Friday, February 17, 2012

Five Ways to Create Memorable, Multi-Layered Characters

by Jean Oram

As the newest member on the From the Write Angle block, I’m going to start a series of five quick tips (Five For Friday) covering everything from writing technique, to getting motivated, to creating a platform for your work.

Let’s get started!

First off, take a good, long, hard look at your characters.

Are they layered? Are they multi-dimensional? Are they the kind of character that becomes so real they can walk right off the page and cozy up in the memories of your readers?

And the big question: Can your characters sell your stories or are they holding you back, getting you rejected, and you don’t even know it?

For me, the characters in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible were so real that at times I had to remind myself that they were not in fact real, and that they were simply made up. Fiction. These characters and their depth is something I strive for in my own work.

Let’s take a peek at how we can make our own characters so real we forget we made them up. And for a splash of fun, we'll use Cosmo Kramer from the old hit show Seinfeld as an example.

Five Easy Ways to Create Characters That Will Knock Your Readers Socks Off, Dazzle Agents, Woo Editors, and Won’t Be Soon Forgotten:

  1. Imagine what their living accommodations look like.

    This may seem silly, but imaging where your characters live (apartment, mansion, at home with their parents) can tell you a lot about them. This might include financial status, marital status, ethnic background, and more. So will imagining what their home looks like. Clutter, crafts, bright colours and take-out menus all over the fridge can tell you a lot about their personality and habits. You don’t always have to show these things in your story, but knowing them while you write can help you convey effective tidbits about your character.

    As well, when creating a setting, slipping small details such as dead plants or surfboards into our character's home can give our readers a quick shot into that character's life. The bonus as a writer is that we can quickly convey a lot without using that 'evil' device called telling.

    Kramer: We never really see Kramer's apartment unless he is quirking it up with a talk show set or washing and prepping vegetables while showering. And he’s always eating at Jerry’s. What do these two small things tell you about Kramer?

  2. Give your main character (and your secondary characters) minor quirks.

    You don’t have to use your chosen quirks all the time, in fact, if you use too many it can become difficult to relate to that character. Use only one or two quirks a handful of times in a story to create another layer of believability to each character. Bonus: Using quirks can give your readers another spot to tag into your character as it makes them feel as though they 'know' this character.

    Kramer: This guy has quirks out the ying-yang. But his most notable ones are probably the way he enters Jerry’s apartment, the weird spaz-out almost-fall-over thing he does and his crazy hair. His quirks are who he is. He's one giant quirk (this is rare in that it works). If Kramer were to suddenly start sauntering into Jerry's apartment like a 'normal' person, what would you be lead to believe?

  3. Make sure your character has values and beliefs.

    If your characters are going to be real, they need values and beliefs. What means a lot to your characters? What do they believe in? Do they value a heirloom? Money? Spending time with friends? Fair trade coffee? Who are these individuals? Do they believe in karma? Allow their values and beliefs to drive their interactions.

    Kramer: This dude has a lot of beliefs. One is that wearing a ribbon is meaningless for creating awareness, but doing a charity walk is not. How does this have an effect on his interactions? Well, in a charity walk he gets into fisticuffs over not wearing a ribbon.

  4. What is your character's education level/career and how do they feel about it?

    Education, whether we want it to or not, can say a lot about us. It can affect the way we think, talk, even the things we think are funny.

    Kramer: This dude doesn't appear to hold a steady job. He didn't complete high school, but has a GED. This fits Kramer, doesn’t it? Could you see Kramer any other way? Could you see him at an office job day after day or sitting in advanced university classes? He wouldn’t be the Kramer we know and love, would he? (If you want another example, think of the characters in the show My Name is Earl.)

  5. Everyone's got inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies.

    We expect a mechanic to be into things like cruise nights, fixing things, vintage cars, and girls in bikinis. On the other hand, we don’t expect a hairdresser with fancy hair and expensive nails to shimmy herself under her Honda and change the oil, do we? But little inconsistencies (provided there is some reason and it isn’t just tossed in) can add important layers to your character as well as a history that extends before our story starts.

    Everyone has inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies, why not your characters?

    Kramer: He has a seizure when he hears Mary Hart of Entertainment Tonight. Enough said.

After taking a look at Kramer, is there any doubt why in 1999, TV Guide placed him in their top 50 best TV characters of all time? (He ranked 35.) And he was ‘just’ a secondary character.

Now that you have these five handy tips to turn your characters into genuine human beings, it’s time for you to take a look at your characters from the write angle. Is there a way you can add these five elements to make your characters that much more real, add another layer to your story, and sell it? What else can you do to add layers to your story's people? (Oh, heck, pets too! Talk about a ton of fun!) Go take a look and let me know what you think.

P.S. If you are looking for more resources on building great characters try Linda Seger’s book, Creating Memorable Characters.

Jean Oram is an agented nonfiction writer who also writes fiction. You can also find her on her blog and on Twitter.


Ty Unglebower said...

Excellent guidelines.

I also like to put my characters, if only for a moment or two, into situations that are not dangerous, but are nonetheless situations with which they are the least comfortable. An introvert at a noisy party, or someone who walks everywhere taking the uncommon drive in the car. That may fall under quirks, but I find it helps flesh out what they are if for a short time they are immersed in something they clearly are NOT.

Jean Oram said...

Ty, whatever helps reveal the character to the reader is awesome. And I love that you put them in 'uncomfortable' situations. It could fall under quirks if you are revealing a quirk, but really, I think that is something 'new.'


Jemi Fraser said...

Great advice! Kramer is an excellent example of quirkiness at its best. I tend to let my characters walk around in my head for at least a couple of weeks before I write about them :)

Jean said...

Jemi, letting your characters wander around in your head for awhile is a great way to get to know them. I tend to jump right in. Usually the mc gets fleshed out, but sometimes I forget to add bits onto the supporting characters and they end up a little bit like a cardboard cutout. Being conscious of it has helped me remember to flesh them out.

MrsT said...

Jean, I am reassured by your expert advice, I spend much time wallowing in all aspects of my characters, it feels like a very slow process but I hope it will pay off in my writing eventually. Thank you

Jean said...

MrsT: You're welcome.

It's great to know your characters like they are real. The tough part is figuring out how much you should/need to share with your readers. It sounds like you are a bit of a perfectionist which can make writing a whole darned full-length novel trying at times. I'm sure your "wallowing" will pay of for you. Good luck and thanks for commenting.

Angela Solano said...


I'm one of those writers who tends to learn about their characters as they write. That said, after reading this, I think I will go back and write a little background on each character (for myself of course). I think this will do a world of good for me and my writing.

Your awesome (not sure if I have told you that this week or not!)


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