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Thinking Virtually

#4: Creating Vivid Characters

Kimberly Appelcline
March 20, 2001

Part of the 5-part Elements of Good Storytelling series from Skotos Tech.

 

This is the second of five instructional columns, outlining the many tools needed to create good stories. It's Virtual Groundwork, though the tools are useful for any type of RPG game, be it electronic or tabletop. This article originally appeared at Skotos Tech in September 2000.

Most people listen to stories – in the newspaper, or in anecdotes, novels, films, etc. – to hear about people. What did they do, and why? How did they react to this or that odd situation? How are they different from me, and how are we the same? We watch Indiana Jones battling his fear of snakes, Jane Austen’s Emma match-making for her friends, Robin Hood winning an archery contest, or a local firefighter running into a burning building and saving a child’s life on the evening news, and we say, "Wow! I could never do that!" or, "Yeah, I could do that, too, if I was in that situation," or, "I wonder what I would do?"

Most audiences find it difficult to become engaged in a story that has no sympathetic characters they can identify with, at least a little bit. In the first article of this series, "The Elements of Good Storytelling," I described character as the force that makes a story happen. Character leads to plot. (For more about this, see also the fourth article in this series, "Plot Strategies.") I discussed contradictory personality traits and potential for change as two techniques for making interesting and complex characters, and briefly explained the three characterization tools: appearance, dialogue, and actions. In this article, we’ll explore those ideas in more detail as we examine some techniques for making your characters memorable and giving them believable motivations.

Who’s That Again?

Imagine you’re at a dinner party with your best friend and six other people you’ve never met before. Your best friend introduces everyone, but the names go by in a rush and you’re having trouble remembering who everyone is. They’re just a mass of faces.

The same things happens to an audience when they begin to listen to a story. Have you ever read a novel in which the characters were too much alike, and their names even sounded similar, and you kept thinking, "Wait! Who’s that again?" and flipping back to try to figure out who the person is? Have you ever watched a movie in which two of the guys had the same haircut and the same basic speech mannerisms, and you spent the whole movie lost, because you couldn’t keep them straight? Or half-way through a movie or novel, a character reappeared and seemed vaguely familiar, but you couldn’t remember why? To avoid this kind of audience confusion, storytellers need to identify characters uniquely and make them memorable. To do this, you can use the same techniques that we all use every day to recognize people in real life.

So, stop and think about how you would behave in that dinner party full of strangers. How would you begin to remember who was who? Whatever techniques you personally use in this type of situation will tell you some of the techniques you should use in your storytelling. (You probably use some I haven’t listed here. If so, great! Think about how you can use those techniques in your stories!) The primary characteristics that people use for distinguishing people and characters from each other include:

  • names
  • appearance
  • props
  • mannerisms
  • actions

In applying these techniques, you can use narration/description or dialogue/scene, or some combination of both: For example, you might find it easiest to describe your character’s appearance via narration, or you may instead choose to have other characters describe him for you, through their reactions (flirtation, disgust, admiration, etc.) or dialogue. Either way, these powerful techniques can make your characters vivid in the minds of your audience.

First of all, your main characters usually need names. And if all three of your characters are named Hector Crinklebine – or even if they’re named Jim, Joe, and John – your audience is going to have trouble distinguishing between them. Generally, your audience will have the easiest time with your story if each of the characters’ names are unique. John and Hector would be easier to distinguish from each other, based on their names alone. But unique names are not enough! Think of that dinner party full of strangers; your best friend introduced you to everyone, but that wasn’t enough for you to remember who everyone was.

So, you can use appearance. At the dinner party, you might remember that Jane has red hair, Sharon is dressed all in green, and Fred is seven feet tall. You don’t try to remember every detail about their appearance, but you hone in on something unique, something that differentiates them from the other people at the table. In a story, you can use appearance in the same way, by often alluding to some single defining physical characteristic when a character reappears in the story. For example, Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac makes effective use of this technique through the title character’s large nose, and – to a lesser extent – through Roxane’s beauty and Christian’s handsome face.

