Friday, February 20, 2009

Bringing Characters To Life

John Ramsey Miller

To be successful storytellers, authors have to make each character in their story seem like a real person to the reader. Not just the main characters, either. Every character has to ring true and register as individuals, not cardboard cut-outs pushed into a scene to utter words, or provide some action––which could include being a dead body. Good authors pull it off because they pitch each character’s voice so the reader hears them speaking when they are in a scene, or describes them so the reader visualizes them. And it’s never about how much an author says in describing a character, but what they choose to describe, and at what point in the story they do so. What a character says, and how they say it, tells a lot about a character, but a single action can say more about a character than a page of dialog or of physical detail.

An author’s best tool for characterization is observation. Every day, everywhere you go, you see people being themselves. You see mannerisms, you hear dialog, the music and cadence of voice, along with accents, and colloquialisms. You see people reacting to other people, you see the way people dress, how they pose, how they move, how they do a million little and big things. You see body types, how each type moves, how one figure may remind you of an inverted bowling pin, or a crow, or a skeleton covered in dried skin. As you observe, you put the images away for later, and when you are writing flashes come into your mind, or should.

Talented authors watch the world and record what they see, and will later drag their brains for snippets that bring some measure of real to a character. Some authors take pictures, or make notes, for reference, and they have stacks of pictures to root through for ideas, I suppose. Others use their minds alone and file it all away.

Settings are characters too. Pictures will capture style, details, but I find the practice oddly confining. I write from my memory because time adds an ethereal element to those images in my mind. I do use pictures for reference when I need accuracy in a setting that exists, but my best locations come from impressions of places, or several places blended by smell, texture, the way light plays and shadows fall, the tastes, the temperature into a place that only exists in my imagination and on the printed page.

There are a lot of things that separate good and bad writers. Observation is one. The ability to take observations and put them into your work and make them part of your story in a way that makes real the characters and defines them is not easily accomplished. Writing well is another story and I’ll save that for another time.

So, do you watch and file, or do you take notes or pictures?


  1. Thought provoking post, Miller. I'm not a picture- or note-taker, but I'm perpetually filing away dialog and mannerisms. I do it mentally, not on paper, but it's always happening. I couldn't stop it if I wanted to.

    In retrospect, I realize that it's something that comes naturally to me, and something that I've always done. Even when I look back into elementary school, I can remember some of the mannerisms and speech patterns of kids whose names I've long since forgotten.

    For all that, though, I can never remember what people wear, which is my wife's trigger to describing someone we've met at a party.

    I think a lot of that kind of thing is programmed in our DNA.

  2. I call observation "squirreling," John! I'm constantly writing things down when things occur to me, thinking, "I'll use that someday." When I'm near the end of a work in progress, idea-wise, I become like a person who is wearing a black shirt in a house with a white cat in it. I pick up literally every fresh bit of idea that's floating through the air. The best of them hopefully work on the page. My personal friends who are around me during this time are also in danger of having their verbal observations blatantly ripped off. I'll say to them, "I'm using that." They don't ever seem to mind.

  3. I guess any method is good as long as it works. The proof is always in the writing. I'm a "watch and file" writer, but when it comes to research, I turn into a virtual pack rat. I have a gazillion (thanks Kathryn) links in my browser bookmarks to stuff I might use someday.

    BTW, lovely yellow font, John.

  4. Joe, thanks to TARP economics, the stimuli-bill and neverending rounds of bailouts, I'm introducing a new term into my lexicon--PAHzillion!

  5. "PAHzillion" I don't even want to ask how many zeros are in that one. :-)

  6. I've been an actor for a long time. Nothing big obviously, just little theatre and one man shows. In that realm I have used emulation as a way to bring a character to life. I try to get into character a couple of days before a show and stay there (unless of course it would make the job when I did Jephthah the mercenary from ancient Biblical times, yeah the kilt and sword didn't make it past the government cops at my office building).

    In writing I've found I do the same thing with the information that has been stored from a lifetime of emulation. Somewhere in my head it is stored. There are no notes or lists anywhere.

    Thanks to the web, details are easy to put together to make the scene believable. But for the people parts, I find I have to be cautious not to start talking with my characters accents or acting in their personalities when dealing in the real world.

    Oh...and PAHzillion is a number so big that when you actually see it you simply start to stammer and slobber and say "Pah...uhm...pah, pah...dang!"