What is it about good fantasy writing that makes it so irresistible? Is it the blood, gore, violence and sex? Is it the magic, other-worldliness or escapism? Is it the danger and suspense? Is it the beauty or raw ugliness of the world that the author has created? No, these are just the spice added to the story. What usually makes you read a good book from cover-to-cover in one sitting are the personalities and charisma of the characters, and their ability to overcome adversity or generate it. Who wants to read a story about a load of dull people living a quiet life, plodding around a fantasy landscape with not a care in the world?
So how do you build a worthwhile personality into your characters? It isn’t easy and you do have to be a bit scientific about it to figure it out, because it is a path of discovery and part of generating your own writing style. I’ll be able to give you a few hints here based on my own experience, but it really is a personal epiphany you need to achieve and reading other books is the best place to start. So go back to your favourite books and ask yourself, what was it about the most interesting characters in the book that kept you entertained and turning the pages? Then go back to the books where you were bored to tears by the characters or couldn’t care less about them even though you were supposed to, and ask yourself why? It’s best to understand both good and bad writing so that you avoid the pitfalls of a poorly drawn character. But do look carefully at how the author develops and alters the personalities of their key characters, as it’s very unlikely to happen in a single paragraph, it’s usually a gradual process.
Here are a few tips for drawing a character’s personality:
- Describing personality – Keep direct descriptions of someone’s personality to a minimum. Where possible have the other characters do it for you. For example, if I were to write the description: “His manner was rough and he kept to himself”, you’d probably find this a bit weaker than if I had one of the other characters say something like: “I did what you asked and invited Frank to join us, but he just picked his nose and flicked his snot at me!”
- Dialogue – It took me a while to understand the power of dialogue in writing, as initially I tended to fall into the trap of describing everything. But having your characters speak conveys a huge message about who they are and what they think, which is essential to understanding their personality (even if they’re talking to themselves). Just remember to make sure that your characters are doing something while they talk as that can also convey their personality. It’s very rare for people to stand opposite one another with their hands at their sides and their faces blank. They will react to their own words and those of the people they’re talking to, as well as interact with the world around then. So get them to smile, gesture to ward off the evil eye, scream at something they’ve been handed, scratch their underarm, chew with their mouth open, jiggle up and down when they’re laughing, tap their foot when they’re angry, etc.
- Internal dialogue – I really like to include internal dialogue as well as spoken dialogue in my stories, i.e. what the characters are thinking. Usually I only reserve it for specific characters, particularly the “good guys” as I want the reader to empathise strongly with them, but it can also be entertaining to give the “bad guys” plenty of air time with internal dialogue, so that you can really understand why they’ve ended up so bitter and twisted. But take care. While spoken dialogue tends to bounce back and forth between the speakers making it easy to follow, internal dialogue can be more disjointed so it can be hard to keep track of if there are too many lines of it going in different directions. Also ensure spoken dialogue is articulated differently to internal dialogue to avoid confusion. Use double “” or single ‘’ quotes as you would normally around spoken dialogue, and italics for internal dialogue (no quotes), unless your publisher/agent asks for a different method.
- Actions – Actions can speak louder than words, which I’ve mentioned quite a bit in my previous blogs. The gentle caress of a lover’s hand; a cruel twist of the knife; a hidden gesture behind the back of your enemy… Actions like these speak volumes about a character’s personality and are an extremely useful way of avoiding a direct description. So rather than writing: “She was a bit odd”, instead you describe their actions, which convey their personality without actually stating it directly, such as: “She liked to dress as a chicken at dinner time and forced her guests to howl like dogs.”
- Phonetic dialogue – Writing exactly how the character speaks, regardless of the spelling, can also convey personality, or even an outlandish accent. For example, instead of the character saying, “Hello my little beauties” they might say, “Well, ha-loo me leetel bee-yoo-tees.” But I would take a little care and keep it to a minimum. This is just a personal thing but I do find that phonetic dialogue can sometimes be quite difficult to read if it’s too weird, which can be off-putting. Abbreviations like m’lady and ye’all tend to be a bit easier to fathom.
- Draw your character – If you have a talent for drawing, try sketching what the character looks like in colour, as visualising them can help you to bring them to life. You can then jot down their good and bad personality traits and habits beside them. But if you’re like me and have trouble drawing stick-figures, then jotting down each character’s features and character traits beside their name can still be useful, and you can add to it if you want to make certain changes to them as the story progresses. This allows you to refer back to the description and make sure your character’s personality and physical features remain true to form and only change when you want them to (not by accident).
- Don’t let them rest – Although conveying a character’s personality is very important to draw in your readers, you can’t let your characters take a break. You may have created the most beautifully drawn characters with fantastic personalities, but if they’re doing nothing interesting your readers will close the book. I find that if what I’m writing feels boring to write, then it will definitely be boring to read, and it’s time for a fresh injection of ideas.