George was tall and thin, with light brown hair. He wore a white shirt and denim jeans, new
and unwrinkled. He was going bald but still had strings of hair on his head. As he spoke, he held a cigarette, heedless of the ashes he spread over my rug.
Do you want to read about boring characters? Sorry, but old George here, is pretty bland. How can we improve him? Let’s look at a four ways to do that.
1. Focus and detail. This is not two ways. You really need both. For example, focus without detail is this: He was tall and thin. Detail without focus is even worse: He was tall, nearing seven feet, and thin with knobbly arms like a skeleton wrapped in tight flesh. He was lanky and tall, like a man walking on stilts at a circus.” Instead of this kind of thing, it is best to choose one or two details–the things that best define your character–and focus on those. Something like this: He towered over me, nearing seven feet like a man on stilts. Here, rather than just explain or describe show the character doing something as you describe her or him. For example, look at this scene from Moby Dick where Ishmael first meets the harpooner:
The stranger entered the room, and without looking towards the bed, placed his candle a good way off from me on the floor in one corner, and then began working away at the knotted cords of the large bag I before spoke of as being in the room. I was all eagerness to see his face, but he kept it averted for some time while employed in unlacing the bag’s mouth. This accomplished, however, he turned round—when, good heavens! what a sight! Such a face! It was of a dark, purplish, yellow colour, here and there stuck over with large blackish looking squares. Yes, it’s just as I thought, he’s a terrible bedfellow; he’s been in a fight, got dreadfully cut, and here he is, just from the surgeon. But at that moment he chanced to turn his face so towards the light, that I plainly saw they could not be sticking-plasters at all, those black squares on his cheeks. They were stains of some sort or other. At first I knew not what to make of this; but soon an inkling of the truth occurred to me. I remembered a story of a white man—a whaleman too—who, falling among the cannibals, had been tattooed by them. I concluded that this harpooneer, in the course of his distant voyages, must have met with a similar adventure. And what is it, thought I, after all! It’s only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin. But then, what to make of his unearthly complexion, that part of it, I mean, lying round about, and completely independent of the squares of tattooing. To be sure, it might be nothing but a good coat of tropical tanning; but I never heard of a hot sun’s tanning a white man into a purplish yellow one. However, I had never been in the South Seas; and perhaps the sun there produced these extraordinary effects upon the skin. Now, while all these ideas were passing through me like lightning, this harpooneer never noticed me at all. But, after some difficulty having opened his bag, he commenced fumbling in it, and presently pulled out a sort of tomahawk, and a seal-skin wallet with the hair on. Placing these on the old chest in the middle of the room, he then took the New Zealand head—a ghastly thing enough—and crammed it down into the bag. He now took off his hat—a new beaver hat—when I came nigh singing out with fresh surprise. There was no hair on his head—none to speak of at least—nothing but a small scalp-knot twisted up on his forehead. His bald purplish head now looked for all the world like a mildewed skull. Had not the stranger stood between me and the door, I would have bolted out of it quicker than ever I bolted a dinner.
2. History: Everyone has a history, and so must your characters. Some details are probably not important, but you need to think out the history as it relates to the story. I always write them out, but there are different ways to do this. One is to write out a brief summary. Another is to make a conversation of two other characters talking about the first (for some reason, this often teases out new information). One thing that I found was that in some stories, my characters had met and struggled in the past, so that past needed to be written about in some detail, and from there, I got a better hold on my story and, of course, my characters. This is a small piece of the history of Sauron, the villain in Lord of the Rings:
Sauron was originally known as Mairon the Admirable, a powerful Maia of Aulë the Smith, who was a Vala, creator of Dwarves. However, Mairon was soon corrupted by the Dark Lord Morgoth (“The Great Enemy” in the tongue of men) an evil Valar and Dark Enemy of Arda, and turned evil, taking the name, “Sauron.”
3. Flavor: All writers want to create memorable characters. Think of the great characters in the stories you’ve read. Wouldn’t you like to make characters like that? One thing that most great characters have is flavor, by this I mean that your characters need to be unexpected. For example, your cowboy sheriff should be mainly good and ethical. However, he can also have some bad qualities to make him more human and this memorable. Perhaps he is jealous of his brother. Maybe he is a womanizer or a “man” izer. He might be an excessive drinker, gambler, or simply extremely selfish. Perhaps you could try something less cliche, such as he enjoys torturing small bugs, loves or hates children, has a deep dark secret, or something like that. For example, this is Watson describing Sherlock Holmes. Note how Doyle uses the contrast of cold logic and hot passion here to define not only Holmes, but also ‘the woman’ and also Watson:
To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer—excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.
4. Reputation: This can be a really fun one, though often challenging. You have seen it used above also. The way other characters talk about someone is often one of the best ways to describe him to the reader. The describer can also be characterized, an added bonus. You can also use it to give information that is hard to get in elsewhere. Look at how Conrad describes Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. This is Marlowe the narrator (kind of) who tells of his conversation with the Company’s chief accountant:
“One day he remarked, without lifting his head, ‘In the interior you will no doubt meet Mr. Kurtz.’ On my asking who Mr. Kurtz was, he said he was a first-class agent; and seeing my disappointment at this information, he added slowly, laying down his pen, ‘He is a very remarkable person.’ Further questions elicited from him that Mr. Kurtz was at present in charge of a trading post, a very important one, in the true ivory-country, at ‘the very bottom of there. Sends in as much ivory as all the others put together. . . .’
There you have it. Four ways to liven up your characters. Sure, there are more, but these will get you started. This will work for fiction, and with a little imagination, memoirs as well. I have even seen it used in non-fiction like magazine articles. Give them a try.