One of the most important qualities a fictional character can possess is to seem real to the reader.
Forget just stringing together a series of words describing physical attributes and how the character carries out routine or off-the-chart situations—perhaps spiced with inner thoughts. There is more to creating someone with feelings and emotions and a physical presence and it doesn’t have to be daunting. Because the reader sees events through the eyes of these players in the story, at all costs avoid moving paper dolls or overblown figures through the scenes.
Putting life into physical descriptions
This is a place where adjectives, adverbs, similes and metaphors are your friends as long as they aren’t overused. Sprinkling them in the right places sparks the reader’s imagination. It allows them to draw parallels to familiar images and see them in their mind’s eye. Overuse them, however, and it minimizes everything. Why? Because with each new spouting of a simile, metaphor or more adjectives or adverbs than should ever be huddled together in the same sentence, the reader begins to wonder how many more of these they can endure.
Tap into your own impressions rather than clichés
To avoid clichés, reach into your own experiences and picture things that impressed you. Put the image into words and apply it to something about your character. For example, the woman had shining blonde hair. If it was straight, did it just hang there or shimmer like a golden shawl?
Why would I choose the simile of a golden shawl for this example? Because I pictured a former business partner and friend who had hair like that. I could never look at her without thinking of a golden silk shawl. Let’s say the hair isn’t straight, but curly. Is it in tight ringlets perhaps described as coiled little ringlets like the fur on a pampered poodle? Maybe this blonde hair undulates in luxurious waves reminiscent of waves kissed by the glow of the sun as they push toward shore.
In each of these examples we picture a different person. And, every reader will have their unique vision of that person. Simply saying “her straight blonde hair” or “curly blonde hair” or using a cliche would never launch imagination in the same way.
Create your own reference file
So often these images are fleeting, triggered by something someone said, something we remembered or saw, but even with Herculean effort, we can’t pull them back when we need them. They lurk right at the edge of recognition, then slip away. One way to capture them is to keep a log. When an image like that pops into your mind, distinct images and emotions ride on their coattails, leaving you with a describable impression. Reach for the little spiral notebook—we all should have one of those—and flip to the section you’ve set aside for just such visions. Using the same example as above, assume you imagined hair badly in need of care. Maybe you would jot down: her blonde hair reminded me of a field of hay long past the time it should have been harvested.
Why keep the notebook?
You might not have immediate need for any of these impressions, adjectives or adverbs when they catch your attention, but when you need something special you have references from your own experience or imagination. A favorite that I jotted down, just because I liked the sound of it, was “like an old dowager attempting to keep her dignity.” It was from some old 1940’s movie on late night TV, but the image stuck with me. Later I used it in Devil’s Dance to create a visual image of a shabby sofa with arm caps covering the worn spots. A description of a dowager wasn’t related to a sofa, but the image of hanging onto the last bit of dignity was clear.
Drawing upon your own emotional experiences
When placing a character in an emotional situation, whether the scene is one of love at first sight, terror, or delight at seeing a new baby, the deep emotional reaction must be felt. Your character must feel it so the reader can as well. That reaction isn’t one sided. It’s both physical and mental. You can soar to the heights or drop to the depths. You might swell with pride or be reduced to tears. That is the mental side. What are the physical reactions? Does your stomach twist in spasms? Is the person so happy they actually feel a bit lightheaded? That’s where the writer becomes the method actor.
Write what you know
You’ve probably heard that saying so many times you’re sick of it. Still, the majority of us have had experiences that produce these emotions and physical reactions. Your own experience may have no direct relationship whatsoever to the actual mechanics of the scene you’re in the process of creating, but the feelings are the same.
Think back to those times and immerse yourself in the memory. For example, the odds are you have never been threatened at gunpoint as your scene now dictates, but have you been in an accident? Have you taken tests at a doctor’s office and awaited the results? Have you walked through a dark, isolated area, then heard a noise? What did you feel? Terror. What does your victim feel? Terror. Again, it’s not the same situation, but terror creates a set of physical and mental reactions, regardless of the situation.
Your notebook becomes your personal databank
To grasp those feelings, forget about how to relate your memory to the scene in your manuscript. Instead, as you picture it, enter what happened to you or what you experienced in an “Experiences” section of your notebook. While you are writing down your own feelings, let your mind roam free. Capture the emotions that surge back as the memories take hold. Now you have a record of what that emotion feels like. Surprisingly, it can be applied to a multitude of manuscripts, because the basics are the same. Let’s say the reaction was surging thoughts. The only difference, is they become the thoughts that apply to that particular situation and will vary with the storyline. But, the thoughts still surge.
Everything in the WRITERS TRICKS OF THE TRADE column and more will be available as the book “Writers Tricks of the Trade: The ABCs of writing fiction” later this year. This column appears in the Las Vegas edition every Thursday and Los Angeles every Friday. The SPOTLIGHT feature with author interviews, organization overviews or event information appears in the Las Vegas edition every Tuesday and Los Angeles edition on Wednesday.
MORGAN ST. JAMES co-authors the award-winning comical crime capers of the Silver Sisters, with the latest one, Vanishing Act in Vegas, due out later this year. She has many short stories in publication as well as a pair of romantic suspense novels, Devil’s Dance and The Devil’s Due, written as Arliss Adams. Morgan is a frequent speaker, panel member or moderator and presents writers’ and motivational workshops.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Visit her websites www.morganstjames-author.com, www.silversistersmysteries.com and www.devils-dance.com. Or, check out the new Morgan’s World Blog. It has nothing to do with writing–just her thoughts, memories and opinions about a variety of subjects.