Five Tips to Improve Characterisation

The next step of story writing once you have completed your exposition is characterisation.  In short stories there are usually only one or two characters.

Firstly, you need to know their name, age, occupation, happiest memory, worst memory, best friend, favourite food, nationality and hopes for the future. Knowing about their family life, where they live and what talents they possess further develops this creation.

The primary character is called the protagonist. The antagonist is the character that is causing the main character problems. Secondary characters are peripheral to the main story.

The rising tension between the protagonist and antagonist makes the story much more exciting.

You can develop these characters by:

1. Using their actions.

In Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, an insight into Ned’s leadership skills was provided through his action of saving a drowning boy. “Never one to wait I were swimming in the flooded creek before I knew it the water so fast and cold it would take your breath like a pooka steals your soul.” The fact that he found the drowning boy because he was avoiding the lockup where is dad was kept also expands our understanding of the inner world of this character.

2. Using other character’s reactions to them.

Ellen Kelly, Ned’s mother, knows that her son is steadfast and will do as she asks.  Even though he did not want to tell his father that his sister Grace was born, Ellen told him to “Go tell your da he has a little girl” because she knew she could rely on him.

3. Using language to describe them.

There is a rule with adjectives. They are always in this order: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose, noun. So, I would describe Ned as a sensitive, small, thin, Irish child. Their house would be a small, 19th-century, square, slab hut. Use of figurative language such as similes and metaphors allow the writer to illustrate subtle and specific attributes and appearances of characters.

Carey has Ned describe Ellen Kelly’s eyes “it aint the cold I remember but the light of the tallow candle it were golden on my mother’s cheeks it shone in her great dark eyes bright and fierce as a native cat to defend her fatherless brood”.

4. Using their reaction to the rising action of the plot.

An example can be found in Roald Dahl’s morbid short story, The Way Up to Heaven from the Tales of the Unexpected series. Mrs Foster’s reaction to her tormenting husband as the action rises, provides a surprising dimension to the seemingly fragile character. She suddenly becomes assertive and leaves her husband behind. It is unknown whether she knew he would die from being trapped in the lift. This change of character from submissive to assertive suggests she knew very well what she was doing.

5. Through their thoughts and words.

Carey’s Ned Kelly reveals his sensitivity when he states, “I did not wish to leave my new sister with her soft downy black hair and her white skin how it glowed like sepulchre inside that earth floored hut.”

The dialogue of a character is difficult to create at first. Here are some tips that may help with the dialogue.

  1. Showing attention can be communicated by the character leaning in, asking questions and having strong eye contact.
  2. Showing lack of attention can be communicated by the character leaning back and using antagonistic body language such as eyes rolling or looking away, closing arms and shrugging.
  3. Anxious disposition can be shown by the character having difficulty being still, fiddling, moving jerkily, breaking eye contact (by looking away, up or down), rubbing self or responding hesitantly.
  4. Rage or exasperation can be shown by the character having a tight or low tone, set jaw, tight neck, strong grip, and short staccato sentences.
  5. A character can be shown to be lying by speaking fast and flitting their eyes, delaying reactions, changing the topic, being defensive, standing aloofly, using closed body language such as crossing arms, demanding a big personal space, twitching, strange scratching or fidgeting.

If you follow all these suggestions, your character development will be as Mary Poppin’s announces “Spit Spot”.

A fun fact about this saying is that it follows a special type of grammar rule called an ablaut reduplication, but that is a topic for another blog.

Enjoy developing your characters, and don’t forget to enter your story into the Mary River Press Services Short Story Prize, closing on the 1st November, 2020.

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