Tuesday, June 08, 2010

In the Flesh

At least once in a writer's career, she will hear someone say, "Flesh out that character more." I chant that in my head sometimes as I work on more personal sections of my book. But what does that mean? How do you put flesh on the bones of an imaginary friend (or enemy)?

There are some great tools out there to give you a nudge: Nancy Lamb has some great checklists in her book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO CRAFTING STORIES FOR CHILDREN.  You generate a lot of details (that you may or may not use in the actual narrative) that get you to see the character as a whole.

I'm also glancing through Orson Scott Card's ELEMENTS OF FICTION:  CHARACTERS & VIEWPOINTS for a few hints.  He takes you through some great discussions of motivation, emotional appeal, archetypes, and more.

But sometimes all this studying can get a bit overwhelming (not that I've done a lot of it).  In the end, I have to do the work.  Get down in the clay and start molding and sculpting with my own two hands.  The dirtier I get the better.

So for my latest WIP, I took my 4 main characters (including the narrator) and gave them each their own page.  I started with a GENERAL DESCRIPTION.  This can include physical and emotional, but I keep it simple and straight-forward.  The hard-core stuff comes in the writing.  In this section I also include and habits or ticks or preferences she/he might have—ie.  trips over her own feet, hates to clean the chicken coop but loves to muck the stalls, wears a red string on her left pinky toe every day, etc.  What pushes your character's buttons?

Next I look at RELATIONSHIPS.  What characterizes her relationship with each major character in the book? If it's relevant, what characterizes her relationship with people not present in the narrative?  Dead or absent parents, friends, or relatives, for example.  Characters don't live in a vacuum any more than a living, breathing person does...unless you have an agoraphobic personality!  Thinking ahead, I consider how those relationships will change through the course of the novel.  Think dynamic not static.

It's time to look at some FLAWS.  Every character has to have them.  Big or small, a flaw is what makes your character human.  Whether you write humorous MG or tragic YA, your characters cannot be perfect.  They may even piss the reader off once in a while, just as long as there is enough redeeming virtue to keep the reader connected and rooting for your hero.  These may come in handy when you build the climax and develop subplots.

Don't forget your villains.  Villains should evoke anger, disdain, even condescension but they should not be flat.  Take them through all the steps as well.  We need to have a sense that there is more to them than their slithery betrayal.

I'm keeping it short, so I end with a list of WORDS THAT DESCRIBE my character.  Gut reaction words.  You may find that some of them contradict each other, and that is not necessarily a problem.  After all, most of us get confused at some time or another, especially kids.  Come to think of it, adolescence is a cloud of contradictions!

That's the basic list I make for myself, and I post them on the wall by my desk or keep them in my WIP folder, along with a list of themes, snippets of research, and any other scrap of inspiration that will put a little flesh on the bones and breathe life into this shiny new world.  

What do you do?


  1. I like to write backstories for each of my main characters. Sometimes these stories are only about 250 words long, but sometimes they run up to 2000. Since they say a picture is worth a thousand words, I also like to collect photos which resemble my characters. These help me flesh out physical descriptions and attitudes.

  2. I do that too! What's funny is, I had written more than half of my last novel when I got an updated picture of my best friend and her family. Holy Cow! My MC looked exactly like her son! (who was now the same age) I hadn't seen him in a few years, so it was a real surprise. Needless to say, I hung it above my desk until the book was done :)

  3. Great post. I do an outline, but I don't always write down character descriptions. So what ends up happening is during revisions I may have to flesh out one or two characters who seem flat.

    I read about voice journals on Paul Greci's blog, and I'm going to try it out to flesh out my characters.


  4. Thanks for the link! That sounds fabulous.


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