Character creation — and development — is probably one of my favorite aspects of writing fiction, and I’m not talking about how tall or short, muscular or rotund, striking or unlovely an individual might look. Bogging down an introduction with a catalog of a character’s features is distracting; it focuses the reader’s attention on them rather than drawing him to look deeper, though looks do not, in most cases, make or break a story. While looks can help to give some hints about a person or help to give them color in our imaginations, it is the qualities distinctive to an individual that make him or her really stand out. Can you, for instance, tell me what Huckleberry Finn looked like? Mark Twain never described him, but we have a colorful portrait of Huck in our minds anyway: He’s dirty and scruffy, independent, distrustful and disbelieving of others. He has an innate sense of fairness, even if it doesn’t necessarily coincide with what ‘proper society’ believes. The character sketch of him is indelible.
Many years ago I read C. J. Cherryh’s Morgaine Saga, and I was always fascinated by the character Nhi Vanye. I don’t remember much about Vanye’s looks beyond the fact that he wore a peaked helm with a white scarf wound about it, and that the length of his hair indicated status in his erstwhile society. I cannot tell you what color that hair was or if his eyes even had color. What really made an impression on me — so that I remember him to this day — was his incredible sense of honor and loyalty, and how he refused to break his commitment to Morgaine, to whom he owed service. He was often confused by what Morgaine could do, what was happening throughout their travels, and by the things they must accomplish, but he was unfailingly honorable.
Victor Hugo took some pains (seven paragraphs) to describe Inspector Javert of Les Miserables as an animal in human form without actually naming features. Yet what made Javert memorable to me was his cruelty, his relentlessness, and his adamant refusal to bend. Ever. When faced with a moral dilemma he could not solve, he did not make a choice between what he perceived as lawful and what was moral. He quit. And that decision, too, serves to solidify his makeup and make him a believable person.
Readers have preconceived ideas about appearances as well as names and occupations. In his book Make Every Word Count Gary Provost discusses typecasting. He suggests that if the writer is “proposing something that contradicts the accepted social image,” he has to make it clear. A reader will assume that lumberjacks wear plaid, tax auditors are evil, native Americans are environmentally conscious, blondes are dumb. Whether you agree with those assumptions and prejudices or not, they must be considered. “There is no such thing as objective characterization,” Provost goes on to say. Whatever you write must have a purpose. For instance, your old lady that lives alone in a house with the curtains drawn and always sticks her head out the window to holler at the brats who dare to cross her property is going to be perceived as an entirely different character than the elderly woman that lives alone but takes in stray kittens, loves to garden, and bakes sweets for neighbor children. Your choice of words for your descriptions — characterization or not — delivers a message. A reader will automatically construct an image of what he thinks an old woman who lives alone is like, and that image will come prepackaged with descriptors like white hair, wrinkles, rheumy eyes, arthritic hands, age spots, a stoop, etc.
Rather than filling out a police blotter description, delve into your character’s nature. While that might sound dry and tedious, there are some fun ways to go about it. You could fill out a typical ‘character sheet,’ but that’s not as entertaining as putting yourself in the character’s place and taking some of those (free!) online personality tests (color tests, Myers-Briggs, etc.). Also, you could base your protagonist on common character types or roles, but on the other hand you already know a lot of “common characters.” Use them! Take your brother-in-law and toss in a bit of quirkiness swiped from your boss. How about the guy that services your car? Your doctor, your best friend, your gardener…? You’ll want to be careful, though, to add a twist or two so that your best friend remains your best friend or your husband/wife doesn’t buy you a dog house to live in. No carbon copies!
Finally, put yourself in your characters’ shoes. Practice some good old-fashioned empathy. Whatever situation your character is in, think about how you would react if it was you instead. Your widowed blacksmith with a baby girl unwittingly sees a murder, and the assassin doesn’t want to leave any witnesses behind. What would you do if you were the smith? If you were him, how would you feel if you were a coward? If you were a staunch supporter of the local law/government? If you knew the dead fellow and hated his freakin’ guts?
The better you know your character, the more accurately you will be able to portray him. The better you know your character, the more you will care about him (for good or bad), and it will show in your work. Remember that it’s the characters that engage the reader. If the characters are not believable, then the story won’t be, either.