The 5 Fundamentals of Character

Readers have to be able to “see” your character, to form a visual image of a person from your description, in order to dive into a story. While this can be done countless ways, a straightforward narration of physical description is often the clearest and simplest method for introducing a character. In case you think that basic narration isn’t sophisticated enough for your novel, remember that this worked for C. S. Lewis, Jane Austen and some of the most famous writers of the modern era.

It will work for you, too. In fact, it’s so quick and easy that it feels almost like cheating!

To begin, here’s the short list of what to include in the basic character introduction:

Body Type

Gender & Age Range

Hair & Facial Features

Clothing & Physical Features

Emotional State

Body Type

To understand how important body type is to character, I recommend you watch the beginning of Gone With the Wind. The character of Scarlett O’Hara leaps to life in the novel using nothing more than a corset and some attitude. Mitchell inserted the exact size of Scarlett’s waist because it was a relevant measuring stick in the society at the time. When Scarlett refuses to eat breakfast and prances onto the front porch to find a husband, the reader discovers the deeper social issues and dynamics of relationships, but the vehicle for discovering these issues was Scarlett’s body type.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the master of introducing characters using only the basics and often relying solely on body type. Because he dealt in mysteries and the clues that reveal them, his characters evolve from limited information that is carefully constructed and parsed out to lead the reader to one obvious conclusion. The backwards design of this writing results in well-crafted character sketches that are easy to study. And it’s in studying these that you learn how to quickly build a character from just the basics.

In each of these first examples, I’ve provided you with the same quick path to character creation using body type as a simple jumping off point.

“A man entered who could hardly have been less than six feet six inches in height, with the chest and limbs of a Hercules.”

Arthur Conan Doyle. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

“The girl sitting in his office chair was barely taller than a teenager, with a slender build and a pixie-faced, pointed chin reminiscent of TinkerBelle.”

Fiction Writing Maps: A Step-by-Step Guide to Character

Gender & Age Range

Gender and age range can be quick, succinct pieces of information that you add before moving on with character introduction. You can introduce them explicitly or implicitly, but don’t try to skip them.

Gender and age range are two of the most obvious and significant points to deal with in creating your character. As with body type and height, these basic details are imperative. While there are occasions when gender and age become important to the narrative, more often than not you simply want to present them and get them out of the way. Below are some examples of quick management of gender and age. Later, we will delve deeper into scaffolding techniques for these two elements

“He’s a young man, Mr. Merryweather, but he is at the head of his profession, and I would rather have my bracelets on him than on any criminal in London. He’s a remarkable man, is young John Clay. His grandfather was a royal duke, and he himself has been to Eton and Oxford.”

Arthur Conan Doyle. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

“From the lower part of the face he appeared to be a man of strong character, with a thick, hanging lip, and a long, straight chin, suggestive of resolution pushed to the length of obstinacy.”

Arthur Conan Doyle. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Hair & Facial Features

Like it or not, when we meet someone for the first time, the unconscious questions that we ask ourselves are “How is this person like me?” and “What’s different about this person?” Those assessments occur in every first encounter—often without us ever having realized that we’ve done it. This process is ingrained, instinctive human behavior. It’s how we learn to tell one another apart and examine how we feel about one another. Readers ask the very same questions when meeting your character for the first time. It’s up to you to use these two features to build that first level of characterization.

 

Hair and facial features are two of the best places to begin sketching out your characters. We understand much of who a person is by examining their face and paying attention to the nuances of expression. With your major characters, these two physical traits are gateways to deeper characterization. However, for minor characters, your explanations can be quick and succinct.

As they would in a real scenario, readers form impressions of a character through description. Many aspects of a character can be determined from the face and hair, including physical appeal, trustworthiness and competence. Think about your character’s inner landscape as you build her outer appearance. What does her hair and facial features say about who she is?

“From the lower part of the face he appeared to be a man of strong character, with a thick, hanging lip, and a long, straight chin, suggestive of resolution pushed to the length of obstinacy.”

Arthur Conan Doyle. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

“Her face radiated sharp intelligence and interest. Her eyes never stopped in their course, sweeping the room, studying everything from the papers strewn over every inch of Judge Haglar’s desk, to the picture of his wife, to the empty glass on the console behind the desk. There was, in those eyes, a knife-edged scrutiny and youthfulness that were entirely at odds with one another.”

Fiction Writing Maps: A Step-by-Step Guide to Character

Clothing & Physical Features

Describing a character’s clothes is one quick and efficient way to do this because clothes tell us so much about the person who wears them. You can describe the cut of a suit, the tightness of a pair of jeans or the elaborate embroidery of a coronation robe and provide the reader with implicit information while you seem to be talking about clothes.

In this passage, clothes revealed the man’s social class, “a commonplace British tradesman.” His outward appearance also gives cues as to what kind of a person he is: he is not quite clean, somewhat wrinkled and a little frayed.

