Shelley Widhalm

Posts Tagged ‘Character Development’

Writing About Characters, Part I

In Character Inspiration, Characters, Shelley Widhalm, Writing Inspiration on June 14, 2015 at 11:00 am

When I write, I tend to base my characters, at least the females, somewhat on myself, maybe because I find my identity so incredibly interesting or I don’t know any better.

A writer friend asked me if writers have the authority to write about characters different from themselves, and I thought it was a good question to explore, especially considering how I handle my own characters.

To begin this exploration, it’s important that the point-of-view or main character is rounded with a full identity, not a flat or clichéd actor who only engages in action and motion and lacks any depth. Make the character distinct and different from the other characters by using a tag that sets him or her apart, such as physical traits, mannerisms, facial expressions or speech patterns.

Put yourself into the character’s mind and body, and then take yourself out. Start with physical descriptions and sensory details, working your way into the character’s mind and way of thinking. Write from your subconscious and knowledge and experience of other people who aren’t like you as you dig into the character.

As you write about the character—I’ll use Ty Banks, a male musician in my novel “Fire Painter” as an example, because I can’t sing or play an instrument and I’m not male—here are a few things you can do to gather material to build the character’s identity.

  • Empathize or imagine how it feels to be that person. Put yourself in the character’s body physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually and figure out how the character would think when alone and with others.
  • Interview people who remind you of the character to gather up details and sensations about how it feels to play an instrument, be on a stage with bright lights and have punk hair, using my example of the musician.
  • Listen to how other people speak and the words they use. As a general rule, women use more personal pronouns, such as “I,” “you” and “we,” and descriptive terms, while men use more active verbs and fewer adjectives. Women tend to state preferences instead of demands, such as “I would like to see that play,” and use apologetic language, while men are more commanding and do not divulge as much personal information in conversation as do women.
  • Figure out how the character will behave around others and how the character responds physically and emotionally to the plot situations. What is the character’s personality and behavior patterns as he or she grows and changes in response to the plot?

As an example, my book club found that “An Unnecessary Woman,” by Rabih Alameddine, demonstrates how a male writer fails to get into the head of an older woman. He writes about a book-loving, obsessive 72-year-old “unnecessary” woman who translates a favorite book into Arabic every year, then stows it away. The members of the book club said the writing failed to connect them with the main character, because the writer didn’t do a good job of projecting her thoughts and feelings.

Alternatively, Karen Stockett’s “The Help” about African-American maids working in white households during the 1960s is convincing, because she uses the language, mannerisms, identities and details of that time period.

Grounding Character Identity

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on April 1, 2012 at 6:59 pm

Like sugar to cookies, characters have essential qualities that turn them from a mass of words into living beings, at least in our minds.

To give readers those essential qualities involves telling the story and identifying the features and traits of the characters as individuals and in how they relate to one another.

The protagonist, or the main character of the story, is more fully developed than the antagonist and other minor characters. The antagonist can be a character, group of characters or an institution that serves as the principal opponent or foil of the protagonist. The protagonist has to contend or deal with this opposition to achieve his or her goal.

Before writing, I ask a few questions about my protagonist, which is Kate Letts in the novel I’m currently writing. I’m exploring how Kate deals with the after-effects of losing her home and belongings to a fire. I need to know why Kate is telling her story, what she wants and what she will learn.

I ask general questions, such as:

  • What does she want above all else, or what is her major goal?
  • What is she afraid of?
  • What doesn’t like about her situation?
  • What are her secrets?
  • Does she have a lovable quirk or a nervous gesture?
  • What is her main unlikable quality?
  • What is likable about her?

More specifically, what does this character look like and act like and how does she behave around others:

  • What is her hairstyle? What are her facial features? How tall is she? How does she dress? What kind of jewelry does she wear?
  • What are her speech patterns? What is her cultural and religious (if any) background?
  • What are her mannerisms? Her gestures? Her tastes? Her hobbies?
  • What is her job? What is her education? What does she drive? Does she bike or walk to get around? Where does she get her groceries and clothes?  

Another trick I learned is to envision a character and then try to find him or her in a magazine photo, store ad or online and cut out the image. I found magazine ads for Kate, as well as two of my minor characters, Samantha and Emma.

It’s a thrill to have turned imagination into a real image that I can refer to for inspiration as I continue on my path in the telling of Kate’s story.