Next come personal props, which tie in closely with appearance. If Dan never goes anywhere without his motorcycle helmet, or Oscar always carries a lily in his hand, the audience will quickly remember them each time they reappear. If, at the dinner party, you remember that Susan has a pile of photos of her new house on the table in front of her, it may help you remember who Susan is. (For more ideas about using props and setting to describe a character, see "The Elements of Good Storytelling" and "Writing Dynamic Settings" in this series of articles.)

If a person has unique mannerisms or physical habits – such as jiggling his leg, twisting her hair, cleaning his glasses, clearing her throat, etc. – this can help an audience to identify them. If fifteen-year-old Tiffany, at the dinner party, giggles and flips her hair repeatedly, it could distinguish her from the other guests in your mind.

And, of course, a person’s actions can also come into play in helping an audience to remember who they are. Even just at the dinner party, if Chloe spills pasta all over herself, or Larry runs out of the room in tears, the additional information will assist you in identifying them in your memory. You may not have a completely accurate idea of them (clumsy Chloe and lovesick Larry), but you’ll be able to tell them apart from the other people at the table.

Using just one of these techniques results in embarrassingly superficial characters (clumsy Chloe, lovesick Larry, red-haired Jane, giggling Tiffany) and becomes tedious for your audience. Rather, these techniques are best used in combination. For example, Larry’s running out of the room crying might combine with his habit of staring down at the ground to avoid eye contact, and his rumpled, mis-matched clothes. Maybe he also mumbles, instead of speaking audibly. Or, alternatively, maybe his voice is strident and loud whenever he mentions his ex-wife. Maybe he uses profane vocabulary, calls her names. Maybe he gesticulates wildly with his tidily manicured hands. That would give your audience a very different impression of him, and suggest a very different interpretation of his tears!

While you don’t want to rely on only one of the above techniques to distinguish a character, neither do you want to overdo it. If every time Craig walks into the story, you mention him by name, tell us that he’s thin and pimply, mention the Walkman he’s carrying, and describe him tripping over his oversized, unlaced tennis shoes, your audience will get annoyed with the unnecessarily zealous repetition. No one is always tripping, or always twirling their hair, or always yelling. And if you choose too many idiosyncratic details that have no relation to each other – your character is named Hallelujah Tabernacle, has a nearly debilitating stutter, cross-dresses, always carries a mynah bird on his shoulder, and has a prominent strawberry birthmark on his right cheek – your characters will seem contrived and unrealistic. In certain types of comedy, you may actually want to strive for this effect, but usually it’s better to be a bit more subtle.

What’s He Talking About?

In one of the relatively subtle techniques for distinguishing characters from each other, you can use a character’s linguistic patterns to identify and describe them In plays, this technique does most of the characterization work, but in other types of storytelling situations, it can be effectively combined with any of the other techniques described above. I’ve given it a section all of its own here, because characters’ language so powerfully describes them. Words are a force to take seriously in your writing, especially those you put into the mouths of your characters!

I tend to think of this particular technique as breaking down into a few separate parts:

  • grammar: Does your character speak the Queen’s English? Or does he use more colloquial language?
  • vocabulary: Does your character have a large vocabulary, or small? Does she use a lot of slang or jargon?
  • exclamations: Does your character commonly use one particular exclamation? (Many of us do: just listen to your friends and family, or yourself!) Does he say, "Wow!" or, "Sheesh!" or, "Blow me down!" or, "Well, I’ll be!" or, "Gosh darn it!" or, "Don’t that take all?" I’d also include here any signature sayings, such as Gary Coleman’s, "What you talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?" from the old Diff’rent Strokes television show in the seventies.
  • humor: Does your character frequently make puns, jokes, or double entendres?
  • attitude: Does your character verbally attack others? Or react defensively, always insisting, "I didn’t do it!"? Or tend to get confused easily, often asking what’s going on? Or apologize a lot?

You can see one example of effective use of linguistic habits to help distinguish characters in The Princess Bride (both the film and William Goldman’s novel). Fezzik uses simple, short sentences (and has a habit of rhyming in the film); Vizzini speaks formally and repeatedly uses the exclamation "Inconceivable!"; and Inigo often repeats the famous line, "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya; you killed my father; prepare to die." (Note: If you’re interested, take a closer look at The Princess Bride, examining how the characters are differentiated through many of the techniques discussed here and above.)

