Character design is one of the more intriguing and fun aspects of the writing process. After all, we can invent our story people to suit ourselves. We can make our hero tall and lithe, our villain capable of tossing deadly wizard fire, and our minions a small army of tiny, red-eyed, spider-folk capable of telepathic communication.
However, design can become a tar pit of pending decisions. Should I give her red hair or blue? Should she have tattoos? If I make her afraid of heights, does that mean my story has to be set in the Alps?
A simple, basic guide to organizing those decisions is to focus on the following basics:
In this post, I’ll focus on dominant impression. This is where you create the appearance, personality, background, and goal of a character then boil it all down to one or two words, such as ruthless killer, sweet innocent, drama queen, clown, diva, swindler, warrior prince, responsible, box-thinker, rule breaker, etc.
If you want to start with a dominant impression and then create the appearance and personality to support it, that’s perfectly fine. But dominant impression keeps the character clear and easy for readers to visualize. It also helps writers stay on track since, when we’re trying to create dimensional characters, we may muddle them unintentionally and fail to achieve the effect we want.
To show dominant impression to readers, we tag our characters by assigning them behaviors, actions, and dialogue that will demonstrate their personality.
For example, if you wish to demonstrate nervous Nellie as a character’s dominant impression, think about this individual’s traits, habits, tics, and behavior. Chronic nervous indicators can include nail biting, fidgeting, clumsiness, restless pacing, pencil gnawing, muttering, rapid-fire speech patterns, and high-pitched laughter.
Each time your character uses one of these indicators (which I call tags of personality), you’ve reminded readers of the dominant impression without author intrusion or telling.
It should be noted that other types of tags include a character’s name, appearance, clothing and possessions, habitat, pattern or style of dialogue, and mannerisms.
Each helps to remind readers of who this character is–distinct and separate from other characters in the cast–while also providing useful information.
While you don’t want to overuse the same tag to the point of exhausting reader patience, a variety of tags should be utilized often. My rule is at least one tag per character per page. Just using the character’s name will satisfy that rule, and if I can reinforce dominant impression at least once on the page then I feel I’m keeping that character vivid and easy for readers to remember.
My next post will address vivid, memorable character introduction.