ABC’s of Writing (for Beginners): C is for Character

Posted by on Sep 18, 2014 in Uncategorized | 1 comment

Nick MancusoAn old creative writing teacher once told me over dinner that character was the soul of a piece of writing. Without characters, she said, writing was nothing but a voice in a void, words in the ether. She said it’s a writer’s job to give the reader a character they can cling to, a handle onto which they can grasp and be pulled in to the narrative, a guide for them through this foreign land. In every genre, fiction, poetry (especially narrative poems) and non-fiction, characters are the momentum which moves the story forward. Literary writing, after all, is defined as character driven, instead of plot driven.

For readers, characters are hugely important, as they serve as mirrors in the text. Reading a well-developed character allows for personal recognition. It lets the reader see a piece of themselves in the text, grounding them in the world, immersing them into believing what’s been written. Readers can believe that the people described are real, and the events depicted have happened.

So, how can we write believable well-developed characters? Coming up with characters is simple, think about the people in your life, the characters you know, and the attributes that we associate with them. Think about a creative writing teacher, or an old catholic nun. Think about your mother and your father, who are they as characters? Why do they do what they do? What does that say about them as people, as characters?

As with all kinds of writing; showing is better than telling. When you can, always show and depict something, rather than directly tell the reader. Once you’ve embraced that question ‘how can I show this?’ writing character comes down to three main techniques for rendering; physicality, credibility, and complexity. In a truly well-developed character, all three should be used liberally.

The physicality of the character is a huge part of description. What would the reader have to ground themselves without fair-haired Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby? What about Briony Tallis’ curious grey eyes in Atonement? Characters should aim to be as unique as possible. When describing someone, think through all the elements of the character. How does this character look? What’s unique about them? What color is their eyes, their hair, their skin?What shape is their nose? Their hands, are they rough or smooth? What about their fingernails? Are they manicured or chewed?

Physicality goes beyond the appearance, it extends into gestures. Does a motherly character wipe her hands on her apron? Does a fatherly character always have his sleeves rolled up? Does the character smile with her eyes? Does he or she gesture when they talk? Each of these pieces says something about the character, something the reader can infer about them. A character with chewed fingernails may be nervous or anxiety ridden. A mother wiping her hands
on her apron is a symbol of matronly love. The little things, these tiny gestures and descriptions do a lot of work by representing larger themes and messages, and suddenly a fingernail says a lot more about character than simply stating that a character has anxiety.

Credibility is the next element of characterization. Characters must be as real as we are. Their dialogue must reflect their character, it must sound accurate based on who they are, and where and when they live. No mortgage broker in New York City in 1991 speaks in Elizabethan English. Their dialogue must be authentic, and torn from the world in which they live like snippets of voices. They must swear and use slang, colloquialisms and cultural phrasing. They
can’t always speak in full sentences, because we don’t always speak in full sentences. They  share our tongues and our inflections in tone. Readers have to believe what a character is saying is credible, that the language is organic and natural, and not artificially constructed.

Complexity is the last and perhaps most significant element of writing rich characters. Characters must be complex. Complexity spawns from faults. Characters must have faults and failings. They must have fears, and wishes, good aspects and bad, idiosyncrasies and anxieties. They need emotions and thoughts, they need relationships and back story. They need to have baggage, memories, and problems. They need to have sexualities, genders, and desire. They need to have shame and denial, and all of the various issues and attributes that afflict all of us. They need to mimic our personalities. Often times, if a character is missing one of these components, they can feel flat or one sided, simple and by extension, boring. Nobody wants to read about boring characters.

When a writer can render a character in their physicality, their credibility and their complexity as vividly and uniquely as possible, a magic takes place with the reader. The reader is transported into the world of the text and into the lives of the characters. The reader believes they’re real, even if they aren’t. The reader recognizes how they feel and relates and empathizes. Then, the character is born onto the page, a living breathing person.

On that night when I first learned about character, I sat with the writing teacher long after dinner was over. She lit another cigarette, her third, by my count, and leaned in close. I could smell her breath; cheap wine, smoke, and the undercooked salmon we’d just eaten.

“If you can make one person tune in and even for half a second forget their lives, and believe what you’ve written is real, that’s the ticket. That’s why we do this. That’s why we write.”

She leaned back, raising one eyebrow, smirking into her wineglass. She drank deeply, finishing the glass and setting it down with a clink. She looked around.

“Now,” she said, rising from the table. “I gotta take a piss.” ABC’s of Writing


Nick Mancuso earned his Bachelor of Arts in Literary and Cultural Studies from Bryant University, and his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Fairfield University. Despite being a Connecticut native, he presently lives in and is learning to love Boston, Massachusetts. His work has been published in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine, The Rhode Island Small Business Journal and the Garbanzo Literary Journal. You can find him on Twitter.

1 Comment

  1. This was right on! It was clear, concise , and filled with truth!I especially love the description of the creative writing teacher! Talk about Real!!!

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