2WB Dialogs: Lively characters

Welcome to the Two Writing Buddies dialogs (2WB for those in the know), one of a series of posts in which we talk about our creative process and issues that arise in our writing.

Denise: Hey Robine. I’m currently obsessed with creating some new characters for my latest story. Do you have any advice on bringing characters to life?

Robine: H-m-m-m ….[thinking] …. I don’t have much experience writing fictional characters, but the technique I use to bring people/characters alive in my “vignettes,” the little stories of real events and people that I sketch in my First Person Singular column for the Scituate Mariner, is probably similar. I try to give the reader a “visual” of the character. Instead of a lengthy, boring description of eye color, hair, shape, size, clothes, blah, blah, blah, I try to pick a couple of telling, unique features or characteristics of the person.

For example, here are two people from two of my vignettes. From “A Summer Day” (this story is posted in this blog):

John had a wide mouth, a shock of untamed brown hair, and a hearty deep-chested rumble of a laugh.

and from “Mrs. Cleveland and the Dickens:”

Mrs. Cleveland was a small lady with a scrunched-together face, a little like an apple left too long in the fridge’s fruit drawer…. Her false teeth clacked, which made me wonder whether her gums had shrunken too.

Note also that, at least in these two cases, I’ve asked the reader not only to picture the characters but aslo to “hear” them–i.e., rumbling laugh, clacking teeth.

So, that’s my technique for bringing characters alive. What’s yours?

Denise: All my favorite authors using (including you) make use of the telling detail to create characters. I’ve been noticing that in a longer work, authors often repeat one of these details as shorthand, to call the image of the character to the reader’s mind. It works! The key is to keep it to just a few words so the repetition is unobtrusive.

I’m interested in the way character drives the plot. Stories have to have a dramatic arc, but to prevent that from seeming like a lifeless formula, the characters’ needs and impulses have to fit with the action.

In the story I’m working on now, Chloe is dealing with changes in her life, some sad and some just weird but kind of cool, too. I’m trying to imagine her emotional state as vividly as I can. What does she need in her life right now and how will she try to find it?

Next topic: What’s your story?

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