I have recently been reading some books in the Regency Romance genre. Some I have found quite enjoyable, while others I have found to be a chore to read. One of the many things that makes a story fun to read is the characters. If we as readers can connect with the characters in the story, then we are more likely to finish the book and more likely to read other books by that author. So, as writers, how do we make our characters come alive for our readers?
First, they have to come alive for us personally as the writer. If we can’t visualize and feel some sort of emotional attachment to the character we’ve created, then our readers won’t be able to either. I recently received an email from a book reviewer that I had recruited to read and review a box set of Regency Romance books for another author. The potential reviewer backed out of doing the review because she said she couldn’t honestly give the books even four stars. Her main reason was lack of character development by the author, with a secondary reason of an obvious lack of proofreading.
Her statement was, “There are proofreading errors. I can’t visualize the characters due to lack of description; dark, fair, curly hair, ginger, brunette, stout, tall, mustache, glasses, etc. I did enjoy the plot.”
This reader is obviously well versed in reading romance. For some genres, giving a lot of details about appearance of characters is not really necessary so as long as you give enough detail to let the reader see and feel the character’s personality. However, if you’re writing in the Romance genre it is very important to give details about your characters’ physical attributes. This significantly aids the reader in forming a mental picture and becoming more attached to the characters that you’ve worked so hard to create. Plot is always important, but one dimensional characters will kill a plot.
Writers should know the characters they create like they know their own family and friends. When you make a character, don’t just give them a name and a locale where they live. Give your characters a life. This is especially important for your protagonist and main supporting characters, even the villain. Sit down with your preferred writing tools and write out each character’s bio. What does he or she do for a living? How does he or she feel about the work they do? What is his or her personality like? What fears does he or she have? What are his or her strengths and weaknesses? Does he or she have any defining character or personality traits, like a nervous tick or excessive hyperactivity or mellowness? Is he or she shy or outgoing? Which foods does he or she like? Does he or she smoke, drink, do drugs? Is he or she generally an honest person, or someone who can’t be trusted?
There are dozens more questions you could ask yourself about the character. Think of as many as you can and write in your answer. As you go, you will find yourself becoming more and more familiar with the person that is your character. You will start to form an opinion of him or her. At this point you will start to figure out if this character is your protagonist, a supporting character, or even the villain.
Don’t forget to give your character a face and body type. What does he or she look like? Think about hair color, length, and texture. Does he or she have any scars? They don’t have to be on the face, either. What color eyes does he or she have? What type of nose, chin, ears, and cheek bones does he or she have? What shape face does he or she have? Is he or she tall or short? Fat or skinny? Is he or she fit and muscular, or out of shape? Do he or she dress well, or slovenly? Even if you don’t plan on writing in these features, it’s important for you as the writer to know them because it helps you better see the character you’re putting on the page. If your character is real to you, the writer, he or she will be real to the reader.
If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas for appearance, try looking in magazines for pictures you can keep as character references. You can also look on the internet. Or you could people watch, discreetly of course, and note down people’s facial features. If you Google search “face shapes” you will come up with a host of images with descriptions of facial shapes. You can do this for other features as well.
Two very good reference sources for writers that can be found on Amazon are How To Write Descriptions of Eyes and Faces by Val Kovalin and How To Write Descriptions of Hair and Skin by Val Kovalin. Links below.
Remember, three dimensional characters have a face, a body type, a personality, and a family and life of their own. They’re not just a name on a page.