Writing Adolescent Fiction/Creating your characters

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The character’s external aspects include factors such as age, race, gender, physical strength, health, disability, clothing, and jewelry.

A character's appearance is probably the most basic technique of characterization and individualization: what a person looks like reveals a great deal about who that person is, his attitude, perhaps even his mental state, his economic and social status, and so on. We form our initial attitude about a person based on his appearance, and we either like or dislike him; we either take him seriously or we dismiss him. Although some stories rely on external character aspects in their plot—for instance in the film Speed, the antagonist is caught because one of his fingers is missing—not all stories do so. This does not mean, however, that the author does not need to know what his character looks like. The author should know his character's external aspects even if none of these will make it into the story, even if the plot will not rely on them. When the author does include external aspects of character in the story, he must make sure that every aspect mentioned serves a purpose. No aspect should be brought up unless it will be paid off; the external aspects must have story consequences. External aspects of character matter: they are the significant details that reveal character nature and past, they affect the formation of character, they can create a need, have thematic significance, serve as motifs, limit and create opportunities for action, and be consistent or contrast with the character's story function. Let us examine each of these aspects.


External aspects as significant details[edit]

Significant details are those that create an impression of something larger than themselves. What detail is significant depends, of course, on what the author is attempting to convey about the subject he is describing. Details are significant if they convey a character's past, and this is what the author wishes to convey. The detail should be such that it is telling of something about the character's nature, life, goals, etc.

An important thing to remember when considering significant details is that you should not lump them all into a single paragraph. A sentence or two suffices, and you are served better when you dole out description throughout the story action rather than force the reader to wade through paragraphs of it. Of course, remember that each detail mentioned serves a narrative purpose; don't mention something just because it sounds good, or is interesting for its own sake—you have a person to portray, so pick the details that evoke who he is.


External aspects and formation of character[edit]

The most obvious external factors of a character that influence his formation as a person are sex, race, and physical appearance. This is because sex, race, and physical appearance influence the formative experiences a person will go through, experiences that determine who he becomes and affects his way of seeing the world as well as himself. The life of a woman is very different, obviously, from that of a man, even if they come from the same family. Their parents treat them differently, and they go through vastly different sexual experiences.

Race is another external factor that affects the development of a person's nature because race determines what kind of experiences a person will have, how he will be treated, and it comes with expectations, like gender, of what is acceptable and what is not. An African-American or Asian or Arab child experiences different things than does a white child, even if they live in the same neighborhood. This is so because, in a predominantly white environment, such outsiders are treated differently. Of course, a Hispanic teen attending a predominantly Hispanic high school in Southern California has different experiences than a Hispanic teen who attends Beverly Hills High School.

Besides race and gender, physical factors have a great deal of influence on the formation of a character. A fat kid lives in a different world than an attractive, slim child, even if they live in the same neighborhood and are the same sex and race. An attractive person lives a different kind of existence than an unattractive one; being desired by others enables certain personality traits and retards others. Conversely, an unattractive person struggles constantly with self-esteem issues, living the life of someone who is not desired.

Of course, sex, race, and physical appearance are not the only external factors that can affect a character's formation. Take for instance a teenager who can’t afford the right clothes, and has to wear clothing from a thrift store instead. This will have an impact on him, one way or the other. It will affect how he feels about himself, and it will motivate him to do something to fit it, perhaps he will take a job at the expense of academics. It may force him to compensate by focusing on being a perfect student. Whatever happens as a result, his clothing will affect him in a way that will have consequences. And what about a teen whose wealthy father forces him to wear used clothes as a way to build his son’s character? How does he feel about these character-building exercises? You can be sure that consequences will flow from this experience.


External factors and need[edit]

Let's consider the unattractive person from the previous section. His great need is to be desired. Of course, he won't be desired for his looks, so he must find an alternate avenue of showing merit. This is known as compensation. Often, unattractive people, or, of course, people who feel unattractive, make up for being unattractive by excelling in something, such as math, art, or sports. By demonstrating extraordinary skill or ability, they are accepted into the group and receive respect and attention from the others. In practical terms, this may mean that the character's need is to be desired, to be accepted by his peers, or to be respected, and his goal will be to get into a brand name school, get a particular kind of a car, or do something that his peers respect, which may mean stealing a car just as well as winning a sports tournament. Why would a character want to steal? Because what is worthy of respect depends entirely on who his peers are, and the environment in which he exists.


