Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Secrets of Kidlit: Building Characters on the Page

Like many aspiring writers, I read some books and took a couple of workshops on character development to improve my craft. And while there are a lot articles on how to create a character profile or chart a character’s arc across a plot, there aren’t as many on how to develop a character with every line we write about them. In this post, I’ll share what I’ve learned about how to get the character onto the page.

Appearance: At first we’re tempted to write down that she has brown hair and green eyes, but it’s better if we give details that the character chooses, rather than what’s been given. This will tell us much more about her personality. The short bob that requires little care or time may tell us about her impatience or her confidence. The crust in his eyelashes can underscore matters of hygiene or hurry depending on the scenario.

Possessions: We’ve all read meticulous passages detailing every article of clothing worn by a young adult heroine, but just a few touches can give us clues to her preferences. Whether she wears earthy sandals or black combat boots tells us about her peer group. If he carries a copy of The Economist or Mother Jones in his briefcase or backpack also changes our impressions.

Dialogue: Entire books have been devoted to this part of the craft, but what a character says (or doesn’t say) and how it is said shows us what she/he is trying to communicate, either directly or indirectly. The vocabulary and tone are doorways into the character’s relational world. The challenge for the writer is to choose which moments to dramatize. Not every interaction is deserving of dialogue.

Facial Expressions: These are why face-to-face conversations communicate so much better than texting, emailing or emojis. Our expressions are the most effective means of conveying social information, and they do so instantly. It makes a world of difference if the word “No” is accompanied by a glare, a scrunch of the nose, or a wink. Spice up your dialogue tags with some expressions rather than the tired “he said.”

Gestures: These other non-verbal cues tell the reader so much about what is going on inside the character, sometimes more effectively than what is said. If she taps her lips before speaking, we get the sense that the character may be choosing her words or holding something back. When he keeps his hands folded in his lap through out the date, we wonder if he is too proper or just trying to control himself.

Actions: Taking gestures to the next level, what a character does tells us more about them than what she/he says. Joe may like to talk about spirituality, but if he also rises each morning to meditate for half an hour, we know how central it is to his life. Whether Jane drops in on a campus protest on her way to the dining hall or takes an all-night bus to a demonstration at the capital are defining actions. And contrasts between deeds and words can open up new levels of depth and complexity.

Thoughts: What our character is thinking is the highway to his or her inner world. The task is to decide what and how to reveal it. Too many paragraphs of silent monologue can quickly become tedious, but flashes of inner dialogue can illuminate how a character is processing a confusion, decision, or frustration. Although internal discourse provides instant insight, writers are encouraged to use it only when dialogue and actions would not communicate it better.

Emotions: Like their thoughts, what characters are feeling tells the reader all about their internal weather. The writer's mission is to find a tactile way to show feelings. How the body reacts to an emotion, and how it is experienced by the character translates what is really going on inside. Whether her stomach clenches or his lips tremble at the first wave of love describes entirely different dispositions.

For further reading, one of my favorite books on character development is Nancy Kress’ Dynamic Characters, which is a trove of ideas for writers at every level.
All the best, Chris Brandon Whitaker


  1. Great post, Chris! Lots of good tips!

    1. Thanks, Becky, so many came to mind once I got rolling.

  2. Nice concise tips and reminders here! Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Shari. The trick for me is to keep them all in mind, especially when revising!

  3. Wonderful suggestions. I also love those facial expressions.

    1. Thanks, Wendy. Picturing the character's expressions really helps me when writing dialogue.


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