Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Writing of Characters

When I read a book I always consider it an adventure I have chosen to go on. I look to the author and say, "guide me." And guiding me is all I expect the author to do. I expect to be shown the story that is the adventure, but I want to see and understand some things on my own. Authors should not be tedious tour guides. We, the readers, have a lust for the juicy parts of the adventure and it is what we expect to get. We want to experience some things on our own. We have imagination too.

This week I plan to write about what the reader expects from a writer. I have some authority is this subject since I am an avid reader and honest, sometimes brutally, book reviewer. Today's post concerns characters. Particularly what the reader expects in regards to how the author presents characters to the reader through dialogue.

Museums are a useful illustration for how readers should see characters. A typical museum display contains a small plaque that tells about the display. These plaques allow the reader to see more into the aspects of the display than the tour guide point out. Writing characters works the same way.

You can tell your reader a few of the prominent details about a character, but they do not want to be bored by every little detail. Some good details that you can give the reader safely are the eye color and the height. You could even say a character is handsome or beautiful, but you must allow the reader to imagine what they believe the character looks like overall. This aspect makes the character, especially the main protagonist, more personal and encourages the reader to care for them. 

One thing that we rarely obtain from a museum is how the people in the displays lived and acted. We cannot understand the full character of someone just by looking at physical appearance. You see, if you look at a mummy in a coffin…I mean sarcophagus…you would not say, “He’s a funny fella.”

The only way you could possibly know the character/personality of whoever that mummy was would be to don a lab coat, construct a time machine, and travel back in time to ancient Egypt. Then, if you don’t get stuck in a desert or killed by nomads, you have to find out who that mummy was when he lived. In all likelihood it will be some pharaoh and you would never get to him. Even if you did find the man-before-the-mummy, you would have to get close to him and follow him around before you ever truly got to know him.

Reflecting on the past illustration, our job as writers is to spare the reader from having to do anything remotely similar to that. We can grant them immediate access into the most personal recesses of a character’s life. We do this through dialogue. No reader is going to want to be told that Jason argued with his wife and left her. The reader wants to hear the argument, see the pain, and watch as Jason leaves. Now if the main protagonist was Jason’s wife, and the reader had already developed a love for her, imagine how deeply emotional that scene would be.

It is also easier to discover a character’s past through dialogue and it is infinitely less boring. I’m not suggesting that a character details everything about his past to someone he just met, but the author could let a little slip and then allow the reader to fill in some minor details based on what they already know about the character.

These have been speculations with Joshua A. Spotts, tune in next time…


  1. Great advice! Characters are vital to a story so that the reader will care about the story; they have to care about the characters. I like your museum analogy, too!

  2. Thank you very much, Lena! I appreciate the comment.


Please share your thoughts with me. Thank you!

Follow by Email