How Readers Get To Know Characters

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Everything in a novel means more once a reader gets to know and love the main characters. It’s like life. You care more about your family, friends and neighbors than you do about someone who lives on the next block or a stranger you’ve never met. What’s helps novelists is to understand the various ways you can help readers know your characters better. Readers become acquainted with fictional characters in basically five ways: physical description, mannerisms, dialogue, action/reaction, and introspection. By avoiding stereotypes and by layering qualities with consistency—altering them only as a character learns, grows and changes— the reader will accept the individual as believable and realistic.

Insightful Descriptions
The character’s physical attributes encompass appearance, clothing and how the character wears them, and vocal quality. Dressing a character is most effective when the description also gives the reader direct insight into the individual’s personality.

Example from Loving Treasures. When she first met her mother-in-law, Jemma had blinked in surprise at the older woman’s reddish, flyaway hair and her eccentric costume—zebra-striped spandex pants with a black gauze peasant blouse, right out of the seventies. But Jemma soon learned that Claire’s heart was as lavish and generous as her flamboyant clothing.

Example from Her Valentine Hero Fighting the desire to give her body a rest, Neely steeled herself and pushed forward, her lungs burning. Short of her goal, a shoelace splayed at her feet and nearly tripped her. She came to a stop, propped her hands on her thighs and braced her winded body to catch her breath. When she grasped the lace to retie her shoe, perspiration rolled down her forehead and stung her eyes. She lifted the bottom of her tee-shirt and brushed the dampness away.

A wolf whistle jerked her upward, and she dropped the hem of her shirt. Across the field, boys were spilling from the school, wearing shoulder pads and carrying helmets. Two faced her, gawking. She let out a groan. Football practice. Another wolf whistle spurred her to turn away and ignore the silliness. She lowered her eyes to her plump legs, bare beneath a pair of running shorts. Who knew football practice began in August?

What did you notice?: As you study these paragraphs, notice what you learn about the characters. Picture the first woman in her 70s clothes living today but clinging to another life style and yet the clothes reflected an important part of her, her lavish generosity. And Neely makes readers aware her figure isn’t perfect but she’s willing to push herself to be a better, more healthy person. Readers also learn she has values, unwilling to be flattered by the teen boy’s wolf whistles.

Distinct Tags
Readers get to know characters through their mannerism such as: traits, habits, idiosyncrasies, eccentricities, gestures and stride. Authors are wise to introduce them early in a novel and repeat them throughout the story in strategic spots where they emphasize an emotion, attitude or to add realism. Remember, never overuse a mannerism. Too little is better than too much. Always be original and avoid stereotypes. Finally as in real life, no one is perfect. Give your characters irritating mannerisms, bad habits, flaws and weaknesses.

The child, Nattie, in Upon A Midnight Clear, shows her delight in a situation by “pushing her shoulders forward and squeezing her hands between her knees.” Lucas in Her Secret Longing tucks his fingers into this back-pockets when he feels confident or when he’s showing off. These “tags” help create a sense of reality and reflects the character’s attitude.

Meaningful Conversation
Dialogue sets mood and provides information, but as important as those purposes, dialogue gives clues to the character’s occupation, education, and attitudes. Within dialogue, the author uses dialects, implied (subtext) or double meanings, temperament, and speech pattens which include: repetition, hesitation, brevity, or verbosity.

In Her Secret Longing, the carpenter, Lucas, often speaks in innuendos. As he studies Kathryn’s home, he says: “Good pine flooring. By the way, I’ll need to have your foundation inspected. Although,” he added with a wry grin, “from all I’ve seen, your foundation looks pretty good to me.”

In Treasures of Her Heart, Nikki arrives at her aunt’s older home, where the front rooms are used as an antique store, and is greeted by her ailing great aunt Winnie.

Winnie gave a knowing chuckle before shuffling to the refrigerator. She opened the door, and then paused. “How about a cup of tea or a glass of lemonade?”

“Lemonade sounds good,” Nikki stepped beside her.

“Sit. Sit,” Winnie pointed to the old oak chairs drawn around the table. “Let me do this for you. You’ve had a long drive.”

“Auntie, relax and let me wait on you for a change.” She took the pitcher from Winnie’s hands and shooed her aunt to the table. “I know you’ve been a little under the weather. How are you feeling now?”

“Old.” Winnie’s eyes twinkled and she chuckled. “It’s my heart, I’m afraid. Eventually it gets tired, gets tired, same as people do. I have good days and bad, but today the Lord’s blessed me.”

Nikki stopped pouring the lemonade and glanced at her aunt over her shoulder. “How has the Lord blessed you?”

