Thursday, July 15, 2010

Put Some Meat on Those Bones!

     This post is for the blogfest put together by Carrie Bailey, @PeevishPenman on Twitter.  You can find  the rest of the blogs at her blog.  I feel very privileged to have been invited to participate, and I'm also very excited since this is my first blogfest!  (the lovely Ms. Bailey had to explain a blogfest to me, lol)  The topic is "advice for new writers" and I'll be talking (Typing?  Though, by the time you read this, I won't be typing anymore.  Hm.) about (Obviously.  Or not so obvious if you haven't read the title, but if you came from the blogfest links list, then you had to have read the title.  Which means, if you did, that you're new to my blog and my random interruptions of myself.  Welcome. ^_~ ) putting meat on those bones.  Specifically, the bones of your characters.

     Skinny seems to be the ideal for the majority of society today.  (I wish we were focused more on finding hobbits and faeries, but nobody listens to me.  Yet.)  Whatever.  Be skinny, follow the magazines, focus on your health, lose weight, whatever you want to do -- with yourself.  Here's where skinny is bad: in your story.  Skinny characters -- here meaning characters with no substance, no meat, no depth, just stick figures on a page like hangman Bob -- can be death to your story.

     If you've taken any writing classes, you have probably studied terms like stock characters, flat characters, static characters.  You can sum those all up in my book as skinny characters.  They are your stereotypical characters, the characters with no dimension, and characters with no change, no arc, to assign definitions respectively.  Now, oftentimes, stories need such characters.  The supporting players, so to speak.  But your skinny characters should never be main characters, and your main characters should never be skinny, so to speak.  You can describe them as skinny, but they shouldn't be skinny.  See?  No?  Here, eat some eggs, you look a little thin yourself, and I'll explain.

     The main character(s) of any story must have meat on his or her bones.  They must have depth, a multi-faceted personality, there should be dimension, so that there is something new to find out about them as the story progresses.  Again, if you've taken writing classes, you've probably heard all of this before, and you're about to leave because you think I'm a nutzoid who's writing herself into circles, which is probably true, but I'm going to share the part that writing classes never teach -- at least not when I took them.  The big question is always how?  How do I give my character depth?  How do I give them dimension?  How?  I don't get it.  (That was my response at first)

     Start making lists.  Even if you're not a list maker, and I'm not, make a list, and write it down.  Grab an index card for each character in your story.  Write down their names, and their roles such as good guy/girl bad guy/girl, (protagonist and antagonist if you want to get fancy with it).  Why?  You have to know who your characters are.  Once you've established their roles, focus on the individual.  Here's where the list comes in.

     Where did your character go to school?  Does he or she have any brothers or sisters?  Older or younger and how many?  Did they come from a broken home, the foster care system, a happy and loving family?  What is your character's history?  Did they enjoy school?  Which part, recess or science class?  Maybe he or she like history better than science or recess.

     What color are your character's eyes?  His or her hair?  What style?  Google (I love that this is now a legitimate verb) actors with the same coloring, pin down your character's appearance in your mind's eye.  Does he or she walk tall and proud, full of grace, or does the character shuffle along, head down, ashamed to meet the eyes of the world?  And for pete's sake, why?  Assign a why to physical idiosyncrasies, such as an odd walk.  It doesn't have to be explicitly stated in your story, but you as the author should know why.  What nationality is your character?  Does the character live in his or her country of origin?  If not, why?  Any scars, tattoos, piercings?  Hey, how does your character feel about tattoos and piercings?  Opposed or can't wait to get more ink?

     Hm, look at that.  Your character's not so skinny anymore.

     You've established a history and a physical appearance.  This is the depth to your character.  There has to be something more to a main character than just the surface level.  They can't be skin deep.  Knowing where characters came from, what they look like, how they present themselves -- and why, all put meat on the bones.  But we're not done yet.  There's another list to be made.

     What does your character do?  And I don't mean his or her job, although that's important.  Does your character even have a job?  Why or why not?  Did the character want that job?  Did the character go to school for that job?  These are all important questions, and every aspect of a character's life can and probably should be analyzed this way.  What I'm really talking about here are quirks.  Not quarks, but quirks.  

     How does your character tie his or her shoes?  How do your characters eat breakfast?  Do they touch the spoon to their chins before they take a bite?  (that was sitcom reference, I don't do that, I promise)  Do they always have to sit in certain spots?  Do they cross their legs when they sit?  Favorite colors and foods are also important.  Try thinking about why your characters like those foods and colors.  Special childhood memories of mom's homemade meatloaf?  Blue is the color of the ocean where your character went on family vacations.  Think about it.  This is where we find our character's dimension, the multi-faceted personality. Does your character have a temper?  Big or small?  How easily does he or she lose said temper?  Has this caused problems before (which ties back into the history of the character).  Favorite television shows.  Is traveling fun, or even an option, for your character?  What about animals, any opinions there?  Conservative or a free spirit?  Modern or traditional, or stuck somewhere in between?  Is your character obsessive-compulsive, ordering every little thing in life, impulsive, changing everything on a moment's whim?  Use little actions to show this.  Would your character straighten the silverware on the table at the restaurant he or she visits every Tuesday night while waiting for the same order to arrive (if you guessed Big Boy Burger, you are correct.  Bazinga.).  Does your character go to a different restaurant as often as possible, only eating things that haven't been eaten before?  Start with the little details of the daily routine -- right handed or left handed, by the way -- and work your way up to the details of the way your character meets life throughout the day.