External factors as theme and motif[edit]

A motif is something that is introduced in one context, and then brought up in different contexts so that meaning will result. For instance, a character may gain extraordinary physical strength, which may be a motif that runs through a story. How the character uses his strength, in different contexts, contributes to the story meaning or theme. In Spiderman, the protagonist is transformed into a spider man through a genetically altered spider's bite. Initially, as the protagonist explores his newfound power, the motif of strength is presented in neutral or fun scenes. Having such awesome power is fun, the story is saying. But the change in his physical nature reflects a theme about strength and responsibility. This theme is revealed through the motif in several ways. When Spiderman does not stop the robbery in the wrestling arena office, he chooses not to use his strength to stop an evil deed. He is still acting in a light-hearted manner, ignoring, or perhaps unaware of, the true realities of his new found abilities. What are the consequences? The thief that Spiderman chose not to stop kills his uncle, and the story changes drastically. Later, the consequence of his power, his secret life that it necessitates, prevents him from having the girl that he desires. How a character gains his strength, how he uses it, what he loses and gains in his life, how he ends up as a result of using it—these are the building blocks of meaning.

External factors as limits and opportunities[edit]

Factors of physical nature limit and give rise to opportunities for particular avenues of action a character can take; an older character will not do what a younger one may, a character who is in-shape will not take the same road as a weakling, and a character dressed in rags will be treated differently than a man in an expensive suit. While a character’s physical nature and physical aspects may seem somewhat trivial as a concept in story development, they can, in fact, have a major impact. The impact lies in the consequences of the attribute, and anything that has consequences for the character, now or later, is relevant in story development.

In the novel “Code to Zero” by Ken Follett, the protagonist is attempting to uncover his identity. His initial plan of action to achieve this goal is to seek the help of the police. The obstacle to this is something very humble, and seemingly inconsequential-he’s dressed in bum’s attire. The police officer he encounters, however, beats him up instead of helping him. This forces the protagonist to go on a quest to obtain proper attire so that he can resume his quest to find his identity, and a major sequence of action follows. And for anyone interested in theme and meaning, the fact that the officer beats up a man dressed in rags instead of helping him shows the kind of a world America of the 50s was. From this example we can see how something as trivial as clothing can have a major impact on how the protagonist can pursue his goal, and what avenues of action are available to him.


External factors and story role[edit]

External factors and the role a character plays in the story can contrast or reinforce one another. In the film Alien, the antagonist and its appearance complement one another perfectly. Although appearance often signals to the audience the story role of the character, one must be careful not to fall into stereotype with this approach.


Consider these questions:

1. Why have I chosen these particular aspects of appearance and what will the effect of my choice be on the story?

2. Are these factors in contrast or in harmony with the role this character plays in the story, and why?

3. In what way do aspects of physical characterization reveal the character’s nature?

4. Is an aspect of physical nature or appearance a source of conflict, and why?

5. Is a physical attribute a source of the character’s goal or need, and why?

6. How does the character feel about his appearance?

7. How does his appearance affect him?

8. Is there a contrast between how he is and how he imagines himself to be?

9. What does this contrast reveal about him?

10. How would he like to be?

11. What does the contrast between how he is and how he would like to be cause?

12. Does it make him compensate?

13. What does he do to compensate for what he doesn’t have?

14. How does his desire to be what he would like to be inform his goal?

15. Does the character act his age, his gender?

16. What does he wear?

17. Are his clothes expensive or cheap?

18. What is the story behind his clothes?

19. Does he have a lucky pair of pants, for instance?

20. Does he have any body decorations?

21. What kind of jewelry does he have?

22. What is the story behind his jewelry?

23. Did he get that Rolex from a man he'd shot?

24. What’s his manner like?

25. Does he speak with an accent?

26. What does his voice sound like?

27. How much does he weigh?

28. Does he have hair?


At the end of this section you should have a clear image of your character in mind. He should be an individual with logical reasons for his appearance and physical attributes, reasons that hint at his past, and perhaps his future; he should look as if he had a past and has a future. You can go further by drawing your character or finding a picture of someone who resembles your character.