Giving your Characters… well… Character

Read the first few pages of Sir Author Conan Doyle’s The Hounds of Baskerville and the characters of Holmes, Watson, Sir Henry Baskerville and his friend Mortimer jump off the page. Note that Doyle describes every character, not in detail, but he gives us something about that character that’s unique. He also places them in a unique setting that  explains something to us about them. Finally, he puts them into action, each doing something unique and different. He brings his characters to life.

Rather than explaining what they are doing he tells us about their action. Then he has conflict within that action, such as Holmes and Watson’s discussion about the unknown guest’s cane that was left behind. We are immediately hooked,  then, when  the mysterious stranger in the coach appears, we’re hooked again.

Now read something you’ve written. Do the characters sound the same or, do they have different voices. Do they look the same, or can you even tell how they look. Do you know where they are? How does that help explain the characters? Do you know more about them because of their location and what they are doing?

I wrote a story once in which, to my way of thinking, I clearly had the characters in a space ship. There was a mutiny, and a woman was kidnapped to be taken to a man she had bested some months before. I had them shooting advanced weapons and flying everywhere. One of my readers asked me if the story was intended to take place in space. I reread my own story and found I had not specified the ship was a space ship. The reader had to guess it was one. The whole story changed if one thought the story took place  on earth. Some of the character’s thoughts and actions no longer made sense. I had to rewrite it and tell more about the setting for the characters to have their actions make sense.

This weekend I was swimming in the Pedernales river. There were ten of us swimming in the shallow waters surrounded by cypress trees. I closed my eyes and listened to the group talking back and forth. Each person had a distinct voice, not just in sound quality, but what they talked about, how they said it, how often they talked and how long they talked. They were identifiable.

Later in the day, one of them received a phone call from his wife. To his son’s amusement, I whispered the line his father was going to respond to, before he responded. I correctly predicted his side of the conversation in a five minute conversation. How did I do that? I knew her ‘voice’ and I knew his voice. So, predicting what they were going to say was… elementary