     Now, step back and look at your character.

     Looks pretty healthy to me.  I'm seeing a lot of meat on the bones.  You know where your character came from, the character's appearance -- and the whys behind it, and all of the idiosyncrasies that finish off your character's transformation from skinny to plump and juicy.

     Are all of the details you established, all of the answers to why, every quirk, every bit of history, going to make it into the story?  No, of course not.  But you need to know.  How can you introduce the reader to your character if you don't know your character?  Introduce yourselves now, because you can.  Your character is a living, breathing entity, with a personality and a life story waiting to be shared through the story you give them, the actions you write (because remember, showing is always better than just telling), and the dialogue (Which we didn't really discuss, but make sure you know what speech patterns your character has: does he or she start every sentence with "so" for example.  You can see my previous post on this topic) you create.  

     There it is.  The best advice I can think of for new writers.  Remember, your reader won't know and connect with your character unless you do.  Once you, the writer, know your character, the ins and outs of what makes the character, then the audience can know your character.  The readers can connect with those obsessive-compulsive quirks, with the shuffling walk, with the old-fashioned haircut because your character is afraid of change, and the desire and fear to break out of the hamburger on Tuesday rut your character is in as the story opens.

     See?  Not so skinny.


  1. Great tips, especially if you have a character who's not revealing him-/herself to you easily. I do like pleasingly plump MCs. ;)

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting! Yes, they're so much more fun to work with when they're rounded out aren't they? :)

  3. Interesting tips, though I must admit to prefering the illusion of depth, working on the bits that show in the book and not the rest.

  4. Thanks for reading and commenting! I completely understand, sometimes it's easier just to write and fill in details as you go. I've used both methods, and I have to say, I've been much more confident when I went into the story already knowing my character and could pick and choose from pre-established details. Everybody has a different style; writing is such a personal endeavor, that I think we conform our style and method to suit our individual personalities. :)

  5. Fabulous post, Hadassah - and your parenthetical asides just crack me up. :-) I generally get to know my characters as I'm writing, so I do have to go back and flesh 'em out after, but I think anything you can know ahead of time makes it all that much easier. Great advice!

  6. I've always felt deep character sketches were busy work, so I never did them. I had a critique session at a conference last fall and was told, "I don't know these women(my main characters) at all."

    I chose to do a life map for each of them. I cut out images from magazines and made a collage for each woman. I got to know them in ways I'd never imagined. For example- one character, Missy is fat. I kept cutting out cute, embellished ballet flats for her. After the fifth pair, I realized that she wore super chic shoes because she couldn't always find clothes that fit. Great shoes look great on everyone, not matter what your dress size is.I never knew that about Missy before.

    I'm much more intentional now when I build characters. Loved this post!

  7. Great post. Bringing a character from 2-d to 3-d. Watch out for 4-d though, that will screw with your mind!

  8. I think that giving your characters depth is one of the most fun parts of writing. Characters make the story. Without depth the plot falls flat. Great post.

  9. People keep saying my characters are hollow, but I know they aren't. I think I just have difficulty conveying what's going on with them, that they're not just automatons going through life.
    I've been working on something I call "character commentary" where my character talks me through a scene and explains to me what's going on, and why they did what they did. Really is opening my eyes to what's possible in fixing those flat scenes.

  10. The earliest writing books I read always stressed that you needed a character profile for each character - like your suggestions - a lot of info that you'll never use, but it will give your representation of the character a lot more depth. It is tempting to overlook this advice, as it means lots of time, but for great characterisation (and that's what I remember about a novel/story) it can't be side-stepped..:)

  11. Jamie D. - Thank you! Glad I made you laugh. :)

    Dawn Maria - I love the idea of the life map! Great example of your character, Missy. I love learning new things about my characters this way.

    Erin Kane Spock - Thank you! And yes, it will, lol!

    WritersBlockNZ - Agreed! I love characterization. Thanks!

    Andrew Rosenberg - Great suggestion! Conversations with your characters can be very helpful, it really puts you inside their heads. Just be careful not to talk out loud -- at least not in front of other people. ;)

    L'Aussie - Yes, it is time consuming to stop and flesh out the details of your characters, but I agree that they are the most memorable part of any story, and therefore (arguably) the most important.

  12. Depth is good. Depth is a necessity, in both story and characters, layers upon layers of complexity.

    Complex is Human.

  13. @Amos Keppler Very true! There is nothing simple about life, therefore, there should be nothing simple about our characters.


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