In real life, humans are fascinating creatures filled with contradictions. Nobody (at least nobody I’ve ever met) is ALL kindhearted, or ALL confident, or ALL obnoxious, or ALL positive. So why do writers tend to write one-dimensional characters?
Donald Maas offers this answer:
Many writers create multidimensional characters in their head, but they fail to portray these dimensions on paper.
He suggests going through our manuscript and counting the different sides of our characters we show our readers. His prediction? We don’t show nearly as many dimensions as we think.
I did this exercise with my WIP. And guess what? He was right. While the characters in my head are multidimensional, these same characters on paper don’t measure up.
What does Maas recommend?
Increase the number of dimensions in your characters.
Pinpoint your character’s defining quality. Now think of this quality’s opposite. In what ways can you show your character portraying this opposite? Repeat the exercise again with a secondary quality.
My character’s dominant impression: devoted widow.
She’s devoted to her deceased husband, to her 4-year old son, to her cafe, to her music, to God, to her friends and family. She’s loyal and dedicated to all of these things.
What is the opposite of devotion? indifference or unfaithfulness
In what way can my heroine show this opposite side of herself?
Maybe at some point in the novel, she’s too exhausted and overwhelmed to care anymore. So she lets some of her commitments slide, like her Bible study, business at her cafe, her music at church, etc.
Maybe at some point in the novel, she commits to something with the hero (who is her antagonist) in order to gain the upper hand and she’d deliberately unfaithful with this particular commitment.
I highly recommend this exercise. It sure gets the creative juices percolating and opens up some exciting character possibilities.
Questions to Ponder: What is your defining quality? If you don’t know, ask a spouse, a best friend, a sibling, a parent, etc. What do they say? In what ways do you contradict this quality?removetweetmeme
What is a tag?
It’s a label you slap on your character to make him/her identifiable to your reader.
Appearance: A tall, broad shouldered man leaves a much different impression than a frail, hunched-over man. Well-dressed vs. sloppy. Manicured fingernails vs. callused palms. Appearance says a lot about your character.
Speech: Does he have an accent? Does she talk fast, without taking any breaths? Does he stutter? Does she use verbose vocabulary or does she stick with monosyllables? How a person talks says a lot about his or her background, level of education, career, and social status. Pay careful attention to the speech tags you give your characters.
Mannerisms: nail-biter, hair twirler, fidgeter, lip licker, eye-batter…the list could go on and on. Be careful to avoid cliche mannerisms. Get creative here. My favorite is by Jill Kemerer, who has this awesome post about a character who picks the same scab on her arm over and over again.
Attitude: AKA Traits. punctual, bitter, energetic, flirtatious, competitive….
The purpose of tags:
1. To distinguish one character from another
2. To characterize
If a woman is flirtatious, show it via tags. Does she bat her eyes at men? Bite her lower lip in order to draw attention to its fullness? Does she touch men on the shoulder or forearm when it’s not necessary? If a man is high-strung, does he pace? Does he mess up his hair when he’s stressed? Is he a chain-smoker who holds his cigarettes with trembling fingers?
That’s basically it about tags. Thus ends my series from Dwight Swain’s book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. Sad, right? I hope they were helpful! I highly recommend the book. It’s wordy, for sure. But chalk-full of insightful information.
Question to Ponder: What tags do you give your characters?removetweetmeme