The How-to Of Creative Writing - Credible Characters

Posted at 02:41am on 2nd September 2008

A couple of days ago in the How-to of Creative Writing, I said that Characters – whether in fiction or true-life stories – need:

  • Credibility – to be true to life
  • Creativity – in the way they respond to conflict
  • Complexity – depth which makes them three dimensional

Today we’re going to look at the first of these features:

CREDIBILITY

In this Post, and the next, I’m going to show you how to know and grow your Characters. Today we’re going to look at credibility, in the following ways:

  • Physical attributes
  • Historical perspective
  • Personality traits

Although you will use only a fraction of the details you accumulate about your characters, you do need to know them through and through. That’s because every thought they have, every word they speak and every action they take, will be determined by the three aspects we’ve identified above. More of this at a later date.

In order to compile a profile of each character, it’s not a bad idea to use a large sheet of paper (or an MS Excel Worksheet on your computer). You could even sketch an outline drawing, if that helps, and colour in some of the features. It doesn’t have to be a work of art! Simply a visual reminder to you so that you don’t make the mistake, half way through the book, of reducing your character’s height by four inches, or have the blue eyes of page four become the brown eyes of page 104. Below are some of the features you may want to identify. You can add more as needed.

PHYSICAL ATTRIBUTES

  1. Colouring – eyes, skin, hair
  2. Facial shape – chisel jaw, square, round, long, heart-shaped
  3. Eye shape / quality – narrow, round, large, luminous, blank, dull, kindly
  4. Mouth – mobile, thin-lipped, mean, generous, smiling, pursed, laughing
  5. Build – height & weight, stocky, athletic, petite, voluptuous, lean, flabby, thin, tall, angular, short, muscular
  6. Posture – graceful, wears clothes well, slumped, dejected
  7. Movement – graceful, lithe, sexy, provocative, cramped, painful, arthritic, creepy
  8. Speech – guttural, mellifluous, upper-crust, quiet, loud-mouthed, coarse
  9. Dexterity – clumsy, creative, skilled in arts / gardening / building / cooking / home-making
  10. Hearing – musical, tone-deaf, hard-of-hearing

HISTORICAL ASPECTS

  1. Ethnicity – Asian, European, African
  2. Birth place – including national / regional culture and dialects
  3. Date of birth – including political and socio-economic background and trends of the period – i.e. coronation, war, depression
  4. Christian name(s) and surname
  5. Family / parents – including socio-economic attributes & attainments
  6. Sibs – brothers, sisters, place in family – singleton, eldest, middle child, youngest - read up on how personality is affected by status
  7. Extended family – cousins, aunts, close-knit, independent, fostered, adopted, stepfamily
  8. Education – achievements and aspirations
  9. Faith – Practising Christian, Jew, Muslim, other, atheist, agnostic
  10. Town or country childhood
  11. Occupation – labourer, professional, businessman, entrepreneur, salesman, retailer, medic, educationalist, religious leader, politician, farmer
  12. Marital status – single, married, divorced, remarried, widowed
  13. Offspring – gender, ages, involvement with, separated from, step-family
  14. Home – town or country, flat or house
  15. Friendships – lifelong, shallow, close, formal
  16. Interests – sport / golf / tennis / cricket; / arts / opera / ballet / theatre / books; walking; Bridge; stamp-collecting; gardening

PERSONALITY TRAITS

The first two listed below are extrovert personalities. They veer towards an outgoing, energetic outlook on life.
Nos. 3 and 4 are introvert personalities. They tend to be more reflective and reserved.

  1. Choleric – Independent, self-sufficient, aggressive, intense, strong-willed, decisive, outspoken, hard-working, impatient, bossy, possessive, sly, exploitative
  2. Sanguine – Life and soul of the party, likeable, charming, humorous, needs to be popular, creative, energetic, enthuses others, self-centred, naïve, loud, lacks dedication/responsibility
  3. Phlegmatic – Kind, calm, good listener, loyal, reliable, patient, diplomatic, passive, dislikes change, judgemental, undemonstrative, slow
  4. Melancholic – Serious, perfectionist, conscientious, consistent, arty, creative, neat, anti-social, negative, depressive, lacks self-esteem, gloomy

There are many books and websites which develop these well-known personality traits – here are a couple to start you off. You can even take a personality test yourself on some of them! Check them out to learn more about yourself, your friends and family, and the Characters you are going to be writing about.

HOMEWORK

Create two or three composite, but credible, Characters from the lists above.

FREE ONLINE CREATIVE WRITING CLASSES

If you feel you’ve benefited from this free tutorial, why not do one or more of the following:

  1. Subscribe (free) to receive further tutorials by RSS (click the little orange icon at the top of the screen to the right of my website address)
  2. Tell a friend and ask them to subscribe (free)
  3. Make a donation by purchasing a copy of A Painful Post Mortem. (All profits for charity)

LATER THIS WEEK

We’ll be looking at Character Creativity, Character Complexity, and finally Conflict – putting together the Plot, Theme and Characters.

Related topics: Introduction; Plot; Theme; Characterisation

© Mel Menzies, August 2008

The author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No. 4 Bestseller,
Mel is also an experienced Speaker
and has addressed live audiences of between 20 and 700+
in addition to participating in TV and Radio chat shows.

Her latest novel ‘A Painful Post Mortem’ may be purchased online on my books’ page, at: Booklocker ; or at Amazon
ALL Profits - approximately 35% of book sales - are for charity.
To book her as a Speaker, contact her at: author@melmenzies.co.uk

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