In addition to a character’s unconscious linguistic habits, your audience will also listen, of course, to the actual content of your character’s dialogue. This tends to be the most obvious method of learning about people, the method which we are most conscious of using in our daily lives. We remember the things that people tell us about themselves, their lives, their thoughts, their feelings. But, without our even being aware of them, people’s linguistic habits also affect our memories. As a storyteller, you should try to refine your ear for how people really talk, and never neglect the more unconscious elements of your characters’ speech. It’s one way of following the old fiction writing maxim, "Show, don’t tell."

Why’d He Do That?

Your characters should not only speak in realistic, believable ways, but they should also behave in ways that your audience can understand. This doesn’t mean that your characters can’t do outrageous things. It just means that for any character behavior – whether it’s mundane or flamboyant – you need to establish motivation. As described briefly in "The Elements of Good Storytelling," and in more detail in "Plot Strategies," characters create the movement in a story by making a series of choices in the face of interesting circumstances. Those choices cannot be random, or your story will fall emotionally flat. Heraclitus is quoted as having said that "character is destiny." Your plot grows out of characters’ choices, and characters’ choices grow out of motivation. Motivation may be the single most important element in your story.

It may help to think of your story as a trial in a courtroom. You are the prosecuting attorney, your audience is the jury, and your protagonist is the defendant. It’s your job, as the storyteller, to convince your audience that your protagonist had a motive to commit the acts you describe. You must make them believe you. You must make the ending of your story look inevitable, your protagonist’s choices unquestionable, no matter how incredible they might be. If you don’t, at the end of the story, in what you intended as the stunningly emotional climax, your audience will think, "He wouldn’t have done that!" The jury will not believe the motive, they’ll vote against you, and you will lose the case.

Each significant character in your story has a scene-specific objective (or goal) that motivates them in each individual scene. Perhaps it’s a small goal, but it’s there. Perhaps she simply wants to end a conversation. Or he wants to light a fire. Or they want to build a catapult. Whatever that immediate goal is, it motivates that character’s behavior and choices in that scene, until some resolution has been reached and the scene has ended.

Each significant character in your story also has a super-objective, a goal toward which they strive throughout the story. This super-objective will interact with the scene-specific objectives to determine characters’ behavior. Perhaps, for example, your character’s super-objective is to break free of society’s limitations on women. Perhaps her scene-specific objective is to get the house clean before her mother comes over for a visit. This character might get into a fight with her husband over who should sweep the floor. As long as her motivations had been made clear, this behavior would seem perfectly understandable and believable.

To use a more fantastic example, say your character’s super-objective is to save the universe, and her scene-specific objective is to convince the United Nations not to bomb a newly discovered planet. This character might give a rousing formal speech, blackmail a high-ranking official, seduce the President, make a television commercial, or build a rocket ship of her own. It would be pretty unbelievable if she got into a fight with her husband about sweeping the floor. Just as it would be unbelievable if the first character had built a rocket ship before her mother’s visit. The motivation just isn’t there. (For more information about scene-specific objectives, super-objectives, and scene resolution, see the fourth article in this series, "Plot Strategies.")

So how do you communicate motivation in your stories? That’s a good question! In a good story, motivation will be communicated through almost every aspect of the story. Some of the primary ways of communicating motivation are:

  • dialogue: Yes, we’re back to dialogue again. People tend to talk about what they want, even if it’s only internal dialogue. An interesting point to bear in mind here is that people often think they want one thing, when they really want another. So Christy may think and say that she wants to have sex with Frank, when what she really wants is to make Tom jealous. How do your characters see themselves and others? What do they lie about, and when do they tell the truth? What makes them angry, and how do they react?
  • choices: Motivation leads to choices, but a series of choices by a character also can define motivation. If, for example, a character runs away from several unpleasant conversations throughout the story, we’ll believe his motivation for walking away from his wife when she wants to talk about problems in their marriage.
  • behavior: Closely related to choices, behavior can help us understand a character’s motivation in a variety of ways. If your protagonist rents a plane to fly daredevil stunts on the weekends, we’ll believe his motivation of thrill-seeking. If instead he knits hats for the homeless, we’re less likely to see him that way.
  • backstory: The most powerful method of communicating motivation, backstory encompasses everything about your characters that isn’t explicitly covered in your story. Where have they been, and where are they going? Who hates/loves them, and who do they hate/love? What are they ashamed of or embarrassed about? For more information on backstory, and how it relates to characterization, see both "The Elements of Good Storytelling" and the last article in this series, "Imagining Backstory."

