impart credibility. Remember the guy who cracked his knuckles incessantly in class? He almost certainly had a greater long-term impact on you than the one who punched you on the nose in the playground.
Try this exercise: Sit in a coffee bar for as long as you can without getting thrown out. Watch the people arriving and leaving. Don't judge, just observe, taking notes if necessary. Your characters may be fictitious, but watching people going about their everyday lives will help you turn words on a page into flesh, blood and spirit.
Dialog is what carries the action along. A character's individual voice and vocal foibles bring him to life. Does your character have a favorite expression that he/she often repeats?
One of the first short stories I ever sold had an elderly woman as its heroine. Based very loosely on someone I knew, she mixed up traditional proverbs to comical effect.
Eavesdropping is a valuable means of collecting convincing dialog. A snippet of overheard conversation can give you the basis not only for characters but the start of a plot. When you're writing dialog, it's important that characters have different verbal mannerisms. As well as creating distinct personalities, you avoid cluttering up the page with the "he saids" and "she saids" of a game of consequences.
It's OK to take bits of one person and attach them to another - a ghoulish but effective exercise. But never lift an entire character from life if you want to avoid charges of libel. "Recycle" your friends and relatives.
Think of those Happy Families toys made up of sliding rings set around a drum and painted with pictures of different characters. By rotating the rings you can create a whole new set of characters by lining up a postman's head, for example, with an old lady's body and a cowboy's legs. Interchange physical mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of speech, as well as appearance. Take revenge on people who annoy you. I once put the face of a woman who offended me onto the character of a public lavatory attendant.
Use an oblique "show-not-tell" means of creating characters. Drop hints, rather than making bold statements.
A womanizer is trapped in an embarrassing situation. Caught between his new love and his ex at dinner, James loosened his tie and shot darting glances around the room, looking for an escape route.
The woman up the road is a lady until she opens her mouth. Mandy MacDonald wore a sharp outfit with a matching tongue. "Go fly a kite and don't bother letting go the string!" she yelled at the rapidly departing salesman.
The macho hero feels uncomfortable around weeping women. Jiggling Madeleine's elbow, Frank said, "Hey, don't cry. It makes your mouth look like a letterbox."
These, I would point out, are my own off-the-cuff examples, not models of the ideal.
Watch television soap operas as a means of research. It's not just an excuse for being lazy. Follow the characters and see if they ever behave out of character.
Try this exercise:
Pick one character, preferably one you can identify with, and follow his or her storyline for several episodes. Do you like him/her? Does he/she always act in character?
Take note of where he/she veers off the path of credibility. Ask yourself what you think he/she should do. What would you do in similar circumstances? Are they the same thing?
Think you can do better? Of course you can. Once you've cracked the credible character code, you can create convincing personalities time after time. See them clearly in your mind's eye. Talk to them and see if they talk back. If you're writing fiction in a room on your own and you hear a voice behind you say, "Hey, I'd never do that!" you're on the right track.
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