Building Characters

We’ve all heard the old Hemingway theory about the iceberg, haven’t we?

The Iceberg Theory means that your characters need to have a lot going on under the surface—stuff that may never be referenced explicitly. You as the writer need to know things about your character that you'll never directly share with the reader. Because when you do your preparation, the deeper parts of your character will find a way to shine through implicitly.

So how can you ensure your characters have depth?
Create a character bible!

A character bible is the most crucial tool for your fiction because it ensures that your characters are multifaceted and complex.

Despite the name, a character bible isn’t hundreds of pages long. It’s a series of questions about seemingly unrelated information that will likely never directly appear in your story. And yet it’s crucial for avoiding flat, one-dimensional characters. It sounds like a waste of time, but you need to know the history of each character and their peculiarities so that you can create full and realistic reactions and interactions.

 If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.   —Ernest Hemingway

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.   —Ernest Hemingway

 

Let’s say we have a character that is always yelling. By the second or third time, this method of delivering emotion becomes incredibly boring to the reader. It creates a flat character because anger is a flat emotion. Anger never really stands alone; it’s the result of pain, confusion, shame, or jealousy. Knowing the initial distress behind the anger allows you to incorporate those feelings into your character’s reaction. So maybe instead of yelling, the character has a curt response, a certain facial expression, or they look away when they speak. Each of these responses are linked to the deeper emotions that are underneath pain.

And beyond flat emotions, knowing the way your character pushes up the glasses on her face, or the way the lines around his lips pucker when he’s doubtful, or the depth of the crease between his eyebrows when he's confused—all that is going to create a rich and layered character.

These seemingly minor details that populate your character bible will create a much more intricate character. We are complex beings; our characters should be, also.


A few questions to get your bible started:

The History

  • What moment defined the views your character holds now?
  • What are his greatest fears?
  • How does she change when she is around family, rather than friends, or at work?
  • Is she trusting of others? Why or why not?

Goals

  • What does your character want? What is she willing to sacrifice to get it?
  • How does he handle challenges? What about victories?
  • What's holding her back?
  • What are her weaknesses? Her desires?

The Lumpy Parts

  • Is your character always in mismatched socks?
  • How does he or she look when concentrating?
  • What are her tics? How does she remove or readjust her glasses?
  • What sounds does he make when he chews his food?
  • Is he often distracted? Eager to please? Insecure? How can other characters tell?
  • What about your character's anxieties? How many stages are there and how does it progress?
Anatomy.jpg

There are many more questions you could ask. To figure out what's right for your character, map out the challenges she faces and the emotions she feels. Then assign a tell for each, and already you'll be well on your way.

 

Distinguishing your characters on the page:

This one’s actually easier than it sounds—if you’ve spent time creating a character bible. Characters are differentiated two ways: in speech and in gesture.
To be sure each character’s voice is unique and realistic, pay attention to the way people speak. A great writer’s trick is to eavesdrop on any conversation. In no time, you’ll notice that people:

  • talk in snippets and rhythms,
  • interrupt one another,
  • use pronouns heavily,
  • more often than not, have two conversations occurring at once,
  • often don’t talk to each other—rather, they talk at, around, and through each other.

Once you’ve chopped up your dialogue a bit, the next step is altering word choice, behavioral tics, and habitual language. Changing emphasis or tempo is important, too, and can be done through punctuation. Reading out loud is an excellent way to learn how and where to punctuate the rhythm of character speech.

When it comes to gesture, you can enhance the individuality of character by thinking about the way your character:

  • moves their body,
  • uses their hands when they speak, or
  • expresses themselves facially. The smallest squint of their eyes or a flick of the nostrils can be a subtle yet distinctive trait that really brings your character to life.

The amount of work spent on your character bible is up to you, but don’t feel like the details are set in stone. If you discover something interesting about the character while writing your first draft, your bible will help you maintain consistency in your rewrites.

And if you're looking for feedback, reach out to us—we'll help your bring your characters to life!