On March 25th, 2023, I presented my “Characters Who Jump Off the Page” workshop at the Chicago Writers Association’s Let’s Just Write! An Uncommon Writers Conference. The workshop was successful based on the eighty attendees’ rapt attention, terrific questions, and wonderful compliments.
When I worked on the materials for the session weeks before, I created three fun examples to illustrate various points which I’d like to share with you.
Pitting internal conflict against external conflict
The first example is of a claustrophobic farmer running for his life from a tornado and feeling relieved he’ll make it to the storm cellar until he remembers the size of the room. His dilemma–does he fight his claustrophobia and get inside the tiny space?–illustrates how to pit a character’s internal conflict (the farmer’s claustrophobia) against the external conflict (the tornado).
Creating flawed characters
The second example illustrates the need for flawed characters and uses a more relatable scenario for writers.
Two writers pitch to agents at a conference. One is twenty-something and has never studied writing. She whips together a perfect story in six months and gets an agent. The other writer is retired and still learning the craft. It’s taken her over ten years to finish her book. She gets an agent. Who are you happiest for?
We cheer for the flawed characters, not the perfect ones (whom we find irritating and boring) because we tend to see ourselves in flawed characters. Often, beginning writers create perfect characters because they think this will get their readers to like them. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Describing characters through their actions
The third example is my favorite which I use to illustrate how best to describe a character. Instead of giving the reader a laundry list of characteristics (blue eyes, brown skin, tailored suit, etc.), writers should use the characters’ actions to describe them. Here’s my example:
Two friends (Friend A and Friend B) are sitting at a table having coffee at a coffee shop. A young mother walks in with four children in tow. As she orders, the children start crying, whining, and complaining, and the youngest, a toddler, trips and falls and begins to scream. The mother does everything she can to wrangle them while paying for and collecting her purchases.
Friend A – Sips coffee and comments on how stupid the woman is for having so many kids.
Friend B – Goes over to the mother and offers to help while corralling the toddler as he heads for the front door.
Can you picture these people in your head? Notice that the only character descriptions I’ve given are “friend,” “young mother,” “children,” “youngest,” and “toddler.” The friends could be young or old, men or women, professionals or tradesmen, African American or Asian, dating or married, anything at all.
We know the mother is a woman, and she is young, but we don’t know her race, style of dress, religious affiliation, socioeconomic status, or even if she’s married.
But still, you can picture these characters.
I had a lot of fun using these examples and presenting the session. So much fun that I’m offering it again for free on Saturday, April 15, 2023, from 10:00 a.m. until 12:00 noon. The virtual event, “Creating Unforgettable Characters,” is part of the Chicago Writers Association Educational Series. Registration is now open!
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Nice piece, Kristin!
Thank you, Christine!
I like your examples! I could picture all the characters in the coffee shop ☺️
Thank you, Caitlin — that’s exactly what I was going for!