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Writing Tips #94: Five Qualities to Consider During Character Development

Tips by Mark Nichol

Originally posted


Descriptions of or references to your characters, their belongings, and their immediate surroundings say much about the people. Here are five aspects of personality that deserve some thought as you develop characters before and during the completion of your novel or short story.

1. Appearance

Writers are naturally inclined to make their main characters especially attractive unless they believe there is a very good reason to do otherwise: The character wishes to avoid attention, the story has an ugly duckling theme, or the character is reprehensible (in which case they might nevertheless be, for contrast, extremely good looking).

Don’t introduce your character with an extensive physical appraisal, but do sprinkle hints about their appearance (or don’t — many great works of literature don’t describe main characters’ looks at all). Make sure that physical features are consistent with that person’s ethnic origins, unless there’s a good reason for exceptions.

If you do want readers to visualize your conception of the character, consider not just physical characteristics but also carriage and comportment. How does the person move? Fast, or slow? Purposefully, or uncertainly? Gracefully, or awkwardly? Self-consciously, or without regard for how they are perceived?

2. Attire

How do your characters dress? The period and locale will determine the general costume, but personality is still easily conveyed within these parameters. What does what the people wear say about their social status and about their character? Is their clothing austere, or ostentatious? Prim, or provocative? What kind of accessories, if any, do they wear, and why?

3. Business

I refer here not to business as a synonym for commerce but in the theatrical sense of the character’s physical actions. What facial expressions do they employ? Are they self-conscious about them, or are they natural, or does it depend? If the character is physically demonstrative, how is this characteristic conveyed?

Do they use their hands a lot, or is the person’s entire body an instrument of expression? Do they often handle or caress objects? Does their business convey calm, or are they fidgety? Do they make physical contact with other people? Do they observe conventions of social distance (the space people leave between each other according to their social status and relationship)? Do they establish and maintain eye contact — and is this a sign of forthrightness, or an effort to discomfit or dominate others — or are they evasive about it?

What implements do they carry and use? Are these objects practical, like tools, or are they talismans? Does this person rely on instruments, or on thoughts and ideas, or on both?

4. Speech

What is the tone of the character’s voice? Smooth, or harsh? Quiet, or loud? Do they mumble, or do they enunciate carefully? With a high pitch, or a low one? Are they taciturn, or voluble? How else is their personality conveyed in the way they speak or how talk or think to themselves? Are they kind, or cruel, in their speech? Respectful, or insolent or condescending?

Do they have an unusual accent, or do they try to suppress it, and are they successful all the time, or does the accent prevail when they are emotional or unguarded? Is their general mode of speech an effort to hide or overcome their origins? If they must speak a foreign language, are they fluent, or merely competent, or not even that?

5. Environment

How does a character relate to their surroundings, and how does the person manipulate the environment? What is the person’s dwelling like, and what do the characteristics of that place convey personality? How does their workplace do the same? Is the personal environment functional and practical, or is it expressive of the character? Do their possessions convey a simple lifestyle, or one devoted to acquisition of goods?

A fascinating book called Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, by psychology professor Sam Gosling, concludes that the way personal items are displayed in one’s home or workplace reveals much about the person, and that there are three general categories: things displayed ostentatiously (certificates, trophies, autographs), things displayed unselfconsciously for both the person and for visitors to see (vacation photos, knickknacks), and things displayed solely for the benefit of the space’s occupant, not its visitors (mementos, notes from loved ones).

Think about how you can apply this information to establishing settings for your characters, and bring what else you know or may soon learn about human behavior to bear when creating characters and telling stories.

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