“Knowing you were coming gave me an extra shot of what do they call it? Go power,” she added with a grin.

What did you notice?: In the first example, you can picture the carpenter checking out the women’s figure. Though he uses appropriate words, beneath is his obvious intention. In the second, we learn about Winnie who, though ill, still has a sense of humor and a desire to do for others. You will also note she has a mannerism of repeating phrases of her dialogue—Sit, sit and gets tired, gets tired.

Action/Reaction
Physical response also reflects the psychological and emotional reaction to a situation. As suggested in mannerism, these should remain consistent and only altered when the character experiences growth and change. In Her Secret Longing, the heroine comes home from work and finds Lucas, the carpenter she’s hired, wasting time bird-watching in her backyard.

“Excuse me,” she called, heading across the grass.

Lucas lowered the binoculars and pivoted his head in her direction. He pressed his finger against his lips to quiet her, and she froze in place. Who was this man to shush her in her own yard?

But as anger rolled up her spine, the ridiculousness of the situation flew to her lips. As she struggled with her grin, Lucas shot her a bright smile as if she were grinning at him.

Example from Rescued By The Firefighter:
On his first visit, he’d admired the stone fireplace, the open cherry wood staircase and the wide expanse of seasonal porch that gave a great view of the woods, but on his last visit he reevaluated his first impression. His awareness of the damage the environment had brought to Paula changed his perception.

This time he noticed the beige walls, white draperies at the windows and the furniture upholster a darker beige. The wooden floors throughout most of the house and no pictures or decorations to add color took life from the rooms. Even the ivy plant had died and crumbled at his touch. Lifeless. That’s what he’d call it. Even a hospital room had a bulletin board and a wall clock.

Though he was considered to be a strong, rugged male, the word cozy had meaning for him. The house in Roscommon lacked warmth, nothing there left him with a comfortable feeling. The dankness of the rooms echoed the spiritless life still hanging in the air. Picturing Paula growing up in the environment with her mother’s immoral existence helped him understand the loveless life she’d felt.

What do you learn? In the first example, you witness the woman’s change of heart when she realizes her attitude caused her to pronounce him guilty without a fair trial. He might have been at lunch, but how would she know? The second example reflects another change of heart based on growth of the male. He has learned more about the woman and know sees the same scene he’d witnessed earlier with new ideas and a fresh perspective. He has learned that people don’t always make an accurate interpretation without understanding the situation. From this short narration, we learn about both characters through their reaction to a situation.

Enlightening Internal Thinking
The final way to show characterization is through introspection. This internal process gives the reader greater insight into the real conflict, goals, and motivation of the character. In the novel,

Upon A Midnight Clear, three characters struggle inwardly with sorrows and secrets they cannot share.
When Callie is being interviewed for a position as nurse to the hero’s daughter, the reader senses David’s grief and inner conflict. Example: An overwhelming sorrow washed over him, and the answer stuck in his throat. Callie’s question disturbed thoughts he’d tucked away. Now they came crashing into his memory. Without knowing, she was treading on raw nerve endings and deep painful wounds that had yet to heal.

In a later scene, both character’s emotional journey is viewed through Callie’s eyes. She withdrew her hand a second time. He tilted his head, his face filled with emotion. She wanted to touch his unshaven cheeks with her palms and kiss the worry from his eyes. A worry that she knew was for her, not for himself. Everything in her cried out to tell him, but she pushed the urge deep inside, praying this time the pangs would stay there.

Example from Rescued By the Firefighter
She’d been fighting tears for the past hour, tears she resented, and her weakened ability to control her emotions was almost too much. Everything had gone wrong, even the memory of Clint with the kids. That should have lifted her spirit. What happened to her new lease on life?

She sat a moment willing her pitiful tears to dry up. Self-pity fell into the category of pond scum. No one wanted to deal with that, and she didn’t want to either. She pulled her shoulder bag from the floor where it had slipped and hoped she could sneak into the house.

What do you learn? In the three examples, the character’s open up in thought and express their feelings and attitudes about themselves and their problems. As you create these moments, make sure you use the personality and lingo of the character to express those feelings.

By balancing the five methods of showing characterization: physical description, mannerisms, dialogue, action/reaction, and introspection, an author can create a well-rounded, compelling hero and heroine who induces the reader to laughter and tears.

Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments and gain an opportunity to be part of the September free book drawing too.

© Gail Gaymer Martin 2014

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  1. Judith Shoemaker July 28, 2014 at 11:37 am #

    I am beginning to realize how much I enjoy and look forward to these terrific articles. I just had to take the time to thank you.

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