Introducing a Character: Essential steps to bring a character to life

characters
You are the dealer, the character is the drug

 Step 1: Give him purpose

When a character enters a scene that is already in progress, he furthers the plot. He should always have a reason for entering and should establish it right away (unless mystery is the aim). Don’t bring a character into the scene just to be idle. If the character is only necessary to bring one bit of information, then have him exit the scene after sharing it.

Step 2: Familiarise or surprise your reader

The way you introduce your character sets the tone for the relationship between the reader and said character. Reader distance themselves from characters who begin an emotional response to something the reader hasn’t witnessed. Before a reader can bond with him, he has to know some basic details, such as gender, age and key characteristics.

Option 1, surprise: The character steps onto the stage, unannounced. The reader will not see him coming, will not be familiarsed with the character before he makes his appearance.

Option 2, familiarise: Established characters discuss the new character before he makes his first appearance
You can familiarize the audience with a character by having other characters discuss him before he makes his first appearance. This can also be used as a foreshadowing technique as hints are dropped in seemingly unimportant chatter.

A good introduction accomplishes three things.

1, It creates a visual image (the reader sees the character in his mind).
2, It tells us something about his personality.
3, It tells us in what way he is unique (and thus cannot be confused with another person).

Step 3: The naming process

Every character has to be named or identified somehow. This allows the reader as well as the writer to keep track of the characters bouncing around in the story. When writing non-fiction, you have little choice in the naming. People already have names, at most you can decide to use a nickname or descriptive name rather than a person’s real name. In fiction however, the choices are endless and names should be chosen carefully. Here’s why:

  • Names establish characters in time and place, suggesting ethnic and religious backgrounds, social and financial status and parental hopes.
  • Nicknames offer insight into a person’s interpersonal relations and history, as they are usually given by friends and family.

Step 4: Painting the picture

Make any detail you give specific and don’t give too many.

When describing his physical appearance, is it now enough to merely call it as you see it. Short or tall are descriptive words but still vague. Blue eyes are a start but what sort of blue is it? A warm blue that makes him seem trustworthy? Or an icy blue that makes people nervous?  We need enough for the character to be visual and memorable, not cluttered and confusing. Call attention to the details which are important somehow, whether it sets him apart from others or serves some purpose in the story. Remember to make the body round, don’t stick to what the eyes can see. How does he smell? How does he sound?

Tools:

  • Use Appearance to Indicate Personality
    Choose details that match your character’s inner-self, and then make that connection clear.
  • Use a Character’s Own Reaction to His Appearance to Indicate Personality
    We actually learn more from his reaction to himself.
  • Use Appearance to Indicate a Temporary Situation
    Choose physical details that apply to how the character is feeling at the moment.
  • Use Dress to Indicate Personality
    Because a character can choose his clothes—or at least his reaction to them—clothing details are a good way to tell us about your character’s personality.
  • Use Dress to Indicate a Temporary Situation
    When clothing style is forced on him by necessity, and so serve to tell us more about his current situation (poor relation) than his own taste.
The body

Now that the character has a name, he still need a body to be able to move through the world. Painting the picture of your character can be done through various methods. Physical description is often the weakest. A character usually has something that distinguishes him from others. Some identifying mark. Avoid exposition and standalone descriptions of  his appearance and personality. There is one exception to this rule: describe only those traits that are important to the plot and unusual (e.g. a limp). Otherwise, show him through action and details on their occupation and interests.

The personality

The skilled writer can give a ton of back story in just a few words.We can learn about them through the theme, feelings, thoughts, dreams, obsessions, visions, existential problems and memories. We experience them through their senses as we look through their eyes and breathe through their nose. The way a character describes something, shows us both that something as well as himself. Show his attitudes to things, people and interactions to show the character’s personality and state of mind.

Tools:

  • Use Details of the Home to Indicate Personality
    Just as clothes, homes can illustrate character.
  • Use Personal Tastes to Indicate Personality
    Anything else that your character chooses: car, food, drink, music, books, vacation spots etc.
  • Use Mannerisms to Indicate Personality
    Such mannerisms—habitual physical gestures—tell us something about the inner life of each character.
  • Use Description to Indicate Relationships With Others
    Use minimal physical description as a jumping-off place for authorial exposition about how Macon Dead relates to other people.
  • Use Other Senses to Indicate Personality
    Describe your character in terms of a characteristic sound, smell, feel or perhaps even taste.

Step 5: Showing the character through interaction with environment

Our guy has a name and body, now he has to be somewhere. The environment can provide a backdrop for the details that shape your character. It can provide contrast or mirror with your character’s emotional state. Characters reveal their inner lives—their preoccupations,  values, lifestyles, likes and dislikes, fears and aspirations—by the objects that fill their hands, houses, offices, cars, suitcases, grocery carts and dreams.

Just as in real life, actions speak louder than words. We learn about our character through his actions. Is he the type to spill wine on the carpet or the type to clean it up? Does he go well-packed and prepared for a holiday or does he hastily throw a few things in a suitcase last minute before catching his flight? What is left unsaid is equally important, leaving each reader to fill in some of the experience for himself. This makes his experience unique.


Making each character unique

Average people are all much alike. A type is more exceptional than he is average. Typical people are different from each other. By using typical characters, you distinguish them from the other characters. Each one stands out from the crowd for different reasons. The cast is interesting, because of its great variation. Typical people:

  • Based on body-shape: endomorph (jolly fatty), mesomorph (the jock), ectomorph (the thin nervous geek).
  • Based on plot cliché: for example, the western sheriff that lost his nerve
  • Based on stereotypes: the drunk Irish man.

Note: These steps do not need to be followed in any specific order, but all steps need to be fulfilled for a character to come to live in the mind of the reader.

SUMMARY:

● Choose details that create strong visual images.
● Choose details that add up to an accurate, coherent impression of your character’s personality.
● Use word choices that further reinforce this impression.
● Don’t choose too many details. Quality is more effective than quantity.
● Use your effective details the first time we encounter your character, so we will want to keep on reading.

Quick Don’ts:

  • Don’t start your character with a mental recap of some inciting incident after it occurred, actually, try to avoid starting the character with ramblings about some past trauma all together.
  • Don’t take us through the dreams of your character unless dreams are somehow an essential part of how magic works (or something). Having characters dream is a mistake made by many beginner writers. Often it adds no true additional value or meaning to the story.

Dixon, D. (1996) GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict.
Hill, R. (1977) Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular: An Informal Textbook.
McClanahan, R. (2004) Word painting