Doyle ends with the description of his hair and face because that detail of hair color, red, will feature importantly in the plot. And this is a key point to make. Adding detail for the sake of detail clutters your writing. Like a room with too much furniture, your reader is forced to squeeze past too much information–much of it useless to the narrative. In this excerpt, Doyle ends with the description of the man’s emotional state because that is the thread he will pull through to the next paragraph. It has meaning and purpose. He wants to make it obvious that the man is there because something has gone wrong.

Description is necessary and Doyle layers in adjectives here, but he doesn’t spin them all together. Instead, he parses them out in general terms: first, “portly,” then adding the more specific adjective, “obese.” Think of this a gradual focusing process that you can use in your own writing. Remember, you don’t have to slam the reader with a visual image. You can fade into a character, allow him to come into focus a bit more with every cross of the reader’s eye.

You can also employ a lateral approach to describing a character’s physical features. Rather than resorting to another description of weight, Doyle focuses on the physical manifestations that readers would commonly associate with well-nourished men at the turn of the century in London, describing the man as “pompous and slow.”

The value of character description like the one above lies as much in how you describe as in what you describe.

“Our visitor bore every mark of being an average commonplace British tradesman, obese, pompous, and slow. He wore rather baggy grey shepherd’s check trousers, a not over-clean black frock-coat, unbuttoned in the front, and a drab waistcoat with a heavy brassy Albert chain, and a square pierced bit of metal dangling down as an ornament. A frayed top-hat and a faded brown overcoat with a wrinkled velvet collar lay upon a chair beside him. Altogether, look as I would, there was nothing remarkable about the man save his blazing red head, and the expression of extreme chagrin and discontent upon his features.”

Arthur Conan Doyle. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

“She came down the stairs, fluffy pink slippers slapping the wood risers as she descended, plopped down at the breakfast table and rubbed her red-rimmed eyes.”

Fiction Writing Maps: A Step-by-Step Guide To Characters

Emotional State

Emotion—more than any other single element—is the bait that hooks the reader. A great writer, like an expert fisherman, chooses the bait to suit the fish. Spend some time thinking about what matters most to your readers as you begin your character introduction. What do they want more than anything in the world? What will pique their interest? What feeling does that elicit? Then go with that in your introduction.

The art of creating a great character introdcution relies on you to bring it all together. As you explore the inner landscape of your character, remember to weave back and forth between a character’s outward details and the inner workings as well.

I’m building on the previous example to show you how to write a character introduction that weaves in a character’s emotional state.

“Her face radiated sharp intelligence and interest. Her eyes never stopped in their course, sweeping the room, studying everything from the papers strewn over every inch of Judge Haglar’s desk, to the picture of his wife, to the empty glass on the console behind the desk. There was, in those eyes, a knife-edged scrutiny and youthfulness that were entirely at odds with one another.”

Fiction Writing Maps: A Step-by-Step Guide to Character

“There was no sign of timidity about either of them here. If they had got out of their shells so immediately, at the very first contact, unless she checked them they would soon begin to press upon her, and then good-bye to her dream of thirty restful, silent days, lying unmolested in the sun, getting her feathers smooth again, not being spoken to, not waited on, not grabbed at and monopolized, but just recovering from the fatigue, the deep and melancholy fatigue, of the too much.”

Elizabeth Von Arnim. The Enchanted April

Putting It All Together

Description of height and body type help readers begin to visualize your character. When you add details of clothing and the physical descriptions that accompany it, you begin to narrow the focus for your reader.

Remember readers have a mental library of people and fictional characters archived inside their heads that numbers in the thousands. Your goal is to give them explicit details that help them winnow through all those mental images and narrow the picture down to your character.

Your Turn!

Now You Try it

Step 1: What is your character’s body type and gender? Why is your character’s body type relevant to characterization or within the larger context of the novel? Can you use it as a gateway to describe your character’s lifestyle, profession, relationships and self-image?

Write those out now in complete, unedited thoughts.

 

Step 2: What is your character’s size? Find a point of comparison within the novel or through other characters to show your character’s size. Is your character’s size relevant in any other way?

Write those out now in complete, unedited thoughts.

 

Step 3: What is your character’s age range? What facial features detail your character’s age? Can you connect the two with relevant exposition, an anecdote or through the point of view of another character in the opening scene?

Write those out now in complete, unedited thoughts.

 

Step 4: What emotion will you use to lure your reader? What tempts most readers of this genre? What tempts readers in this age group and demographic? Will you focus on a fear or a victory charge? With what bait can you make your readers go ‘all in’ for your character?  Choose one word, connect it to a thought and a character emotion.

Write that out now in complete, unedited thoughts. 

Still Stymied?

If you find yourself second-guessing your character introduction, open up any of your favorite novels and find a character opening to read through. Reading and studying direct examples helps you clarify the process. You’ll return to your work feeling more competent in crafting your own fictional characters.

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