I was going to use this for my upcoming Hope for the Wicked blog tour, but I got a wee bit angst-filled while writing it. Being that I take my characters very seriously, I thought I’d share with everyone my do’s an don’t’s when it comes to creating life-like story inhabitants.
By the way… It’s good to be back 😉
Nobody likes reading about caricatures. You know what caricatures are good for? Pub walls and souvenirs. The biggest difference between a character and a caricature is showing and not telling. Yeah, yeah, it’s the age-old adage regurgitated for you once more, but it’s also the truth. Not to mention, using caricatures is just lazy writing.
When I put on my reading cap, I want to get to know the players involved in the story. I don’t want the author to come out and tell me their villain is a bad guy, I want to see the heavy’s actions prove just how vile he is. Same with the antagonist. I refuse to like a character just because they’re the main. The author has to give me a reason to root for him or her. I try to remember all this when I’m writing, as well.
I get bored easily so I tend to stray from verbose meanderings about character description, at least as far as physical appearance is concerned. There will be those that disagree with me, but unless your character’s looks come into play somewhere in the story, I don’t see any reason to force their likeness down the reader’s throat. For the most part, no matter what you put on the page, your reader will come to see the character in their own head. And if your work is ever made into a movie, forget about it, because people will forever attribute those actors to your characters anyway. Take Stephen King’s Carrie for example. In the book, Carrie is a chubby girl, but you don’t get much skinnier than Sissy Spacek, or Angela Bettis… or even the newest actress to play the young Ms. White, Chloë Grace Moretz. If you would like to create a caricature though, by all means, tell us about your leading lady’s high cheekbones, her pallor skin tone, hair of darkest night and eyes of oceanic blue, but I’ll probably skip that part. Honestly, what does any of that really tell you about the character?
So what do I want to know about the characters I read about? Whatever helps the story move forward. Nothing else. I don’t need a history lesson that starts from birth and ends with the present day, but if your character’s been damaged by a significant trauma that has shaped them, or, as with my stories, could come back to haunt them, that’s definitely usable. The fact that your character was in a car accident when they were nine wherein they spilled a strawberry milkshake onto their brand new cowboy boots, ruining them forever, could effect whether or not they wear boots to this day, but does it help the story progress? If your character kills people in cowboy boots by drowning them in strawberry decadence, sure, let us know. If not, keep that to yourself.
People fall in love with little details, quirks and personality traits. Even in real life, you come for the beauty but stay for the imperfections. It’s what makes us unique, those little things. Let’s say your character chews their nails when they’re nervous. Let us know that once, then, later, you can save your word count and get rid of the filler. No need for, “He chewed his nails nervously, anxiously awaiting her response.” You can just tell the reader he began chewing his nails and the blanks will fill themselves.
There will be those literary purest that want everything spelled out for them, but I don’t ride that bus. There are far too many stops. I want action and purpose, not filler and mental notation. Tell me what’s important and get out of the way so I can enjoy the story.
Trust me, nobody cares if your character has on purple suspenders, unless they’ve strangled someone with said suspenders and a crime scene investigator just found a lavender thread. You dig? I hope so. Now go write about someone you would want to read about and leave the caricatures to New York street artists.