When I’m creating a story, I strive to develop each character’s personality to the point that the character becomes a person, not just physically but psychologically, for the reader. In order to create that well-rounded character, I use a combination of devices: exposition, omniscience, and dialogue.
When we first meet someone, we depend on our eyes to help us decide whether or not it’s someone we want to get to know. Then we listen to what the person says, and that influences us further. How the person says it gives us more to go on. When we can see the person and hear what he or she says, we also have non-verbal cues to go on – body language and facial expressions. I try to give all of the same things to my reader that they would get IRL (in real life). Here’s an example – the first time Kendra and Daniel see each other after ten years, each has a different view of what happened to break up their teenage love affair, and their attitudes reflect that.
When I am talking directly to the reader, telling him about what is happening, what a place or character looks like, or what he might expect to happen next, I am “exposing” facts that help the reader form a clearer picture in his mind about the plot, setting, and/or characters.
The sound of the dented old cowbell that hung from the front door of Kendra’s shop dragged her attention away from the web site she was working on. It was lunch hour, and her employee wasn’t due back yet. Darn, she hated interruptions when she was in the middle of a web design project. Hitting the save button automatically, she rose from her chair, rubbed her tired back and then turned and walked around the acoustical office divider into the main part of the store.[Chap.1, Roller Coaster Ride]
In this opening paragraph of the novel, the reader learns about the setting and the main character through my direct descriptions. The juxtaposition of the “old cowbell” with her web site work hints that Kendra may be a twenty-first century woman but she’s still has an old-fashioned girl hidden inside.
Using an omniscient or “god-like” point of view allows the reader to see inside the minds of all of the characters. Thus the reader knows what each character is thinking about himself and others. It also gives the reader an inside track to what each character is going to do based on the way he or she sees the situation at hand. In addition to pushing the plot along, this device is a great way to “flesh out” or make another character “rounder” beyond what is described in exposition.
His slow, observant gaze noted the perfect fit of her sweater, its opalescent shimmer accenting and repeating the gleam of her gorgeous hair, and the trim, sophisticated man-cut trousers that skimmed her slender hips and ended just above chunky-soled, strappy sandals that echoed the dark pink of the trousers. Delicately painted toenails peeked from the sandals, and the irreverent thought floated through his mind that she had never liked pantyhose and obviously wore none now. Judging from the smooth fit of her trousers, she wore nothing underneath them, and he felt the resurgence of a long-ago throbbing that he had thought never to find again, an aching in his manly parts that he suspected only she could engender, even after all these years. [Chap.1, Roller Coaster Ride]
In this paragraph, the reader enters the mind of the character, Daniel, and through his eyes Kendra is described both physically and personality-wise. It is also clear that Daniel and Kendra had been close enough at one time for him to know first hand that she didn’t wear pantyhose under her pants. Earlier in the chapter, the reader learns that Daniel is using a manual wheelchair, and in this paragraph a question that is often thought but rarely asked directly to a disabled man – whether or not he can still perform in the bedroom – is answered. Daniel is happy to see that, because of his memories about Kendra and how beautiful she looks to him now, he is reacting in a normal way that he may not have been doing since his injury. He’s thinking that Kendra is the only woman he’s reacted that way around. This builds on the idea that he and Kendra were lovers in the past and that he still has deep feelings for her.
What characters say to one another often tells the reader a lot about the speaker as well as the one he or she is speaking to. It can also be a subtle or even not-so-subtle way of hinting at what is to come (foreshadowing).
“What’s wrong, Daniel? Are you, like everyone else in this town, having problems believing that the poor little daughter of Sally the town strumpet could ever amount to anything?” Biting her tongue to still the angry words that threatened to continue, she stared him down.
“No! That’s not what I meant at all!” Daniel protested, knowing full well that she had hit the nail on the proverbial head, and hating his own small-mindedness. “I just didn’t know you had come back to Mayfield.”… he kept his eyes pinned to hers. “I’m – uh – glad to see you.”
“Oh come on Daniel. Let’s not start the lies again. You had no idea you would ever see me again and that was how you wanted it. You made that painfully clear ten years ago when you left.” Kendra’s color was high now, as was her anger at his deception as well as the long ago abandonment that had scarred her young heart so deeply.[Chap.1, Roller Coaster Ride]
This dialogue is loaded with information for the reader:
*Kendra has returned to a town where her mother had a really bad reputation, and she knows or feels that nobody expects her to be a success.
*Daniel realizes that he is guilty of thinking like the rest of the town and is at a loss for words.
*Kendra feels like Daniel is looking down his nose at her like the rest of the town.
*She believes he left her and had no intentions of ever seeing her again. In view of that perceived abandonment, anything he says to her right now will be a seen as a lie.
*There is a lot of unfinished business here for both Daniel and Kendra that still hurts deeply after ten years.
There are many ways to develop a character. Exposition is the most direct way for the writer to make sure the reader has a clear idea of the physical attributes and/or deficits and the personality of those who “people” a novel. Allowing the reader an omniscient view increases the opportunities for the writer to explain and describe characters through the thoughts and attitudes of those around him or her. Dialogue, which is my favorite device for characterization , makes for a more interesting read as the reader isn’t bored by paragraph after paragraph of indirect interaction. One of my readers told me that she felt like she was right there in the story with the characters. That’s what I strive for – making it real for the reader.
I’d love to hear how other authors develop their characters, so please feel free to post comments. It’s how I learn!
[Exerpt is from Grisholm County Chronicles series Book I, Roller Coaster Ride, which is available in Kindle ebook edition at Amazon.com