Monday, September 3, 2012

Fleshing Characters

Character lists. They’re handy when we write or edit fiction or biographies. Your sketch of every character, before you start to write, is as important as planned plot twists. It helps you remain consistent with character details, and prevents errors your readers are apt to catch after the book is printed. For example, with the reference sketch file open, you won’t say Jill, at 5’ 9” looked up at Jack (5’ 7”) when they spoke, unless he’d gained an extra step up the hill.

It’s not enough to visualize and outline Jill’s appearance: 5’ 9”, weight: 130, beautiful with sloe eyes and wavy brown hair. It’s not sufficient to list her personality traits: ambitious and cunning, but usually pleasant, and so forth. Listing facts traps you into writing narrative description instead of revealing Jill’s character which turns her into a real person, whose choices today are rooted in her past whether remembered or not.

Starting out, you may not plan to bring Jill’s family members into your story, but you should know who they are. Flesh them out until you are as familiar with them as you are your best friend’s family. Often you can use once-mentioned characters to introduce concepts or transitions.

For example: The author wants her protagonist, Jack, to gently move against the current. In a scene, Jack quietly disagreed with his friends, but said nothing. Jill’s grandfather shot a comment toward the group’s gripe session as he took a beer from the cooler, “Men condemn because they do not understand. –Cicero.”

Can you see how the grandfather’s statement provides an easy transition? But if the grandfather is mentioned again, whatever he says or does must be consistent with his previous statement.

A link to a group on Diane Mowery’s Facebook page turns character sketching to a game. The basic idea is to write a fully fleshed-out character sketch, then submit it for random exchange. That done, each member writes a short story based on someone else’s character. For details on how a particular group works, go to

(c) 2012, Bernice W. Simpson

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