by H.M. Jones (AKA Madame Moody)
Think about your favorite characters from your favorite books. Really. Close your eyes for a minute and picture them. Why do/did these characters resonate with you? Why do their stories matter to you? Having a hard time putting a thumb on it? Lemme imagine with you. I’m going to supply you with snippets from some characters I fell in love with:
Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit; JRR Tolkien):
“Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not Today. Good morning! But please come to tea – any time you like! Why not tomorrow? Good bye!”
“All the same, I should like it all plain and clear," said he obstinately, putting on his business manner (usually reserved for people who tried to borrow money off him), and doing his best to appear wise and prudent and professional and live up to Gandalf's recommendation. "Also I should like to know about risks, out-of-pocket expenses, time required and remuneration, and so forth"--by which he meant: "What am I going to get out of it? And am I going to come back alive?”
Elizabeth Bennet (Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen):
"In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal."
"There certainly was some great mismanagement in the education of those two young men. One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it."
"Oh, no!" said Elizabeth. "In essentials, I believe, [Mr. Darcy] is very much what he ever was. […] When I said that he improved on acquaintance, I did not mean that his mind or his manners were in a state of improvement, but that, from knowing him better, his disposition was better understood."
Tyrion Lannister (Game of Thrones):
“Once you’ve accepted your flaws, no one can use them against you.”
“My brother has his sword, King Robert has his warhammer and I have my mind...and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone if it is to keep its edge. That's why I read so much, Jon Snow.”
“My sister has mistaken me for a mushroom. She keeps me in the dark and feeds me shit.”
Ron Weasley (Harry Potter J.K. Rowling):
“Can you believe our luck?” said Ron miserably, bending down to pick up Scabbers. “Of all the trees we could’ve hit, we had to get one that hits back.”
"Probably 'cause it's you, isn't it?" shrugged Ron, still chuckling. "Famous Harry Potter and all that. I'd hate to see what the Ministry'd do to me if I blew up an aunt. Mind you, they'd have to dig me up first, because Mum would've killed me."
"No," said Hermione shortly. "Have either of you seen my copy of Numerology and Gramatica?"
"Oh, yeah, I borrowed it for a bit of bedtime reading," said Ron, but very quietly.
Well-Written Characters are Consistent, Even When They Go Through Life Changes
Reading the above examples, you’ll see that each character—through their dialogue, tone and movement—have consistent personality traits. These characters all go through a great deal of change in their book/books. But their personalities—their humor, their sarcasm, their astute intellect, their goofiness—never change.
When I wrote Ishmael in Monochrome, I knew who he was. I knew he was a rough exterior with a sensitive core. I knew he was poetic, played at being cocky but was actually very self-loathing. I knew he had major depressive disorder, but, for all that, was a man with a healthy appreciation for sex and relationships. As I was finishing Fade this year, his consistency was important to me. He could not be radically different than he was in Monochrome, even if he was a younger, less travel-worn version of himself. His humor, his mannerisms and his voice had to be consistent.
The tricky part, in Ishmael’s case, was that I was switching POV in Fade, to his first-hand account. It was no longer another person narrating what she thought his intentions and thoughts were. Who Ishmael is to Abigail in Monochrome is not necessarily who Ishmael is inside, or how he sees himself. That said, his mannerisms, his voice, still had to be consistent even if the person delivering it was different.
“The fact that you haven’t known me for long is probably why you still like me. People don’t grow fonder with me upon a longer acquaintance.”
He laughed harshly. “My sulky temperament is interesting at first, but it’s not an act. This is how I am, and most people who are fond of it at first grow weary of it after a while.”
Ishmael, Fade to Blue:
Jake’s laughing eyes matched his laughing face. “I’ll drink to that! We can always use a few good men.”
Ishmael shook his head. “Then you’re barking up the wrong tree. I’m not a good man.” He ate another spoonful of soup and sighed as the warmth lit him up from the inside.