One shorthand way of thinking about motivation is to simply ask yourself – about each scene, as well as the story as a whole – the following three questions:

  • What does this character want?
  • Why does this character want that?
  • Who or what stands in the way of this character getting it?

These questions can help you figure out what is at stake for your character, what they stand to gain or lose, and why it is important to them. If you know the answers to those questions, and you’ve communicated them to your audience, then you don’t have much to worry about! You’ve pretty much got motivation, and the most important part of characterization, wrapped up!

Summary

Never underestimate the power of vivid, interesting, motivated characters to carry a story. As one step toward making this possible, ensure that your audience will be able to differentiate between your characters by making each character memorable, using names, appearance, props, mannerisms, actions, and linguistic habits. Linguistic habits, one of the more subtle methods of distinguishing characters, can be established through grammar, vocabulary, exclamations, humor, and attitude.

In addition to being memorable, your characters need to have believable motivations for their actions. Every character has an objective or goal in each scene, as well as a super-objective that drives them over the course of the entire story. You can establish these motivations and objectives through your characters’ dialogue, choices, behavior, and backstories.

Exercises

  1. Go out to a public place where there are plenty of people (a restaurant, a shopping mall, etc.) and just look closely at the people around you. What can you surmise about the character of people based on their appearance? Look at clothes, hairstyles, jewelry, facial expressions, physical habits (such as gum chewing or fidgeting) and props (pets, grocery bags, etc.). Afterward, write a scene involving a character based on one of the people you observed. Include the physical characteristics you observed, but also extrapolate personality characteristics based on your observation. You may even want to write some dialogue in this character’s imagined voice.
  2. Go out into a public place where people are talking (a cafe, a bus station, etc.). Eavesdrop on the conversations around you, and really listen to the way people talk. Focus in on one conversation, and analyze how you are able to tell the difference between the two people without looking at them. What is different? Listen for differences in grammar, vocabulary, exclamations, etc. Afterward, write a scene of dialogue between two characters based on the two people you listened to. It doesn’t have to include things they really said; just try to capture their rhythms. Try to express two unique characters through their speech.
  3. Write a dialogue passage between two imagined characters, revealing their characters through their speech. Don’t include any "he said" "she said" tags or narrative description; just use dialogue alone to make the characters interesting and distinguishable from each other. Can you also manage to communicate some motivation?
  4. Write a scene in which a character wonders about his or her own motives for doing something. Use the word "maybe." You may want to include narration to comment on the character’s thoughts, or you may choose to write the scene completely in the voice of the character, as internal dialogue (or as part of a dialogue with another character).
  5. Your character in Exercise 4 was wrong. They only think that’s what they want. Write about what they really want, whether they’re aware of it or not. How is it expressed through their dialogue, choices, and behavior? How is it influenced by their backstory?
  6. Think about a character you have already created, and look at the following list. Which things do you know about your character? Which are important to his or her motivations? Have you communicated them to your audience? If so, how (dialogue, narration, actions, etc.)? What things do you not know about your character? Would any of them help to make the character more interesting, or motivation more clear? (You may, either as an alternative or as a preparation for this exercise, prefer to write a brief description of your character’s life to-date, which often results in the same sort of information.)
    1. name/nickname
    2. age
    3. appearance
    4. education
    5. occupation
    6. financial status
    7. marital status
    8. social status
    9. ambitions
    10. fears
    11. character flaws
    12. character strengths
    13. talents
    14. tastes (in books, music, women, men, food, etc.)
    15. family background
    16. speech style
    17. relationships/friendships (past/present)
    18. sexual and romantic history
    19. important places (home, office, car, etc.)
    20. important possessions
    21. beliefs (religious, political, etc.)
    22. pets
Kimberly Appelcline, a creative writing student at SF State, originally wrote the five-part series The Elements of Good Storytelling for Skotos Tech. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

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