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  • by Matthew Bayan



When you start a manuscript, you might only have a gut feel for the broad strokes of your main character. But as you get deeper into writing the novel, broad strokes are not enough. Readers need to get more texture and nuance for a character to come alive.

Readers will follow a well-conceived character even through a less-than-stellar plot. Think of any highly successful and popular TV series. They all have one thing in common. Characters that viewers attach themselves to: Seinfeld, NYPD Blue, Cheers, Frazier, Outland, Game of Thrones.

How do we build such characters?

Apart from the times spent at your laptop or leafing through pages to edit, try imagining a main character accompanying you at various times of the day. If you’re in a supermarket, think about what foods your character would buy. What foods would the character hate? When you’re trying to decide on a movie to go see, ask yourself what movie your character would choose. Why? What would your after-movie conversation with him or her sound like?

What books does the character read?

What perfume does she wear? Is it cheap or expensive, faint or cloyingly strong?

Does the character sport new clothes or does he prefer things that are comfortable and worn? Faded jeans or new khakis? Button-down collars or crew neck? Sweaters or jacket?

What sport is the character good at? How might this affect the plot?

How do these outer characteristics reflect or conflict with the character’s inner issues?

What failures has the character experienced? How do they affect her? How do those inner problems manifest themselves in the image the character projects, in her habits and choices?

You don’t need to expound on the various idiosyncrasies of a character. All the traits and preferences you imagine in this exercise should not wind up on the page. They are intended to make the character so familiar that whenever you write that character, a sense of authenticity comes through. By having this familiarity, many continuity errors are avoided. You know how a character will speak, how he will respond to crisis, how she will get herself into or out of trouble.

I often suggest to my editing clients that they write a biography of each main character. Where was he born, where did she go to school, who was the meanest teacher, what was her favorite pet? No, this is not the makings of a prologue. The idea is not to create a data-dump. Most of the information should not be dropped on a reader. The idea is to make the characters so familiar to the writer that the information leaks into the manuscript in small ways that create a consistent feel for the character and resonate whenever that character is on stage.

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