What we now have is a first-hand perspective of Ishmael, from his own imagining, rather than Abigail’s, but the way he views himself should not change. His demeanor should not change. He is self-loathing and honest about it, no matter who is telling the story. His sexual references are consistent. His sardonic humor is consistent. He will not, suddenly, change and do something completely out of character. That is not what real people do, and your readers won’t appreciate it if you force your character out of their personality.
Well-Written Characters have a Strong Voice
The characters I’ve listed have very strong voices throughout the books they are featured in. A lot of that has to do with their dialogue. Ron is a man of few words, but his words are generally snarky, funny or light. His mannerisms compliment that. He’s not so brave as to be loud in his criticisms of Hermione, but he’s not so cowardly as to not quip. He is a silly, light-hearted, simple man and his mannerisms and dialogue convey that.
I liked that model in Ron. Ishmael, too, is not a big talker. Most of his thoughts are internal and the ones he voices are sarcastic, sexual or a bit morose. For that reason, I can’t have him doing too many long soliloquys. He can sometimes be poetic, and that’s when he gets long (We all have passions, after all!). Otherwise, his words need to be direct and, often, cut to the point.
Well-Written Characters’ Personalities Shine Through Without Dialogue
Even when they are not speaking, a well-written character will let you know who they are, will reflect the personalities that we grow used to, even when they aren’t talking. I love how much Ron says his little off-hand comments quietly, mumbled or under a hand. Sometimes, he just raises his brows at Harry or laughs instead of saying something that will get him in trouble. Those little clues really tell you about a character. Elizabeth’s tromping through mud for miles speaks to her will, her love for her sister and her disregard for people’s opinions about her appearance.
Ishmael is an anxious person. He fidgets, smokes when nervous and plays with his hat often in Monochrome. Because my readers couldn’t know his thoughts, and he thinks more than speaks, I had to play them out in his movement.
I tried to carry that over in Fade. Since much of his speaking is inner monologue, his gestures are important.
In the morning, despite Kora’s protests, he had a cigarette and water for
breakfast, while she watched him with worried eyes.
“Thanks for your hospitality. I really do appreciate it. But I have to get out of here, and I can’t spend more memories doing so.”
Kora shook her head. “You will get worn out without food, Ishmael. I’m not being greedy. I’m being realistic. You need to eat something.”
Ishmael took a last drag from his cigarette. He blew the drag away from Kora as he stood.
Ishmael’s habit of masking hunger, anxiety and fear with smoking is consistent. His unwillingness to do something he doesn’t want to do is consistent, as is his concise dialogue. He blows smoke away from those around him because he won’t stop smoking, but he’s also not an intentional jerk. He can’t be a different person every chapter, and the way he is mustn't be spelled out not by saying, “Ishmael was anxious,” but by showing it in the way he speaks, moves and interacts with others.
I hope this little character sketch overview gives writers an idea of how to create solid characters—the kind people lust over, want to become friends with, mourn, empathize with, etc. The above are the characters I fell in love with as a young, growing and older reader. These are the kinds of characters I want to create for future readers—the ones that won’t leave reader’s heads and hearts after they put the book down. Ishmael is a book boyfriend to many because he feels tangible. The above tips were things that helped me create him in that way.
About the Author:
H.M. Jones has won awards, received praise, garnered many ho-hum reviews, and a handful of boos. It’s a mixed bag. She’s going to write even though some people have advised her to stop. She’s already published a couple of novellas—“Poison & Fire” and “Plots & Pitfalls”— many very angsty and angry poems on various sites, and several short stories.
Monochrome and Fade to Blue are her first and second full-length novels. Al Ravien's Night is her full-length ya novel.
Follow her like a creep! It’s easy to do these days. She has a website: http://www.hmjones.net. She is most unfortunately on Facebook (www.facebook.com/hmjoneswrites) and Twitter (@HMJonesWrites), as well.