(Previously published at Flash Fiction Chronicles 2013)
Compelling fiction thrives on convincing characters. They are the flypaper that snares us mid-flight, the bones of every plot and story. The more realistic they are, the more vivid the reader’s window will be into their world. With a quick Google search, it isn’t hard to find lists of advice about the development of strong characters (give them motivations, histories, weaknesses, and hunger, among others), but my goal here is to shirk those broader tenets in favor of some less obvious techniques.
Here’s my list of five tips for bringing characters to life:
Tip #1: Give Them Senses
Close your eyes. Can you isolate three unique sounds? Is there an aftertaste of the last thing you drank still coating the palate? Is there a small pebble in your shoe, nipping your feet?
While omniscient narrators can show us everything, the characters force us to live the story. Clearly, as writers, we can’t overindulge. Not only can this convolute and bog down the plot, the human mind naturally focuses on only a few senses at a time in order to protect itself from sensory overload. But by mentioning unexpected senses, we color the world with meaningful details through the characters themselves:
Beijing was not new to pollution. Xui Li often called it the city of clouds, in jest. But it wasn’t the gray pall or even its acrid stench that bothered her. It was the taste, the air’s grit coating her tongue that brought her to wear the unsightly mask.
Likewise, in Flash, where every word counts, a simple reference of a familiar sense can evoke a distinct personality or even an implied history with just a few words:
Stepping off the bus, my Father’s brisk hug swallowed me in Jovan Musk – the stench a stale reminder of cold dinners and Sunday School.
Tip #2: Give Them Quirks
A character without strengths, weaknesses and motivations is not a character at all. But where these attributes give characters depth, quirks make them stand out in a crowd.
Quirks add a great dynamic that effectively frames a character’s history and personality without requiring a lot of investment in word count. But more importantly, they make characters memorable and likable.
Think about the people in your life. What is it about them that stands out the most? Try not to focus on bigger traits, like how Bob donates to charities, or Vanessa does missionary work in Chile. Think more along the lines of how Jim is a forty-year-old Justin Bieber fan, or how Katy, being an obsessive movie goer, always compares events to scenes of classic flicks.
Most quirks don’t need an explanation, but some deserve it. If Vicki wears an eye patch, there’s a history there that requires some explanation, and it may even be central to the plot. But unless it is a core aspect of the story, a good rule of thumb for flash is to keep it simple, keep it unique, and let the characters use them how they will.
Tip: #3 Make Them Move
None of us simply stand still when we talk. We move, walk around, drink, and smoke, often without even thinking about it. As an experiment, try going to a friend’s house for coffee and spend twenty minutes discussing whatever you want. But casually, secretly, watch the other person. There are more than words being spoken: there’s the language of body movement, emphasizing and ever implying.
Having characters coil fingers in the cord while on the phone, taking intermittent sips as they talk or even butting a lit cigarette halfway through the discussion is a great way to pump blood into the dialogue. These little motions add a certain realism which piques the readers’ attention and keeps them in the world.
Sure, you could write this:
‘Right,’ Terry said. ‘I’ll just run a system scan and it should be good to go.’
But by adding a small action, you spark even the tiniest moment:
‘Right,’ Terry pushed his glasses up the crook of his nose. ‘I’ll just run a system scan and it should be good to go.’
Tip #4: Let Them Speak For Themselves
As a writer, it’s important to always remember that this isn’t about you, it’s about the characters. So, give them the freedom to express their thoughts and feelings. Just as movements are a great way to keep characters active, they can also be effective means of showing what characters think or feel. Never tell what they’re experiencing when dialogue or actions can deliver the same point.
This could capture the character’s emotions:
‘At least you still have the girls,’ Carol said.
‘I know,’ Gina nodded. But it still hurt. There was a void where her baby once was, and he wasn’t any less of a child in her heart.
But the character could easily convey the same information without pushing the reader into her mind:
‘At least you still have the girls,’ Carol said.
‘I know,’ Gina whispered, touching the void where her belly once swelled. ‘He just…he was still my baby boy.’
Naturally, we shouldn’t force characters to express themselves when they normally wouldn’t want to; some thoughts are best kept in the head. But showing instead of telling goes a long way in fiction, and it grants characters personal freedom to make their own impact.
Tip #5: Challenge Them
How much do you know about your characters before starting the story? No matter the answer, the reader knows nothing, so giving them opportunities to learn more about the characters is paramount. Life is full of little complications, and how we react says a lot about us: how patient we are, how forgiving, how sympathetic. The same applies here. As an exercise, try challenging your characters with seemingly unnecessary complications to help bring their personalities to life.
Have someone cut him off on the ride home; have a homeless man accidentally bump into her on the subway; have him spill coffee on his newspaper. These little occurrences can prime the readers’ understanding of whom these characters are, which further validates how they react to larger events.
When Pastor Johnson gets cut off, he curses, telling us he may not hold as much conviction to his faith; when Judge Roberts goes to work, she condemns the homeless man his accident, telling us she’s quick to, well, judge; and when Bruce, the mailman, spills coffee on his paper, he gives a heavy sigh and cleans it up, explaining why he doesn’t go into a rage when told he’s lost his job.
In flash, minutia is crucial, and a few hints at a character’s humanity can work wonders for a robust personality. By giving them the ability to experience their own world; to be whatever quirky self they may be; to stretch their arms on a long drive; to express their own thoughts and feelings; and the opportunity take on little challenges, you give them life.