Crafting a Relatable Character
In the real world, people don’t want to spend time with those they dislike or cannot relate to. The same is true for characters in a story.
A story’s main character, the protagonist, may have some bad habits or traits that the reader may not appreciate, but he or she still needs to be relatable. There must be some redeeming quality or likeability to make the reader want to take this journey with the character.
Characters with Substance
In acting, they say:
“There are no small roles, just small actors.”
This means, no matter how insignificant a character may seem due to lack of lines or stage time, all the characters have importance. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be in the show. If you’ve ever watched a movie where someone in the background was “off” or a play where the silent character is staring into space while the other actors are delivering the scene, you know how important even one “small role” is to the whole scene.
It’s the same in writing. A good author doesn’t put in characters without a purpose. Even if they’re only mentioned once in the whole book, that character is part of the overall tapestry that is being woven. While the author may not create an entire back-story for the more incidental characters, it is a good idea to have a solid grasp of each. Hair color, height, weight, dress style and mannerisms; these things make a character more real to both the writer and the reader.
Ways to flesh out characters will be covered in more detail in a separate article.
Pardon My H’ack-Sent
Accents can be tricky. While the author wants to give a good flavour to his or her writing, written accents quickly become tiresome, especially ones that make it necessary for the reader to “translate” what’s being said. Too much of: “‘e wuz a-goin’ ta de market, sar” and the reader is going to start skipping that character’s dialogue or simply stop reading altogether.
If a character has an accent, consider alternatives to writing their dialogue as it sounds. Perhaps lighten up the accent or write the dialogue without it and mention it in the narrative:
“I don’t know what you mean, sir,” the gent replied, slurring the last word in a Southern drawl.
A Word About the F-word
Unless your target audience is that small niche where profanity is completely acceptable, never use offensive language in a narrative. When used sparingly, profanity can sometimes be used in dialogue to give emphasis and establish a feeling of the character. However, this is definitely where the writer must know his or her audience. Characters who swear in material geared toward Christians or youth would definitely turn off the readers (and their parents).
There are ways of conveying the idea of swearing and even including crass or potty-mouthed characters without using actual profanity. Generally, it’s enough to simply allude to it and allow the reader to fill in the blanks:
Penny spat out a few choice cuss words. “I hate it when that happens!”
With a stream of profanity, Josh explained that they were trapped on the island.
Depending on the tone of the story and the audience, the author can even get away with a bit of fun “almost said it” moments to tease the reader:
“How about you tell me a story?” she ventured.
“How about you read one to me?” he returned.
“How about I shove this book up your –”
“You’ve made your point, thank you.”
Like everything else, less is more. Too much profanity loses its effectiveness and can even result in a negative response from the reader. The writer needs to find a balance that will sit well with the target audience. Care to guess how many times Stephen King uses profanity in one of his zillion-page epics? Just enough not to alienate his audience.
FREE Character Sheet Download
To help writers develop their characters, I've created a downloadable Character Sheet pdf you can print or fill in with Acrobat Reader.
More Writing Tips
Here are some other articles to help you craft inviting quality writing:
Writing Basics: Covers the basics to help keep writers on track.
How to Plot Your Story: Basic guide to plotting with downloadable checklist.
How to Write a Blurb: Concise walk-through with example.
5 Tips for Writing Short Stories: Five tips to help your short stories shine.
8 Sources of Inspiration for Writers: Awesome simple resources where you can find inspiration when you're stuck for ideas.
© 2011 Rosa Marchisella