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Monday, 21 October 2013

Writing tips – It’s all character building

Fiction relies on memorable characters. The reader needs to visualise the character and empathise. Part of character building is in the description.  Naturally, if you’re writing first person narrative, the physical description is going to be conveyed by reflections or other people’s comments; if you’re in the third person POV, even then you can’t easily describe your character, it has to be done by someone else – unless you slyly jump into omniscient POV when the drama permits.

Here’s a character breakdown for the hero of Death at Bethesda Falls.


DoB: 6 Oct 1839. Jim is 26. He lived in Deadfall, a neighbouring town to Hope Springs, both being small Kansas towns, and went off to war in 1861 when he was 22.  He left behind his girl, Anna Comstock, who lived in Hope Springs.  He wrote to her as often as he could but never got any answers to his letters. 

When he returned after the war (1865), he found that his mother and kid sister had been killed; also, the Comstock parents had died two years earlier and only last year both Anna and her brother Clyde had up and left for somewhere west.  Before she went, Anna had qualified as a schoolteacher. 

He felt rootless but as he is good with a gun and he wanted to find the killers of his ma and sis, he takes up bounty hunting, mainly in the Dakota Territory.  The war hadn’t really prepared him for much else, only hunting and killing.

He smokes stogies (thin cigars) usually affected by gamblers.

Dresses entirely in black.  Flat-crowned hat. Silk neckerchief. Linen shirt, broadcloth trousers. Leather boots, no spurs.

Two six-guns, slung low and slantwise and tied down.  A bullwhip is tied to his belt. Carries a Henry repeating rifle.  Also a Bowie knife in its sheath on his belt.

Physical appearance
With a tanned and lined brow, looks older than his young years.  Tall and broad and didn’t carry an ounce of fat. Slate-grey eyes. Livid scar on left temple.  Aquiline nose.  Burnt almond hair. Cleft chin. Broad grin.

Aloof, analytical.  Savvy.

Verbal mannerisms
Deep, husky voice. 
When angry, spoke with grave deliberation; tone becoming cool, icy. Eyes narrowing, fix with a level stare; mouth tightened into a stubborn line.
You can see that already Thorp is linked to Clyde and Anna with their previous history. Don’t neglect backstory, as no character comes into the world fully formed but is made by his experiences and the people he deals with in life.

Character breakdown list

Try to produce a breakdown for each main character; shorter versions for bit-part players. This can be as little or as much as you like, depending on the length of the work (short story, novella or novel). Every item doesn’t have to be allocated, of course. This also helps for consistency and avoids mistakes! Obviously, career choice or experience will influence behaviour. Some options won’t be appropriate if you’re writing a historical story!

Name – try to avoid using names beginning with the same letter; avoid similar sounding names; be imaginative and don’t always settle for the easy option. Check a directory for names. Dickens was good at this. In Death is Another Life, my American magus is called Spellman – just seemed right! Count Zondadari was the name of a Maltese knight and a triq (or street) was named after him, so I used this name for the vampire…

Age (Date of birth may be relevant, helps keep track, too, if the story covers a long period)



Body type

Eye colour

Hair colour and style

Distinguishing features

Physical imperfections

Characteristic gestures

Race/ethnic group


Family background



Skills, abilities and talents


Previous jobs

Military or other experience

Short term goals

Long term goals



Method of handling stress/anger/rage

Admirable traits

Negative traits

Bad habits/vices


Opinions on politics/other current issues



Favourite pastime

Favourite TV/films

Pets – animals should only be used if they’re going to have relevance to the plot or for character development

Favourite meal

Favourite alcoholic drink

Favourite book

Traumas/psychological scars from the past


Pet sayings/verbal mannerisms

Speaking style

Best friend

Past experience that has moulded personality


Car type, colour etc

Character growth/change by the end of story

General character physical description guide

Even for short fiction, it’s useful to apply some of the following to your characters. It will depend on the story and its length as to how much description you can use. This list is by no means exhaustive but gives a taste of variety that can be applied to your characters to make them stand out from each other. Bear in mind family resemblances, though. Ring the changes so there’s no confusion of characters in the visual sense.

Hair: Black, brown, fair, auburn, grey. Turning grey, bald, waved, bobbed, close-cropped, dyed.

Eyes: Blue, brown, hazel, grey, green, squint, monocle, spectacles, blind, left or right eye missing, patch. Open, upper lid dropped, distinctly narrowed, drooping lower lid.

Complexion: Dark, fair, fresh, pale, ruddy, sallow, freckles, pock-marked, moles; warts, scars, beard, moustache.

Mouth: Full lips, thin upper and full lower lip, narrow lips, wide lips, hare lip.

Ears: Small, large, long lobed, short, thick, round; angular flat ears; right or left ear deformed or missing.

Teeth: Healthy, broken, decayed, false, gold-filled, missing.

Nose: Large, small, long, broad, snub, bulbous, pointed, hooked, straight, crooked.

Chin: Slight, heavy, dimpled.
Back: Straight, broad, humped, round-shouldered.

Legs: Slim, fat, bandy, right or left limp; right or left leg missing.

Physique: Corpulent, thin, short, tall, strong, weak.

Speech: Slow, rapid, impediment, thin, harsh, dumb.

As a rule, the nose decides ‘looks’; also where the nose is full and round, so are the lips, chin and brow. If the nose is sharp, so are the other features too.

The mouth indicates character while feelings are generally shown most rapidly in the eyes.

Character is also revealed by behaviour, but that’s another post at a later date.

For all writers of genre fiction, character creation is dealt with in Chapter 8 (p87) in Write a Western in 30 Days.




Nancy Jardine said...

Good lists, Nik, that are easily transferrable across the genres. Thank you. I find remembering my characters' traits quite a challenge so I tend to 'buy' the use of an image from a reputable site, to refer to during the manuscript writing.(My pinboard is littered) After the novel is completed I use the same image in my book trailer videos and in blog articles.

Ron Scheer said...

Frontier fiction from 100 years ago usually introduces characters with a detailed description of their physical features. Heroes had broad foreheads and big chins. A short upper lip was apparently desirable as well. Women's emotions were always signaled by color rising in their cheeks. Characterization included regional dialects. Villains were typically butt ugly or sinisterly handsome.

Nik said...

Interesting approach, Nancy!

Ron, I agree, but now readers seem to want more - and no regional dialects which are difficult to comprehend and slow down the story.