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5 Tips for Defining Characters

In addition to describing a character's phyical appearance, the words you use to describe the character reveal a lot about how he or she feels about herself and others.

1. A situation can cause Dick to view Sally in a different light. He might have a negative opinion of her at first and change his mind later. You can illustrate the shift in Dick’s opinion of Sally through description.

First impression: The chick stalked into the conference room, wearing a tight gray dress that crackled like stiff paper. Her pale hair was cinched in a tight bun that made her skin look too tight. She met his glance with cold, dark eyes and a clenched jaw. Dick straightened in his chair and ran a finger inside his collar. This witch would not be an easy sell.

Final impressionSally slipped into the conference room. Her navy dress was wrinkled after having spent the night balled up on his bedroom floor. A few of her whiskey-colored curls escaped a hastily gathered knot. Her smile flickered then faded. Dick squirmed in his chair and ran a finger inside his collar. The memory of all that hair spread out across his body left him flushed and shaky. He shuffled the papers in front of him. Sally had yet to sign on the dotted line, the tantalizing witch.

2. Personality clashes may cause Dick to view Sally in a negative light, even if she is runway model gorgeous. If Dick and Sally have a turbulent history, Dick thinks Sally's designer dress and shoes are an affectation rather than a turn on. These moments create tension.

3. Looks and personality are not synonymous. A character may not have symmetrical features or a svelte waistline, but she is lovely to know and a joy to be around. Her good nature makes her attractive to the viewer. A well-manicured, stately matron may have gutter sensibilities and a lewd sense of humor. Stereotypes are boring. Shake it up. I, for one, am tired of the perfect hero with sculpted abs and the tall, stacked heroine in four-inch heels.

4. Characters project a false self to protect their inner child. An insecure person might make sure every hair is in place. A secure person might not care how she looks.

If Dick's socks don't match because he accidentally pulled a blue and a black sock out of the laundry basket, how secure he is determines whether he delivers a blistering counter-attack when Sally points it out or bursts into genuine laughter over the error. Make sure your characters are multi-dimensional.

5. Look for instances where your point of view character analyzes another character. How does he feel and react when that person is around? Is there a dichotomy between his reaction and how he should feel? Dissonance creates tension.

For more information on character building, check out:

Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in e-book and paperback.

Story Building Blocks: Build a Cast Workbook in e-book and paperback.

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