Who are they? How can you know if you’ve never met ? Can you represent them in your fiction just by watching them from a distance? Or can you summon them realistically from your imagination? Creating believable characters people empathize with is no easy task, but it’s essential if fiction has to sing on its own. No matter how good the story is, or how smooth the language, if there aren’t people inhabiting the pages that the reader can identify with emotionally, the rest doesn’t matter.
How Charles Dickens, surely one of the masters of the art of creating characters, struggled to present them holistically, acting out every one before his own mirror complete with hair, clothing and speech impediments. It worked perfectly for him, but that’s because he was most comfortable using those visual reference points in his own life. They were the first things he said he noticed about a person, so that’s how he described his characters for the reader.
On the other hand, Martha Graham only paid attention to body language (not surprising when you think of her art form). She liked to say ‘the body never lies’. She believed she could watch someone move from a distance and know everything about them, even if they tried to hide behind clothing, expression or language. Had she been a writer, she’d no doubt have described her characters’ movements first.
I have a couple of writer friends who always see characters in relation to their stories. Even if they can’t hear exactly what’s going on, they interpret a story around people they see and then feel they know them through that narrative. When they create a character’s identity on the page, it’s always in the context of his or her story, because that’s how the authors’ neurons work. But I, on the other hand, prefer to study people’s reactions to their environment. I learn more from their interaction with nature, but a clearly defined indoor environment will do, too. How is the character dealing with the freezing cold air as he breathes it in or feels it hit his skin? What does he do when he steps outside his air-conditioned office into the heat and humidity of a summer day in the city? How people respond to their environment tells me a lot about them, so I use it to tell my readers what I want them to know about my characters.
Wow, how different could these techniques be? Are they just a validation of the truth that all creating is unique and everyone goes about it differently? To some extent, yes, but even more important is the observation that every author/creator uses a technique that comes directly from a personal proclivity. They form character using their own wiring. That’s what they’re best at and it shows in wholly believable characters in their fiction. No rules apply to support this kind of construct, other than to do it the way you’re wired to do it in life. Then it will be real.
I must say it’s fun to try out different techniques, and I often play around with them where minor characters are concerned. I’ve watched new authors changing styles from chapter to chapter, reminding me of young kittens bounding off the walls from room to room, trying out every surface to see what its resonance might be. Is this exhausting or confusing for a reader? Not really; at least, not once you’ve gotten the swing of it. But if that kind of experiment isn’t something you feel comfortable with, remember to fall back on your own personal method for figuring people out. What works for you will undoubtedly work best for your characters, too. You won’t have to copy someone you know or steal their identity as Mark Twain did. If watching a person’s body language tells you everything about them, then that’s how you should describe your characters.
Personally, I prefer my protagonists to be known for the way they take a deep, satisfied breath of the cold, fresh mountain air and lift their faces to the wind. But that’s just me.