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Writing: How to create deep, vibrant characters within a story?
kateelliott
A reader question:
My question is, how do you balance the need to cut out the large amounts
of extraneous material about a character's background versus the desire
to provide the reader with deep, vibrant characters with whom they can
relate? I understand now more about how to place hints via dialogue and
action, but I am concerned about leaving my characters too shallow.


What are some ways to think about creating deep, vibrant characters within a story?

A long description of a character, his/her antecedents, personality traits, skills, and relationships, does not in fact tell me anything about that character. Such a description only tells me what is in the writer’s head about that character. Now, this can be valuable information for the writer to know, perhaps even crucial depending on the flow and needs of the story.

But the way I, as the reader, learn about character in the story is through action and reaction and interaction (all actions): I learn about the character through seeing what they do and what they say and what they think and how they respond to the crises of the story. Nothing else ultimately matters in terms of character.

So, if you tell me that my forthright heroine always speaks her mind and is decisive, and yet in her first interactions with the powerful alpha male hero she stammers, is wrong about things, is shy, and tongue-tied, then you have lost me, because I will start disbelieving what you are telling me because what the character is doing contradicts it.

In fact, you don’t need to tell me a damn thing about my forthright heroine, not in personality terms. There may be things you, the author, will want to tell me, but just don’t. Because you shouldn’t need to if you can use character action and interaction to get across those same things.

[Aside: That I am a big fan of the adage “Show, don’t Tell” doesn’t mean there are never appropriate times to use Tell as one of the tools in your writing toolkit. There are. You just need to know when and why it works.]

When the forthright heroine speaks her mind despite knowing she will be taken to task for it, or the hardened warrior buys wilted flowers he doesn’t need from an indigent child when no one is looking, or the publicly-admired prince slaps his servants in private because the water in in his bath isn’t the right temperature, or the hard-bitten foul-mouthed tough-as-nails detective cries (or doesn’t cry) when she is alone because her dog has just died, or the chance-met traveler on a winter night gives her cloak to a beggar, you then know far more about the character than if I reeled out a list of adjectives.

Additionally, when characters meet other characters they already know, their responses and interactions will be governed by that prior relationship. The writer doesn’t have to tell us. Because we are band animals, we most of us can quickly suss out relationships through watching interaction. So if Jo enters the room and stiffly shakes hands with Emma while standing as far away from her as possible but warmly kisses Cecilia on either cheek, we can guess something--maybe we don’t quite yet know what--about her relationships with the other two women.

More importantly, consider this: Humans like to figure out other humans. We evolved to observe, interact, gossip, and create relationships.

Creating a relationship between the characters is not all a novelist does. We as writers are also creating a relationship between the character and the reader.

So ask yourself: Why does the reader need to know all this stuff you have in your head?

What do we truly know about people when we first meet them? In that sense, every new person we meet is “shallow” until we get to know them better.

During the course of a story, we are getting to know characters better just as we get to know new acquaintances better by spending time with them. We learn about them through conversation, activity, gossip, and observation. They don’t hand us a sheet of paper listing important things about their life they think we need to know, not unless they are applying for a job and handing us their resume. To a great extent the author-supplied info dump is a resume. And resumes are almost always dead boring to read.

That doesn’t mean we don’t exchange information. We do that all the time, through dialogue, action, reaction, and interaction. The occasional judicious Tell can also be a good place to release information of this kind, but only the information we truly need to know that can’t be better revealed in another way.

Furthermore, never, ever, underestimate your readers. Readers don’t need everything spoon fed to them. Readers like to figure things out. Readers (not all readers; not all books) read in part to interact with the characters. We are social animals. Let readers be social in their reading experience. Because one of the relationships you are creating when you write is the relationship between the reader and your story.

Nifty post, but wow, did that last graph resonate with me.

Humans like to figure out other humans. We evolved to observe, interact, gossip, and create relationships.

There. That. Why "show don't tell" works in a nutshell.

---L.

So that's why I like some books and not others. Fantastic.

*starts humming "getting to know you ..."*

Oh, yes.

And I feel the same way about setting dumps, too...

Here via Sartorias, and am struck by how much I'd like a story for each of the scenarios you've described where we get to learn something about the character from their actions. Lovely storytelling in the interstices of a essay :-)

Very well-said, and thought-provoking.

An important part of the social being of characters is family. I'm always surprised when genre heroes of both sexes seem to have no families, as if they sprung from the ground fully formed.

'cause if you give them family, you have inflicted more characters upon your story. Possibly more than it could cope with.

Unless you are writing stories about single children who were orphaned and brought up by bears, there _will be_ other characters. They'll have neighbours, schoolmates, friends and co-workers, lovers and casual acquaintances. Family is just another node in the social network - you don't have to give them screen time, but knowing they're there will round a character off.

Also, if you _do_ have a romantic suplot or a relationship building through the book, I am much more reassured that it will last if all participants are shown to have healthy, loving relationships with third parties - the loner who learns to love only one person is *not* good relationship material because no person is an island and a new romantic partner needs to find their place in an existing social network. If you show me their social side beforehand, I'm more likely to believe that it will work out.

Except that you can pick and chose what to have in the social network, and that does include the family.

Once upon a time I had to write out a story before I knew any of my characters' motives.

But once I knew what they did, I knew what they were, and I could revise in what their motives had been.

Very impressive article, thank you for sharing it.

Readers don’t need everything spoon fed to them. Readers like to figure things out.

I think you've just put word to one of the reasons I love your books so much. sartorias spoke of 'middle-aged reader syndrome' elsewhere - when you've seen the clicheed plots and tired archetypes, not just once, but many times, when you can spot a linear plot and its ups and downs from afar, and it's boring. Books like you talk about are the perfect antidote - they assume a certain degree of maturity in the reader (as well as the ability to work things out and reach for a dictionary should they encounter an unfamiliar word etc); and I, for one, respond well to that assumption.

Readers (not all readers; not all books) read in part to interact with the characters. We are social animals. Let readers be social in their reading experience. Because one of the relationships you are creating when you write is the relationship between the reader and your story.

The social side is very much why I read, and I suppose one of the reasons I dislike unreliable narrators, explicit sex (I don't want to watch my real life friends having sex in my living room, either) or narratives that are blatantly manipulated by the writer to act and react in certain ways and who don't seem to have a life of their own outside the writer's agenda.

Heh. That's a really good reason for disliking explicit sex.


For me there aren't that many surprises in narrative any more, as a reader, and yet I can still read novels with the greatest pleasure as long as I develop a relationship with the characters.

Great post!

>Adds to writing subject memories<


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