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Thursday, August 9, 2012

3 Essential Components of Character Building

Today I'm pleased to have Katheryn Rivas on the blog for a guest post about building a *great* character! Take it away, Katheryn:

3 Essential Components of Building a Great Character

Quirks
I have the habit of brushing my fingernails across my lips while I’m concentrating, and sometimes I lean on my desk and rest my chin in my palm. Mentally, I fluctuate between intense focus and broad contemplation.

A character’s mannerisms are silent voices of mental undercurrents. Each time characters clear their throats, lower their eyelids, shift their gazes or scratch their cheeks – there is a reason they do it.

My favorite exercise for character building is people-watching. At restaurants, bars, parks and even church – I study people’s appearances: how they speak, move and interact. Then, I make up stories about them. (For people who aren’t writers, this process could be called making assumptions; but for us, it’s just a fun exercise with no ill intentions.)

The still damp hair of a young boy at church could indicate a last-minute shower. It could also be evidence of a wet comb that his mother forced upon him. Details make characters real. Once you have a few possibilities, keep looking for evidence that supports or contradicts your first impression.

When you are “in the field” (AKA people-watching), pay close attention to the revelations when you make incorrect assumptions about people. This is where we begin understanding the true meaning of multi-dimensional characters and how their stories unfold. This is the point where we recognize, “Ah, there is something more to this person than I thought.”

Keep track of your first impressions when you meet people as well. You may expect the handsome lawyer to be egotistical and dismissive, but he may instead be humble and inquisitive.

If you open yourself to this practice, people will surprise you every day.

Mannerisms and appearances are the details that work together to depict, what I call, the layer of first impressions. When you first meet someone, certain details jump out. A pretty lady could skirt her gaze and smile nervously. Perhaps she has long lashes and a surprisingly firm grip. Because she is looking away, you may notice her jewelry instead of her physical features – a simple pearl necklace that rests against her collarbone. It may not be until later that you can really appreciate what makes her a beautiful woman.

These second layers may then take on more meaning. Her blue eyes could be icy or commanding or even heart wrenching. After the first impression, descriptions are filtered through evolving opinions based on interaction and observations of behavior.

Communication
Communication is absolutely imperative to depict a pivotal scene. Keep in mind the many different types of communication: non-verbal gestures and posture, tone of voice, eye contact, etc. Be aware also of what the character is communicating to other characters and how, if at all, this contradicts with what is being communicated to the reader.

For example, a woman may announce that she is pregnant, to which her family and friends offer congratulations; but the reader may know that she is conflicted about becoming a mother.

Of course, dialogue and monologue are vital aspects of communication. Is the character formal or informal? Calculating or expressive? How do others react to what’s being said and how it is presented?

Plot
Writing great characters takes a lot of work, but plot incites revelation, and revelation peels back layers of impressions to reach true empathy and understanding.

Action is a pivot point for character development as it brings tension to a head. Tension builds up to the action, perhaps in weaknesses or conflict or emotional bonding and is then released as new understanding is gained. Even a character-driven plot will need action to gain traction and peak the conflict.

When I was in college, I had a difficult time writing short stories for my creative writing workshops. If I could go back in time, my growth would be apparent, not only when compared to my “former self’, but in comparison to my peers.

However, without that struggle and without the camaraderie of my schoolmates, I may have never reached a higher level of artistry. My character needed that conflict. Ask yourself, “How do I move my character from point A to point B? How does he develop that level of change?”

Ask yourself what that person needs. Just like water, air and every other life-supporting element, people seek out the situations they believe to be a necessity.

But we don’t always choose correctly. Human beings seek out money, power, violence and self-destruction just as often as we choose peace, compassion, empathy and collaboration.

I’ll leave you with this simple phrase on character building:

The thought behind the choice guides the action, while the awareness behind the thought defines the character.

Katheryn Rivas is a regular contributor to Online Universities.com, a leading online university student resource for those interested in pursuing a distance education. She welcomes your comments at katherynrivas87@gmail.com.

Thank you, Katheryn! And now it's time for the Omnific Publishing Blog Bounce. Authors, join us by following the instructions here. Readers can bounce from one blog to another.

11 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I need to work harder on quirks.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

Great tips, Katheryn. What others do are quirks. What we do are just natural, right? :-) Ernest Hemingway urged all writers to observe: not just people but rooms in that rooms often reflect the people in charge of them. Great post as always, Roland

Jennifer Lane said...

Alex, me too! So far my go-to quirks are potty mouths, insecurity, psychobabble, and smoldering crystal-blue eyes. I think I need to expand my repertoire. ;)

Jennifer Lane said...

Roland, yes. *nods* I don't have ANY quirks. Not weird ones, anyway. *laughs* Love that quote about a room saying something about a person. When one of my clients commented that I should paint my psychotherapy office a more exciting color, I felt offended!

Nicki Elson said...

I especially enjoyed the section on the small details - having something like that to grasp onto always helps me to identify with a character. BUT it's also important to not get too repetitive w/ those quirks - like Bella biting her lip practically every other sentence.

Thanks for the guest post, Jennifer. I'm looking forward to that Ginormo Blogfest at the end of Sept!

Feather Stone said...

Thanks for the great advice, Jen. I'm marking this as a reference to read while I'm working on a rewrite. Feather

bun-abi said...

nice share..

Jennifer Lane said...

Nicki, Bella biting her lip? That NEVER happened hee hee. I'm just starting 50 Shades and Ana's initial "Double crap" was endearing but not if that phrase continues every chapter.

Jennifer Lane said...

Feather, thankfully Katheryn approached me with this post! I agree there's some good advice here.

Jennifer Lane said...

Thanks, bun-abi!

Darcía Helle said...

Great article! Those individual quirks are what make characters so believable in fiction.

I laughed at the people watching comment. I play that game with my husband all the time. We'll be out somewhere, and I'll point out a person or a couple and make an assumption based on what I'm observing. Then he'll counter that with his own thoughts. As you said, I mean no harm. It's my way of understanding people and building character traits in my mind. I'm sure the people we're watching wouldn't be quite so understanding of this game!

 


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