Some Ways to Reveal a Character

I’m using the word “reveal” because a compelling character emerges from a combination of narration, dramatization and action in scenes—show AND tell. James Frey says a character has 3 dimensions: physiological, sociological and psychological. Do your homework and create full lives for your characters (backstory.) A compelling character is a complex character.

Describing what a character looks like, what his or her environment is like, and what kinds of possessions the character owns is the most basic way to define a character and is usually done through narration. Choose physical details that underscore her personality traits. Choose those character traits that have a bearing on the character’s emotion and behavior in the story.

What a character says in dialog is powerful characterization. How she says it is critical to knowing the character: her vocabulary, syntax, diction, use and misuse of words, even gestures, tone, and how emotionally charged the speech is. Just as important is what the character doesn’t say or avoids (subtext) to define her character.

Characters can’t only talk, they must act. A character’s behavior, both with other characters and alone, shows the reader a great deal. What the character does is tied in with who he is.

Characters reveal themselves directly or indirectly on the page, depending on the point of view, through their thoughts. It is particularly effective for characterization when the character thinks differently than he or she acts or speaks. An example of character revealed through thoughts can be seen in Bharati Mukherjee’s The Tenant. Notice how the association of her thoughts follow each other, and notice how much we learn about her through this association.

Go back to those lists you made of important people in your life, the creepy ones too, and pick a number. See that person in your mind’s eye. What’s she like? Zoom-in. Write about her skin, and the way her hair straggles unevenly around her ears, a combination of mousy brown and silver. Notice how she moves, how she flutters her hands when she feels nervous or perplexed. Smell her breath. Has she tippled the tequila today? Is she still wearing that Indian print bedspread she sewed into a granny skirt in 1968 and huaraches? What does her natural expression say about her? Look at what she’s doing. Is it routine, sweeping the floors, or something she loves. She plays the piano, doesn’t she? Where is she? On that slumping screened back porch she loves so much, or in the formal living room. Write about this person until you own her. Carolyn See says, “And from now on, it’s a combination of what he does and what you want him to do that’s going to make this character come alive.”

If you’re having trouble visualizing your character, interview her.

Adapted from: Alice LaPlant, The Making of a Story, A Norton Guide to Creative Writing 2007, Carolyn See, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers 2002, and James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Novel, St. 1987

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