18 Mar How to create three-dimensional characters
We read because we want to feel what it’s like to be another person and experience another reality. We watch films for the same reason. When a movie or a story is gripping it is because the emotions that we’re seeing on the page or screen are replicated in us.
We’re gunning for the hero to make it across the desert before the enemy tracks him down. We cheer on the heroine as she breaks free from her painful past. We become so involved with their lives that we think about them after we’ve left the cinema or put the book down. Something inside us is touched – and through that we are changed.
In fiction or narrative non-fiction you want to make your lead characters live and breathe on – and off – the page. If you are the main character in your story, the reader needs to feel your highs and lows. You must take the reader by the hand to the scene of the action. At the key points in the narrative, we need to see through your eyes, hear through your ears.
Some people you meet in real life are so unique that you couldn’t have written them better in fiction. This is often true in travel writing. We may go to exotic locations but it’s the individuals who stay with us after the landscape has faded into sepia.
This is why I’ve chosen to combine my travel writing retreat in Italy with immersion in traditional village life. Mercatello sul Metauro isn’t on the tourist trail. It’s full of artisans and craftsmen and women who still ply trades dating back to the Renaissance. They are unique and colourful; the older men’s faces are craggy. Exuberant Luisa (pictured here) owns the Donati palace where we will be staying
How a person looks is one way to bring a character to life. Famously Philip Roth uses only three words of description. Raymond Carver avoids any physical traits to show character. Most writers use a combination of telling details and action.
Here are 8 more techniques you can use to portray character:
- Use dialogue to let the reader hear the character’s unique voice.
- Combine dialogue with gestures so we can hear and see them. ‘Give me that,’ she said, slicing the air with her hand.
- Use all five senses – not forgetting smell & taste – to show how a person reacts. This could be you in your travel story arriving at a new destination.
- Reveal their flaws. None of us are perfect. We identify with others’ weaknesses and their strengths.
- Show how someone changes. It can be an internal shift from anxiety to confidence or a major transformation.
- Walk us step by step through the dramatic moments in your narrative. Do this by slowing the writing down when you want to ramp up the emotion.
- Combine what’s going on internally with what’s happening externally. So show how your character (this could be you) thinks as they watch events unfold around them. This mimics reality.
- Surprise us. In fiction your character needs to have consistency but it doesn’t mean they should be predictable. That’s the same in real life.
Don’t you love it when you surprise yourself?
I know I do!