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How I Make Characters Work

Creating characters for a story is such fun that I can’t imagine why anyone would compare it to giving birth! Obviously a story character is born via imagination and doesn’t incur the responsibilities of infant care such as changing diapers and losing sleep. Well, maybe a few winks are sacrificed!

I would guess that some writers have to put in a lot of labor as they have been taught to make arduous lists of their characters’ traits, including physical appearance. What a bore that exercise must be!

My grandmother always said, “Fancy is as fancy does.” You may have heard a version of this as “Handsome is as handsome does.” (This proverb was twisted in Forrest Gump as “Stupid is as stupid does,” but I’m drifting from the point.) This first proverb first appeared in Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale in 1387!

The point is that it doesn’t matter how handsome you are – if you’re mean and nasty, you’re ugly. It follows that we are all judged by our deeds, and so it seems in stories we learn about the characters by what they say and do, and not by boring descriptions. Least of all needed is a physical description. I might picture the old Wizard in my story Verity as looking like Sean Connery, but a meticulous description of the actor would be counterproductive if the reader pictures him as Leonard Nimroy. Unless a physical characteristic is germane to the story, I leave it out.

The Duchess in Verity never needed labeling. She condemned herself with every word and every action. One of Grimm’s tales does this graphically. In the Three Little Men in the Wood, the little men put spells on two girls, so that one kind, generous and beautiful girl becomes more beautiful, and every time she speaks a piece of gold drops from her mouth. The other girl is stingy and haughty, so she becomes uglier every day, and for every word she speaks, a toad springs out of her mouth. As a kid, I loved that!

Now I think of that when at a social occasion a woman – seemingly beautiful and sophisticated – asks another woman, “Does everyone here buy their clothes at the dollar store? Or did they – heaven forbid – make them?” She might as well have toads spring from her mouth.

The villains are easy to write.

For a character to do something “out of character,” it must be for a compelling reason – well depicted. Think of the character who shows up with bombs strapped to his body. He’s shown as a family man, faithful to his wife and satisfied with his job, and yet here he is in a crowded setting ready to blow himself and others to smithereens. It turns out his wife and kids have been kidnapped and the real villain is forcing him to this horrible behaviour. It’s well done on TV shows again, and again, and again, and again.

There are millions and millions of possibilities when one invents characters and their stories. It’s like being in a pastry shop and being allowed to choose six different sweets for free! Purr-sonally, I go more lick-smacking gaga in a stationary store. I wonder why?

Meg