by Karen Sue Walker
As writers, we want our characters to come alive on the page as fully formed individuals who capture readers’ imaginations. What we don’t want to hear is: “All your characters sound the same.” But how do we create memorable characters?
One way is to start with a few questions.
1.What do your characters look like?
This is the most obvious, but when you introduce a character, give us at least a hint of what they look like. If they get a name, they need a description. This does not need to be a head to toe inventory of hair color, eye color, outfit, etc. In fact, it can be just one or two key characteristics for minor characters. Your readers’ imaginations will fill in the rest. Here’s an example from one of my favorite authors:
“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.” Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely.
A description can tell us a lot about a character. Are they a slob? Rich or poor? Laid back? Young or old? Later the reader may learn that the first impression was not accurate, but just like in real life, allow the reader to have a first impression.
2.What do your characters sound like?
Dialog is an important tool to make each character unique. It’s natural for us to use the same words and speech patterns for our characters as we do in our own speech. It’s not always easy to make your characters “sound” different. You can do this by using slang, dialects, or by using big or small words, or other verbal idiosyncrasies. One of my characters was southern, so I researched southern phrases which I sprinkled in lightly, such as “that woman could make a preacher cuss.” Don’t go overboard – a little goes a long way. Another of my characters doesn’t use contractions. This wasn’t easy to pull off without the reader noticing, but it gives her a distinctive voice.
3.What do your characters love? What do they hate?
Okay, they love their family and they hate injustice. Who doesn’t? It will be more interesting if they also love French movies and hate ball point pens. Or maybe they have a love/hate relationship with their mother or food. Speaking of ball point pens, the detective in my novels loves the clicking sound they make. What does he hate? Anything out of order.
4.What do your characters want? What do they need?
What they want will determine what your characters do and say, but what they need will provide the subtext. Needs are rarely the same thing as wants. Sometimes, it’s the exact opposite. Just ask anyone on a diet and I think they’ll agree with me.
5.What are your characters’ secrets?
Everyone has secrets, and so should your characters. You may or may not reveal their secrets, but knowing what they’re hiding will help you write a more three-dimensional character. And if you are writing a book series, you might reveal in book three that Father Murphy is really a werewolf. Only then will readers realize that the good priest was never around during a full moon in books one and two.
How do you learn all this about your characters? Many people write character sketches, answering a list of questions to define them. You can find plenty of templates online. I’m sure it’s helpful for many people, but I find it tedious and usually quit around question seven.
A suggestion I just heard (from Greta Boris) is to have your characters write you a letter. Let them tell you about their secrets and desires. You don’t need to put everything you learn about your characters into your novel – in fact I recommend you don’t. But you should know your characters so well that when you write about them, the reader feels like they know them too.
What questions would you ask your characters?
Karen Sue Walker is a lover of mysteries, both in books and in life. She grew up reading Nancy Drew and gravitated to Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. After several careers including financial analysis and industrial equipment sales, Karen decided to write her first cozy mystery, Murder in White Lace, A Bridal Shop Mystery. This was soon followed by Murder in Crimson Velvet.
When not working at her day job as an automotive Internet sales consultant or writing, she spends time with her daughter, who is also her story consultant, and her granddaughter Kalena. Kalena and Karen co-wrote “The Adventures of Josie the Cat,” a short story.