Some time ago, I talked a bit about the resources I use to learn about the characters I’m getting ready to portray in historical fiction. I thought I’d pretty well covered the topic. But after this week’s discovery that the characters in my new book don’t really stand out yet as individuals, I’ve decided to think about the question in more detail.
Most writing guides will devote a chapter or more to characterization. They offer good advice. Make the people in your novel believable. Avoid stereotypes, which are, by definition, boring. A chatty librarian is more interesting than a sternly silent one. And a neatly-dressed plumber might be fascinating simply because of what you don’t see when he bends over. Don’t force a character to perform super-human feats, unless, of course, you’re into writing fantasy. Reveal personalities a bit at a time. Don’t overwhelm the reader with lengthy descriptions at the very beginning. Let the reader get to know your characters gradually, in much the same way as you get to know real people in your life. But how do you do all that?
One way is to imagine your characters in a speed-dating setting. Visualize each one sitting across from you. You have only a few minutes to decide if you like or distrust them. You’re taking notes, so that you can remember them later. Besides noting the usual hair and eye color, height and weight, ask each of them a series of questions. Make them sweat a little, and they may tell you a great deal.
1. What is your name? Does it have a special significance to your family? Do you have a nickname?
2. How old are you, and where were you born? Have you stayed in one location or moved around? And if you have moved, at what point in your life?
3. What was your family like when you were growing up? Did you have brothers and sisters, and where do you fall, age-wise, in the list of your parents’ children? Are you still the responsible one because you were the oldest? Or are you the forgotten middle child, or the spoiled youngest one?
4. Did you have pets as a child? If you could choose just one pet, would you turn out to be a cat-person (independent) or a dog-person (eager and friendly)?
5. Do you have a large circle of companions, or only a couple of close friends? Have you moved in the same small circle all your life, or have you reached out to meet new people? And how do you choose your friends?
6. What is your greatest strength? Your greatest weakness?
7. What do you dream of doing? If you could be someone else, who would you choose?
8. What beliefs do you hold most tightly? Which ones would you be willing to carve on a rock?
9. What is your idea of a perfect day? Where and with whom would you spend it, and what would you do?
10. Why do you dress the way you do? Are you usually neat or disheveled? Are you stylish or old-fashioned? Are you uncomfortable in a suit and tie — or in high heels and a fancy dress?
11. What are your favorite expressions? Do you use the latest slang, or do you show off your extensive vocabulary? Do you slip into a more pronounced accent or dialect when you are excited? Do you have a verbal tic, saying “um” or “uh” or “like” or ”you know”?
12. What does your posture say about you? Do you slouch, or hunch your shoulders, or keep your arms crossed? Do you keep your eyes on the ground when you walk? Or are your shoulders thrown back as a sign of confidence?
13. What about eye contact? Do you keep looking away, or are you giving me a belligerent stare? Are you squinting at me or raising a skeptical eyebrow? Are you avoiding eye contact because you are nervous or because you are bored? Does your smile reach your eyes?
14. Does sitting or standing close to someone make you uncomfortable? Do you instinctively pull away from others? Or do you frequently reach out to make physical contact?
15. And what do your other gestures say about you? Do you play with your hair or brush it back impatiently? Do you have a “twitch” or unconscious mannerism? Do you pick at a hangnail, chew your lip, shuffle your feet, or bite your fingernails?
We all send out signals with our body language, and most of us are able to interpret those signals, if only subconsciously. If your characters behave as real people do, your readers will judge them accordingly.