Readers best remember the characters you create for your novel by focusing in on their mannerisms, habits and traits. Most often these are physical, but they can be equally memorable if they are social or personality traits. Size, height, weight, buck teeth, a limp are just a sampling of physical characteristics. Just as important are social traits such as poor table manners, rampant cursing, nail biting, dour personality. In the personality category, think of religious, studious, ethical, stupid or bright. Different characteristics and traits can reveal much about the persona you have tried to build into your fictional person. And they eliminate the need for boring description. They “show” so you don’t have to “tell.”
Even the quirks, those small peculiarities that some people exhibit in real life can be excellent identifiers. John regularly tends to play with the loose change in his pocket. He takes it out and shifts it back and forth between his hands. Bill is always jingling his keys, Mary is forever redoing her ponytail. If your characters repeat these or similar actions whenever they’re introduced into a scene, the reader begins to identify and remember them through their quirks.
Be specific about the trait or quirk. Don’t generalize. And don’t simply tell the reader about it; allow the character’s actions to demonstrate it.
Just be sure your demonstration of a trait is specific enough to lead to the conclusion you intended. For example, you write, “Joan slouched down on the sofa, her body stretched across two pillows.” Your intention is to show that Joan is a very relaxed and casual person. But a reader might interpret her actions as self-centered, caring very little for the comfort of others. It’s fine to allow your reader to draw his/her own conclusion, but be sure not to leave room for misinterpretation. When you write, “Jane fussed with the clasp on her purse while fidgeting on the sofa.” The conclusion is quite obvious. Jane is tense or nervous.
Distinguish Your Characters
You want your reader to be able to identify with your characters. I don’t mean that they should be able to find characteristics that are similar to their own. It means simply that the reader should be able to close his/her eyes and envision this character. He/she may like or dislike the fictional person. That doesn’t matter. What is important is that the reader recognizes human traits in the character, and that makes the fictional person believable. Once again, I stress the importance of showing (demonstrating) as opposed to telling (describing in words). Let’s look at a few examples of how one does this that are taken from a recent e-book I published.
- Thin: “The shirt sagged from his shoulders. With nothing to hold them up, his trousers slipped below his hips.”
- Overweight: “The roll of fat that peeked out over her waistband wrapped around her middle like a child’s swim tube.”
- Tall: “Jim learned to lean over each time he walked through the doorway, the consequence of several battles with low lintels.”
- “Doris often ran her index finger along the 3-inch scar that curved past her right cheek bone.”
- “He wore full-length slacks even on the hottest days of summer to hide the artificial leg he had been given.”
- “He insisted the barber leave his hair longer to cover the large incision the doctors had made in his scalp.”
- Boastful: “Come on, coach. Let me get in the game. You’re wasting some of the best talent you have by keeping me here on the bench.”
- Sacrificing: (When asked to represent her college in a national debate, Fran answered) “I’d love to, but I really think that Betty is far more qualified than I.”
- Narcissistic: “I find it so hard to buy clothes. Perhaps it would be better if I didn’t have such a perfect size 2 figure. Then I’d be like everybody else and have lots to choose from.”
It’s certainly not hard to convey an impression to your reader and avoid dull description. But it is always wise to set your illustration within the context of what the character is doing and/or where he/she might be at that time. That often helps to steer the reader to the conclusion you intended. In these few examples just above, it is obvious that the boastful scene takes place at an athletic event. But the sacrificing scene required me to indicate where and why Fran spoke as she did. If the scene had not been set, the quotation would have had no meaning. The narcissistic vignette could take place anywhere.
Other personality traits
So many people today experience phobias that a reader would not be at all surprised if you included one in a character’s makeup. Among the most common are speed, heights, bugs and snakes. If used appropriately for a character whose personality might logically allow a phobia, it can be very helpful in defining that character further. But it is important to lay the foundation for this a bit earlier in the book. Susie might be walking in the woods alongside her boyfriend when they hear a snake rustling through the leaves next to the trail. She screams and runs away frightened. You might lay the groundwork for this earlier by reporting on a proposed visit to the zoo that Susie’s boyfriend had arranged. She agrees to join the others only after receiving a promise they will not visit the reptile house.
So whether it be a phobia, a character trait or simply a character’s reaction to an event, a person or a sudden change of any type, each response must have a cause, a motivation, to make the character’s reaction credible. It is up to you, the author, to install the hint of a problem earlier in the novel. Remember always that motivation is an absolute requirement if you want your character to be believable. That is crucial to keeping your reader interested.