As I wrote at the close of my previous post, a character that lives and sparkles is one that’s exaggerated, intriguing, torn within, and hiding something.
Exaggeration means to take a quality and expand it, to make it larger. The first decision you probably should make is to select your character’s primary trait.
Let’s say it’s a rescuer–someone who jumps in and helps others in trouble. A rescuer is always hyper-sensitive to those around him. This individual will notice when someone needs help and will step up to provide it.
Earlier today, I encountered a mild version of this trait in action. When I exited the post office with a small parcel and an armful of mail, the man coming in paused, backed up, and held the door for me as a simple, ordinary courtesy.
At the opposite extreme, the rescuer trait out of control might be an individual in a co-dependent relationship, where one member of the couple berates the other until unsuccessful action is taken, thus necessitating another rescue.
No fleshed-out character possesses only one trait, of course, but generally writers select a dominant or primary one that will stand out from the rest of the character’s design.
Examples of rescuers would include Superman, Zorro, and Batman. (Who knows? Maybe I met Superman at the post office and didn’t realize it.)
Perhaps your character’s primary trait is shyness. Run with it. This shyness is so profound, so crippling, that the character can’t speak to strangers, can’t look someone in the eye, can’t–in fact–function normally in society and perhaps can’t hold a job unless through working at home as a telecommuter.
A character that’s torn within is a story person who cares deeply and intensely about something. It may be a cause. It may be another person. It may be a responsibility. Whatever it is, this character is committed fully to it. There’s no apathy, no cynicism at work here. The connection goes deep.
And the plot then pressures that commitment. The situation, or another character in the story, threatens whatever it is your character cares about.
If your character is devoted to a cause–like Branson in the hit show DOWNTON ABBEY–then that cause is threatened by his love for the earl’s daughter. Branson is a revolutionary and socialist. He doesn’t believe in the aristocracy and upper classes. Yet, despite his political convictions, he’s fallen in love with a girl at the very pinnacle of affluent society. He doesn’t want to accept her world. He doesn’t want to try to fit into her world. Yet he loves her enough to feel that he shouldn’t pull her down to his level either. What is he to do?
Ethical dilemmas create wonderful problems for characters because they force characters to deal with a maelstrom of conflicting loyalties.
A character with something to hide possesses that fascinating quality known as dimension. I’m not saying that your character must lead a double life with a second family concealed from the first. But a character with an inner flaw or a self-perceived weakness is someone who’s wearing a mask. This character will often act in certain ways to sustain the concealment or to overcompensate for the interior problem.
Many famous and highly successful athletes began life as physical weaklings advised by doctors to take up some sport such as running or skating to strengthen their muscles.
Maybe your character is a tough, assertive woman who’s fought for financial independence and established a successful career. She’s taught herself to hide her inner softness and femininity so she won’t appear weak to her competitors.
The British character actor C. Aubrey Smith enjoyed a successful film career playing gruff, crusty old grandfathers who barked at everyone but had an inner tenderness for the child that could stand up to him.
Mr. Darcy–Jane Austen’s handsome hero–wears his aloof, indifferent, superior demeanor like a new coat, but his hauteur hides his inner shyness. He appears very proud and above his company, especially when he first arrives in Elizabeth Bennett’s small community, but he’s gradually revealed as a man who’s shy, compassionate, generous, and loyal to those he loves.
If you can create characters that are exaggerated, torn within, and concealing a secret, they can’t help but be intriguing.
Best of all, they’ll be alive.
They’ll dance–even sparkle–on the page.