Making Human Characters

I had a wonderful experience today. I met new family that until a month ago, I never knew I had—if it sounds like something out of a reality TV show about long lost family reuniting, you’re not wrong.  The meeting had been planned a few weeks ago and I never gave it too much thought until yesterday, when it dawned on me that it would be a slightly awkward experience because in effect, a group of strangers—adults and children—were going to meet up, shake hands, and be family.  And it was awkward, for about a minute, because that’s all the time it takes to realize how excited everyone is at the prospect of new cousins, and when you have that excitement in common, how can it go wrong. As much as I was absorbed in these new people—what do you do, where did you grow up, what sport do you watch, are you a Mac or PC kind of person—there was a little bit of me observing myself, storing away my reactions for analysis later. That’s the writer in me, always watching myself and how I’m going through life experiencing things, so I can use that in my book.

My stories deal strongly with family relationships—those we are born with and those we develop as family grows. In The Hummingbird’s Tear, my fantasy novel, Brennan and Calem are the focal point in my books but I don’t waste any time in using the plot device of brothers growing apart to draw attention to how other more fulfilling, or damaging relationships in my characters lives and how they own their interactions and feelings and how those in turn dictate and shape their actions. And today for me was almost an out-of-body study on how people interact so that I could think about that and use it to enrich my stories and my characters.  So, how is my event going to make it onto the page?

1—if it works, build in a little expectation before the scene where characters meet. I have druids and sorcerers in my story, but I won’t write about them pacing practicing spells to pass the time or filling an hour before an important personal event using magic to make flowers bloom – not because that isn’t vivid, but because the reader can’t related.  You can add a huge amount of depth to a character without stating anything directly about that person. For example if you want to show some anxiety, one of your characters could be doing their hair before the meeting. Describe how they do their hair, look over it, see a slight imperfection, then do it again, and maybe drop the brush because their hands are a bit sweaty. Your character wants to look as good as they can, and they’re fussy and stalling, as the reader you get a sense that they’re nervous, and the actions are ones we’ve all done ourselves so we can relate to it.

2—make dialogue natural. We’ve all met someone for the first time, we’ve all wondered for a micro-second is our handshake to limp or firm, is it one kiss on the cheek or two.  That is exactly what I’ve done in my books, but more subtly. If one of the characters is a little unsure, instead of the usual limp handshake, you can be a bit creative by making them try to pull their hand away too soon and accidentally tug at the other person who wasn’t ready to let go. Add an awkward silence after that, and as a reader, you can practically taste the sweat that would be on the nervous characters brow.

3—use what is around the characters to build the scene – you can say a huge amount about a character without mentioning them. In Hummingbird there’s a scene where a woman goes into labour on the streets. No one rushes up to help, in fact, people look away on purpose and pretend not to notice. The woman in labour doesn’t expect anything less. She’s dressed differently, and doesn’t speak their language, and the people of the town are afraid more for themselves if they help than for this poor woman crying out in pain on a cobble street. That tells the reader about attitudes, a hint at cultures, and a lot about the dynamics of the people in the city that the scene is set in. It then makes the efforts of Brennan and Calem, who do help her, that much more heroic and important to the story.

Everything you do, everything you think, will make your characters and your stories richer, it’s about letting the reader come to know your characters without describing them though. Much like meeting new people, they don’t come up to you and tell them about yourselves, they laugh at jokes, or they join in at certain points or go quiet at others. It’s fascinating how people behave, and the best character in a book is one we want to know. Reading about them feels like we’re getting to know a person who’s come into our lives, shaken our hand, and asked us to go on an adventure with them.

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