The Creative Journey
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The Characteristics of Character

I don’t know about you, but the first thing I think of when I hear the word lion is its mane. Next up is majestic or regal. The lion, known as the King of the Jungle, is instantly recognisable the world over when you mention the mane.

Last week in my writers group we were discussing character traits. Ways to differentiate each of your characters and design a unique character for the reader to recognise. During the class I told the story of an eBook I’d once read where whenever the main character was pondering a particularly difficult legal problem, or clue to figure out who the murderer was, she would wiggle her eyebrows.

By the end of the book all of the characters from main to supporting were wiggling their eyebrows, all the time. It was frustrating and confusing. To have made such a point of the main characters aerobic eyebrows only to have it morph through pretty much every character in the book removed any uniqueness, and left me as the reader confused and annoyed.

Reading my own work-in-progress the other night I stumbled to something I hadn’t realised. Hair. Or to be more exact, all of my characters – except for a couple of warriors – had long hair. Different coloured hair, to be fair, but all of it long. I realised that not only were my entire cast of thousands in need of a hair stylist, but by focusing on the hair as a descriptor I was making the same mistake as the eBook author had made.

Another commonality I came across was none of my characters had facial hair. This is an epic fantasy novel set in a hybrid medieval world, yet all of the male characters from Kings to Warriors, Warriors to servants and servants to slaves, had the time and ability to shave every morning. Even I don’t do that and I have hot running water and the ability to buy disposable razors.

When trying to set a unique descriptor for your characters it pays to keep in mind your own blind spots. For me obviously it is hair and shaving. I’m rather partial to long hair – probably because I’m going bald.

Now, I’m not writing an essay on the various hairstyles of the middle ages, and frankly long hair is fine on every character but it can’t be the only thing I use to describe my characters to the reader.

So I have some work to do once the draft is finished and I move onto the editing phase. Coming up with unique descriptors for my characters – and there are so many – is going to be time consuming. It can’t be helped though.

One tip I have for finding characteristics for the characters I write – and I really wish I’ done it with this story – is to use astrology.

I usually use Chinese Astrology to give me an idea of my characters strengths and weaknesses. I simply look for a Chinese Zodiac sign that has the main feature I want, strength for example and then pick a weakness of that particular group.

Only one per character though. It enables you to have a diverse range of characters and motivations for what they chose to do in the story.

With Darkened North (the novel I’m writing), I’ve been picking names that reflect the characters overall story arc. One of my characters who is corrupted by the power he wields has a name that means “dirty water,” which given he is a Water Mage is something I thought was appropriate. Another character who starts off as a nobody in this world and ends up with a huge amount of power has a name that means “grows to greatness.”

I guess the point of all of this is do your homework. I don’t know about your writing style, but mine is “jump in and see where the Muse takes you.”

That works to a certain degree but it usually leaves me with problems like this, where I need to go off and redo basic character analysis I should have done before I wrote Chapter One.

What about you? How do you ensure the characters in your novels or stories read as individual people, with their own fears, insecurities and strengths? Make sure to comment on this post and let me know your own techniques in developing unique characteristics for your characters.

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