J.A. Stinger

Words Can Inspire The World

Three Great Ways To Bring Your Character Alive #AmWriting #Wrtr2wrtr

Do you know those awkward moments when you're sharing a tight space with a complete stranger on, say, an elevator ride?

Neither of you is talking. You are just staring into the blank as if there was something really interesting to see there. Your closeness  feels like too much, too soon.

It's the same with your story characters.

There can be “too much, too soon.” 

How does that happen? You try to stuff all the information about your characters into the start of your story. It looks like luggage sticking out of a trunk.

Or maybe you have the opposite problem, and you really don’t develop your characters at all. If they feel like a blank sheet of paper to your readers, throughout the story, then your readers won’t care about them. Or finish the story.

In either case, slow down and reconsider!

You see, story writing is not a sprint. It's a long-distance run. If you want to write an excellent story, you have to be patient. 

Patient to develop your plot, patient to let your characters change, patient to bring in new information. And above all, patient to let your figures and the reader get to know each other bit by bit.

Yes, poorly developed characters can be hard to detect so I've prepared this 'cheat sheet' for you - download it here - so you can check your story for character problems and any other story flaw. 

Done that? Great! So let’s take a look at how you can unobtrusively introduce your characters, step by step, until your reader feels like they're her best friends.

1. Show, Don’t Tell

There it is again, that old rule you know from every single one of your How to Write a Story books. Show, don’t tell. 

It means you shouldn’t just tell your readers “Cathy is ambitious.” Telling is flat and boring. Instead, let them experience Cathy’s character by showing how she stays up for two nights in a row to pass her exam, running only on coffee and will power.

Imagine if Ian Fleming just told you: “James Bond is a brave, daring guy.”

Boring. 

Instead, that beginning scene of Spectre, in which Bond fights two tough guys on a helicopter that’s tumbling and spinning over in mid-air, lets you feel who he is.

You are rooting for this daredevil now.

So make sure you don’t go the easy route and just quickly label your characters as strong, enthusiastic, depressed, playful, confident, shy, smart, loyal, organized, unreliable, talented, charismatic, mature, talkative, irresponsible, fashionable, decisive… or whatever.

Yes, there's a place in a story for 'tell'. Sometimes you do need to tell the reader about your characters and their backgrounds, in a passive way. Too much 'show' can turn a story into a comic strip. All action, no depth.

But make sure you have one or more scenes that clearly show the characters' attributes in action.

2. Look For Situations That Serve the Plot (While Also Showing Your Character’s Traits)

To let your characters show the reader who or what they are, you need to choose a fitting occasion that brings out their traits.

We know our character Cathy is ambitious. As we've seen, she studies hard. But just saying that she's a 'hard-working student' won't do it. Besides, her studies may have nothing to do with the story. 

Look for ways to dramatize her ambition.

Maybe she gets into a fight with her co-worker, because she is annoyed he is selling more insurance policies than she is. 

Maybe have her play a video game with her friends on Saturday night. She is obsessed with winning even a video game? Absolutely. Whatever she does, she has to win.

Many situations could show her ambition, but what you really want to look for is a situation that is part of your story’s plot. The tighter that situation is connected to your storyline, the better, because you will be achieving two effects at once: driving your plot plus introducing your character.

Your story then becomes one tight, interesting unit - no loose ends, no lax parts. That’s one surefire sign of a good writer, incidentally. They need fewer pages than newbies do, to say what they need to say. 

Consider what you want to show about your character, dramatize that attribute in a 'characterising incident' (or several incidents), then connect those incidents with your plot in the most natural way possible.

3. Spread The Information Out Over The Entire Story

So you know the scene that will best reveal your character’s key trait, and you know how to make it part of your plot? Great! 

Now, patience is everything.

Don’t rush things. You should distribute your information over your entire story nice and evenly, like sprinkles on a chocolate cake. Wait for the occasions. They'll come soon enough, all by themselves.

That said, introducing your key character trait early in the story gives you a huge advantage. The sooner your reader knows your character, in the round, the sooner their personality will draw the reader into the story.

For example, take an aggressive character, who is easily provoked. If we don’t know about that aspect of his nature, early on, we won't feel any sense of foreboding or suspense when he interacts with other characters. 

But suppose we do know? Then, when that newspaper salesman tries to scam him… uuuh, we can sense some big, dark cloud looming on the horizon. We are anticipating an explosion, because we know his personality.
 
That sense of anticipation, of continual hope and fear, is what excites your readers most when they immerse themselves in your story. It keeps them in the page.

The sooner you can introduce your character, and give that character a first layer of depth, the more your reader will love you for it. (And hate or love your character.) But don’t rush the whole picture.

Let the natural moment(s) arrive.

In summary, to turn your key players into flesh and blood people, show don’t tell, connect your Characterizing Scenes closely to the plot, and spread out the information about those characters. A snippet here, a fragment there.

Do this and you will have real, intriguing characters your reader will root for (or against). Your audience will get to know those characters naturally, step by step, the way we get to know that intriguing looking stranger at a cocktail party.

Strong characterization is what brilliant writing is often all about.