Five Ways to Write Better Stories Using Character Signatures
When introducing minor characters, especially in a novel or long story, give them a ‘character signature’ on their first appearance. This helps the reader to remember them later.
When we first meet a person in the flesh, we note their physical shape, face, dress, manner of speech and behaviour. And usually in that order. Involuntarily, we tend to ‘file’ our memory of that person by the characteristics that we first noted.
Of course, as we get to know that person - as in the case of a major character in a story - our first impressions are overwritten by all manner of other things. The character ‘develops’.
But if we rarely or never meet that person again, as with a minor character in fiction, our initial memory sticks. That is a ‘character signature’. Here are some ideas for crafting one:
a. Physiognomy or body shape.
Be imaginative in your ‘signature’. Readers are unlikely to remember, merely from your description at the outset, that a person is tall, short, thin or fat. But they will remember ‘he heaved into the room, as massive as a bank vault door’.
You can then remind them of his bulk later with variations on that signature eg: ‘he eased his weight into the chair’; ‘he smiled, and the vault creaked open; ‘his face slammed shut’, etc.
b. A facial quirk.
In his Dr Thorndyke stories, Austin Freeman makes his amiable inventor Polton unforgettable with one word. Every time Polton appears, his eyes or face ‘crinkle’.
c. A habit of dress.
We tend to prejudge people by their clothes. (If we didn’t, the fashion industry would collapse.) So any peculiarity of dress can give our characters a ‘signature’ eg: ‘her scarf was a piece of chewed string’. If the woman appears later, we need only make a reference to someone wearing a ‘chewed-string scarf' to identify the character.
d. A tic of speech.
Almost all of Dickens’s minor characters have some oddity of speech. Remember Sam Weller’s Cockneyisms and his pronunciation of ‘v’ as ‘w’? Perhaps one of your minor characters could reiterate a distinctive phrase eg: ‘it cannot be denied’ (with later variants like ‘it is undeniable’, ‘nor can I deny it’, etc).
I once gave a dotty old squire the catchphrase ‘as you say’ so that his friends could mercilessly lampoon him by echoing it: ‘as you say’, ‘would you say?’, ‘do I say, sir?,’ etc. Someone would only have to whisper with a wink 'as you say' - and the reader would know that the squire was about to appear!
To make a character repulsive, of course, you could have him or her mindlessly repeat the word ‘whatever’. (Or whatever...).
e. Some oddity of behaviour.
How would you feel if a colleague at work, whom you’ve known for twenty years, greeted you every morning with a handshake? Gratified or nonplussed? It depends on your culture.
What similar foible of behaviour might - instantly - add a personality (or cultural) trait to a minor character? A habit of chewing their beard? Of inspecting their nails? Of covering their mouth while they speak? Of invading another person’s body space, intentionally or not? Of backing away from other people? Of avoiding eye contact? Etc.
Add this 'signature' to a minor character - and echo it whenever they appear - and the reader will be reminded of their personality.
Just be careful not to overdo 'signatures' when portraying major characters. The key players in a story should quickly become so rounded and individual that the reader will be unable to forget them!
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