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Making the Character Real


How do you build memorable characters? A simple answer to that question is you assign him/her an element about which he can care, It is his or her ability to care about something; to feel, implicitly or explicitly, that something is important. No matter whether this something is major, or trivial. What creates the character is that he cares about something.

Of course you can write a story, long or short. And it could be well written. When you go back and edit that story, look closely at your characters, in particular your main character. Did you embody in him something that he cares about. Look closely, it doesn't have to be a statement that the character is making. He doesn't have to state for example: "I stand for the freedom and rights of all people." In creating our story people, we never want to 'tell'. We want to 'show'. Now here is another example, one which puts emphasis on the concept of showing the reader: Abraham Lincoln once was asked what he remembered about the war of 1812 with Great Britain, he replied:  "Only this - I had been fishing one day had caught a little fish, which I was taking home. I met a soldier in the road, and having always been told at home that we must be good to soldiers, I gave him my fish." It is only a glimpse into his life, but it shows the solitary, generous child and the patriotic household. Another way this is depicted is by having the character coming upon the solider. Here is an example from The Boy's Life of Abraham Lincoln. Note too, in this example the depiction of scenery - a very important element in the creativity of a story:


To the Pioneer child a farm offered much that a town lot could not give him - space, woods to roam in; knob creek with its running water and its deep quiet pools for a play fellow; berries to be hunted for in summer and nuts in autumn; while all the year round birds and small animals pattered across his path to people the solitude in place of human companions. The boy had few comrades. He wandered about playing his lonesome little games, and when these were finished returned to the small cheerless cabin. [the 'cheerless' cabin is acceptable here, provided it is fully descriptive elsewhere, prior to this. Again, reminding you to 'show' not 'tell'.] While on his way home, he caught a fish as it's silver body swept along the quiet pool, and he was anxious to get back home to give it to his mother. Straight ahead of him in the middle of the road he couldn't quiet tell what was there.  As he closer approached, he barely discerned it to be a person, a man perhaps, in fact, a wounded solider.

"Young boy there," the soldier's voice was commanding and strong, opposed to the weakness he shown with his body. And, he said no more, for he was in great pain, supporting himself against the stick he held for walking. Young Abraham quickly leaned away as it appears the solider had lost control and was about to fall on him. Accordingly in quick reaction and spontaneity Abraham held his hand out to support him. The solider refused his help, Instructing him instead to stand back. Young Abraham offered to give the solider the fish. All that the solider did was smiled in return as he taken up the generous offer.


Humanitarianism and Patriotism are important to young Abraham Lincoln- perhaps more than he himself is aware of. He forgets about bringing the fish home so that his mother can cook it for their meal. He is responding from something which he cares about - the salvation of his brother man. We now have more than just a boy. In this example our protagonist or main character. We have a person who cares. As we construct the story, we have more direction. We construct it with this caring element attached to the character. This is only the beginning. We have a long way to go in constructing our character, which I will attempt to explain as we continue.

Before we get on to anything else, it most be emphasized that the core of 'characterization' is an individual capacity for caring, his ingrained ability to feel that something is important. The reason I emphasize it is because this 'caring' element is the character type with whom the reader is able to empathize with. The freaky, repellent and boring lack the same potential for creating memorable characters.

What is Character Labeling? Before answering this question, let me say first that you need to know your character. You must know him like you know the back of your hands. (sounds a bit cheesy? I thought so) But knowing the character is like knowing someone you know in real life, that you can guess and predict what he/she would do in any particular situation. It doesn't mean that you are to know him all the way. There has to be some things that he can surprise you with.

I'm going to use as an example, four elements to describe what I'm referring to by Character Labeling. This is a very good tool. The four elements as they relate to the character are: sex, age, vocation, and manner.

The first two, sex and age, are relatively implicit. The second two are explicit and I will go into greater detail in explanation of them. With vocation we are concerned not only with the usual range of doctor, lawyer, and the familiar trades, but others we may not so normally think of in occupational terms. Examples of these would be lazy bum, invalid, grocery cart man.

Item four, manner, an element which is the most important factor in creating Character Labeling. Manner is an individual's personal bearing. It gives the writer something predictable to write.

How do you go about bringing the character into view using character labels. That depends upon you, the writer. You may want to start by describing the character with the use of a memorable tag. For example eyes glasses that keep sliding off the ridge of his nose, a hairpiece that keeps sliding down, etc. Or, use minor action: He pushed the door open with his foot. The point of all of this is to simply say: Let's get the main character on his way sooner than later. Here are some examples that will further explain these actions and descriptions. I've added dialogue and thoughts introspection as well.

Description, appearance; Start off describing something about the characters appearance, How about his eyes? Are they dark, blue, brown. But make something very noticeable about them. Does he stare as thought he is looking straight through you. Does by the way he looks at you makes you feel intimidated?

And if he has a head of thick white hair, you would want to make that known especially if his physique and energy level portraits a much younger looking man. What about his hands? Are they old with long fingernails. Does he have hair growing on the palms of his hands?

Let's have a look at action: He reached behind and pulled the 'to- be- robber' from the back seat of his cab with just one hand, and nailed him down across the front seats. With his hands around his throat, he squeeze him until he couldn't made another sound. "Now this teaches you a lesson before you think of robbing the next cab driver." He drove up on the wrong side of the street and shelved the passenger out onto the curb.

We can start it off with Dialogue: "Do you want a light?" Marsha looked at the man as his car drove slowly up and coming to a stop. He looked more like a gangster with the black hat he wore; though he could have been a cop as well. She had never seem him before and didn't feel too comfortable talking to him. "No thank you. I don't smoke," she started walking away in her knee high black boots and matching mini skirt. She put the cigarette back in her purse. "I've seen you light up a cigarettes many times before. Get in my car we can go for a ride." He reached inside of his pocket showing her his bankroll. "My money is good as all the rest," he stated.

Finally, lets take a look at Introspection: The thought kept going through his mind. How did she gain entrance into the building. The manager, that kept coming back to his mind. It was the only reasonable thing that he could think of. But he specifically instructed the manager not to let anyone in while he was away. That couldn't been it. Then suddenly he remembered.

Now let's start over from the beginning. We said there were four basic elements to Character Labeling: sex, age, vocation, and manner. This further breaks down to be called 'labels.' Labels bring the characters into focus. Recall that 'manner' is the character's personal bearing, the habitual stance and style. The key words here are 'habitual' and 'style'. It is about how the character tends to behave.

Please do not go overboard in your description of your characters. Take it a step at a time. You don't get to know everything, all at once, about a person that you meet in real life, do you? The same applies here with the story characters, and I'm speaking in particular about the main character. You should start off with telling enough that is necessary at the time. In other words don't start of in this fashion:

Bill is a 49 year old real estate agent. He has dark black hair and brown eyes. He wears his eyeglasses along the crest of his nose. He is unable to lift his right leg and refuses to use a crutch, so it slides along the grown when he walks. And, he is always walking rather fast at that. Bill wears heavy starched ironed shirts... You get the picture? This is just too much information presented all at once. You want to introduce one or two traits, at a time, not all of his traits in one paragraph, not even in one chapter. Furthermore, it is better to introduce traits in the most natural order, such as with action. Don't just go down the line with this description, by itself. Say instead: As Bill was making his way across the street, he nearly dropped the bag of groceries, as the driver of the sport car was not coming to a stop at the red light. With every effort he skipped on his left leg while sliding his right limp leg across the asphalt street.

Making your character real requires a lot to be understood. There is much to cover on this subject. In this hub I've started only some of the basics. Next time we will get a little further on how to create real characters.