The Writer’s Desk: Building Character

The delineation of characters is important in any kind of creative writing—fiction, essay, drama, screenwriting, and even poetry. Since I’m a fiction writer, I’ll focus my comments for this post on characters in novels and short stories.

The best book I know on the subject of character development is Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint, a book in the Writer’s Digest series Elements of Fiction Writing. If I had only one book on fiction writing to take with me on a desert island, it would be that book. In the book Card has a great chapter called “Characters We Love, Characters We Hate.” Perhaps in another blog I’ll share some thoughts on that matter. For now I’d like to talk about the basics of delineating character.

There are two important things to remember about creating good characters. One is tension; the other is what Jack Bickham calls creating “traits and tags.”

A good character is complex. That word, “complex,” comes from a Latin word meaning “to entwine.” A complex character is driven by an inward tension between two forces. For example, a woman who wants to be a mother and also have a full-time career, or a man whose desire to be a good father is rooted in his hatred for his own father.

But the tensions don’t have to be based in diametrical opposition. A few years ago, while teaching a creative writing class, I came up with the “A + B = C” formula for characters development. In the formula, you take an average person or a typical role in life (A), add a bizarre quality (B), and you end up with a character (C). For example, (A) a stereotypical truck driver who (B) has memorized the entire Book of Mark from the New Testament. A guy like that is a character. Or (A) a Wasatch Front suburban Mormon homemaker who (B) welds art sculptures of reptiles from scrap iron. Or (A) the owner of a fast food restaurant who’s (B) a local expert on butterflies.

Of course, a story that begins with such formulations should evolve and develop. The characters’ relationships with one another should eventually take preeminence over gimmicks. Still, these character contradictions are a good place to start, especially if the character tension resonates with other aspects of the story. For example, perhaps the fast food restaurant owner with a penchant for butterflies can have a teenaged daughter he doesn’t understand, a daughter who’s gradually and gracefully flitting away from him. That’s a start, at least.

Another important aspect of creating character comes in using what I’ll call “character shorthand.” This technique is especially valuable for secondary characters who cross the stage of the story only once or a few times. For example, I’m currently working on a story that has two characters who appear only once. This is how we see them:

  • “Outside it was the first nice day of spring. Students were walking in short sleeves and shorts or studying out on the lawn. Two guys were playing Frisbee, one a tall kid with bushy red hair, the other one wearing a leather jacket and no shirt.”

Let’s focus on our friend “wearing a leather jacket and no shirt.” Those few words tell us a lot. In fact, we’ve all probably seen this guy in our lives. (I wouldn’t be surprised if he was also wearing shorts and cowboy boots.) What character traits can a reader instinctually draw from the image of “a leather jacket and no shirt”? A reader might conclude that the guy thinks he’s cool but really isn’t, that he thinks he’s God’s gift to women, and that he has no fashion taste whatsoever. The reader’s instinct might also tell her something else: although this guy may appear tough, he’s no real threat to anyone. The reader can get all of that—and more—from seven words! That’s why I call it “character shorthand.”

How about some more characters drawn with a few words?

  • “The salesman spoke around the stub of a cigar crammed in his mouth.”
  • “The teenager tugged at her skirt, repeatedly pulling it toward her knees.”
  • “The teacher read the paper, her lips pursed, tapping her pencil’s eraser on the desk.”
  • “The ball player sat back, grinning, legs spread, his big hands on his knees.”

Notice how each of these sentences involves a vivid action and, often, a physical object—a cigar, skirt, or pencil. And notice how each sentence evokes emotion without stating an abstraction—arrogance, anxiety, or skepticism, for example.

These qualities tie in with what Jack Bickham calls “traits and tags.” In Bickham’s words, “traits” involve distinctions of personality, while “tags” involve physical characteristics. Yes, as I just said, a character should be complex, but a character also should have a sort of “life mission statement,” a driving force that motivates everything he or she does.

Here are a few examples of “traits”:

  • Wanda doesn’t trust men.
  • Bill is afraid of success.
  • Alex tries to use money to win friends.
  • Francine faces setbacks with Pollyanna-like optimism.

Here are a few examples of “tags”:

  • Orin frequently takes off his hat and puts it back on again.
  • Jennifer twists a lock of her hair while she talks.
  • Gary closes one eye and tilts his head when considering a new idea.
  • When he’s nervous, Lucian rubs his arms, which are sleeved in tattoos.

These are just a few things that help delineate characters. Part of the fun of being a fiction writer is watching for meaningful characteristics in people you meet. For example, the image of the guy who rubs his arms that are sleeved in tattoos—that’s based on a guy who works at a convenience store near my sister’s house in Sandy, Utah. I don’t know the guy’s name, but while working on a story, I needed a character and his image came to mind. I named him Lucian, hoping he would be just as vivid a character for my readers as he is in my mind’s eye.

Those are just a few tips for creating characters—a little tension, a little shorthand, and a little imagery. Put these characters in relationships with each other, and you’ll have the beginnings of a good story.


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6 Responses to The Writer’s Desk: Building Character

  1. I have to say characters are my real true love in writing. When I started writing seriously several years ago, it was the characters that drove me to write stories, not the stories themselves. This lead to trouble, of course, but I find the same thing when I read… if a story has great characters in it, I can forgive almost any other writing sin (sometimes up to and including content that I generally wouldn’t say is redeeming… which can also be a problem).

    I sometimes wonder if we as writers view life through a lense of “this person is so interesting… I want to make them a character in my story.” Whenever I try and come up with a good set of traits and motivations and behaviors for a character, i always turn to the repertoire of people who have puzzled or made me laugh or who have really frustrated me in my own life.

    I think another thing to add to character development is studied contrasts… what sort of point are you making with a character who has no shirt but a leather jacket, for instance. What does his leather jacket symbolize in the story, what sort of impact is this character going to have on the theme and development of the plot, and why is his shirtless-leather-jacketed state poignant to the main character (who after all noticed it and has some reason for finding it important enough to ruminate over.)


    • Jack Harrell says:

      I agree that it can be an occupation hazard, watching for “characters” in people we meet. At the same time, it’s deepened my interest in individuals, and strengthened my ability sympathize with others.

  2. I agree. Though I think introspection (people watching) has to be balanced with action. I struggle with this. It’s very safe to watch people… harder to reach out to them.

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Fantastic post, Jack. Think I’ll share the link with the members of my writing group.

  4. Kjerstin Stanavige says:

    I love this. The A+B=C formula reminds me of a Writing Excuses podcast I listened to a couple days ago. They used the same formula to create story premises. In their case, A = old and/or cliche idea (“vampire in high school”), B = new twist or surprise element (“he got turned into a vampire when he was a fat, pimply 15-year-old”), and C = story premise (fat, pimply teenage vampire tries to figure out his identity and future while knowing he will never, ever grow out of his ugly stage). There’s a lot to be said for inspiration, but I think this strategy turns out much more interesting characters.

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