Which comes first, the character or the plot? For me, that’s an easy question to answer. There are so many characters roaming around inside my head that I would have to admit characters are my first love in fiction writing. And from my characters, my plot evolves. All I need to do is put my characters in difficult situations and watch them work their way out and—voila!—instant plot.
Even so, many writers love their characters a little too much, a writing crime of which I’ve certainly been guilty. It’s painful to watch a character you’ve developed, someone you feel a genuine fondness for, suffer. Yet your characters have to run into some trouble if you’re going to tell a good story. And above all, they must be flawed. Give your characters flaws, especially those that prevent them from reaching a pivotal goal, and watch the sparks fly. We can think of many examples of such conflicts:
- A teacher whose timid nature prevents her from disciplining her class
- A teenager who stutters and is so self-conscious he drives away potential friends with his caustic attitude
- A grown man who can’t stop lying and loses friends and lovers when his lies are uncovered
All these characters will have some redeeming traits – while we don’t necessarily need to love them, we do need to identify with them somehow – but it’s the flaws that make them multi-dimensional.
You’ve probably practiced writing character sketches – those little outlines writers often make as a sort of roadmap to their character. They often look something like this:
Name: Jane Doe
Hair: Auburn, wavy, shoulder-length
Height: 5’ 8”
Build: Slender, muscular
Clothes: Casual. Jeans, t-shirts, tank tops…
While it’s nice to have that sort of perspective on your character, and it makes a great reference as you write, it’s far better to know your character beyond her vital statistics. I’m going to encourage you to dig deeper. Really get to know your character before you start writing about her.
I write my character sketches as though I’m giving a description of someone I’m getting to know, someone I care about. A character sketch I created for one protagonist, named Maddie, looked something like this:
Her hands are tiny, fragile, with bird-like bones. She is careless about keeping her nails manicured, but they grow long and perfect nonetheless. She likes her hands–even holds then up occasionally to admire them.
She feels under-educated because she didn’t finish college, but she’s sharply intelligent and hungry for knowledge, as evidenced by the pile of books beside her bed. Sometimes she hides her intelligence from friends and family, afraid they’ll judge her as nerdy or snobbish.
Her long black hair hangs in ringlet curls that sproing like bedsprings when she rakes them with her fingers.
Here eyes are the color of good, dark rum.
She wears clothes that reveal her cleavage–which is less intentional than incidental. She’s always a little surprised when men take an interest in her. She’s hesitant with men–unsure what to say to them. She’s hopelessly inept at flirting, which makes many men believe she’s a little odd.
She’ll strike up a conversation with a perfect stranger in line at the grocery store, but she’s afraid to socialize at parties, or talk to people she’s expected to talk to, for fear she’ll say something foolish or unintelligent.
She eats voraciously, but stays slender anyhow. Like a hummingbird, she’s always flitting around, unable to sit still. People are stunned by her ravenous consumption of food–without a shred of self-consciousness.
When she sits, it’s with her legs crossed, one leg dangling over the other and in constant, jittery motion. She often slouches, both when seated and when she walks. If she would stand tall she would be quite regal.
Does Maddie have flaws? You bet. Among other things, she has a confidence problem. Will Maddie’s lack of self-esteem keep her struggling to reach some important goal? Of course! That’s part of plotting through characterization.
I believe that character sketches should be organic works-in-progress that grow as your character grows. Of course, your writing process is your own, and your mileage may vary.
You’ve seen my character sketch; now it’s your turn. Write a character sketch. Pick a person who’s been inside your head. Think of a character that intrigues you, somebody you won’t be able to stop writing about. Your goal is to find yourself hopelessly fascinated with this person, because then, perhaps your readers will be, too.
Try making your outline more like a piece of prose and less like a WANTED poster hanging on a post office wall–tell us about your character as though you’re giving us a very thorough (not to mention personal) introduction. And don’t leave out the flaws! Your character has to have some sort of glitch. If perfect people don’t exist in real life, they certainly can’t exist in fiction.
How long should your sketch be? Write until you run out of things to say. Don’t worry about length so much as content. Read and reread your sketch. You may find you’ve written in some traits that, upon careful scrutiny, don’t exactly fit with the rest. If anything looks out of place after you’ve finished, take it out. Don’t get too caught up in quirky personality traits and keep them in just because they’re “interesting.” If they don’t fit your character, discard them. Be ruthless. And most of all, have fun!
First published by Karen Hertzberg, October, 2007