Appearance vs. Persona (OR)
“How to Write Interesting Blue Aliens”
As an author of poetry books, with my sci-fi/fantasy novels currently in draft, you may wonder why I would presume to give anyone writing advice if I have yet to publish a novel of my own.
Writing is a process of not only creating stories, characters, dialogue, but a constant course of development and learning. As writers, we do not reside on an isolated plane of writerly existence, where, once we finally publish a fairly well written book or two, become overnight experts in all aspects of writing. Learning and growing as a writer is continuous, and pertinent to the continuing quality of our craft.
We can agree that writers are also readers. We read not only for pleasure, but we also read with the intent to learn from the work of other authors. With a writer’s critical eye, we see what works well, what styles we find lacking, methods to avoid or take-up, and often we discover genius techniques that inspire. So, while neither of my novels are in publication yet, I have decades of writing and reading experience to back up any guidance I may pass along to others who are interested.
On to the info sharing!
The greatest stories ever told, verbally or written, true or fiction, have one important common factor – memorable characters.
This seems straight forward enough. As writers, we are the almighty creators of our stories, worlds, and the people existing within them – who are the catalysts for telling and moving the reader through from beginning to end. So, of course, all we need to do is develop interesting characters that readers will care about and enjoy following on their story discovery journey.
But how can a writer ensure to have accomplished this task? After all, as the creators of our fictional people, we know their every thought, secret, and desire, but are we too close to identify inadequacies of character on the page?
Certainly, we know our characters intimately, born from our minds, as they are. But can we clearly see that we have done the work to properly convey not only their physical attributes and basic personas, but deeper, more intricate, emotional and psychological aspects, to give them a fair chance at hooking and committing readers to their story?
To figure this out we need to take a step back and hold our characters up to the light to see what is inside, or, at least, what is visible to the reader. Do your characters posses unique traits? Let’s take a closer look.
Appearance vs. Persona
It is fun to imagine and write about our characters’ appearance, their hawkish nose, steel grey eyes, long, wavy red hair, etcetera. It helps us as writers, and readers, to have a picture in our mind of what our characters look like, however, unless appearance is going to play a major factor in the story, or help to move a story forward, there is no need to dwell on appearance.
Most readers rather enjoy a bit of mystery and allusion in their characters appearances. They want just enough information about characters’ physical appearance to begin to build a vision in their own minds, as well. You can sprinkle hints of the character’s physical depiction, but do not obsess. Readers are quite imaginative and will likely place a mole somewhere on a character’s face that you did not specifically describe…and that is perfectly fine.
Remember, not every character need look dramatically different from another character in order to portray uniqueness. Just as in real life, it is not external appearances which make people/characters special, or define them as individuals. If all your characters look terrifically different, but walk, talk and think with little variance, you have basically created boring zombies.
Think of it this way, if writing a story about a tribe of blue aliens who all basically look the same, the only way to convey their uniqueness is going to be through individual persona. Diverse, multi-faceted personalities create interesting characters and better stories.
A character’s personal beliefs, fears, prejudices, habits, preferences, interests, values and morals are the information that will set them apart from others. I recommend you think of your characters as blue aliens most of the time and force yourself to delve into the internal qualities that will really make them pop on the pages.
Here are a few examples :
- Atheist who believes in a powerful, universal energy
- Sits on a pedestal of values and morals, think they are better than others
- Driven to protect the innocent
- Aids the weak or helpless
- Values gang membership, but disregards family
- Dislikes short people
- Believes poor people should be put out of their misery
- Cracks knuckles before committing murder
- Only drinks coconut water (secretly battle digestive issues)
- Keeps car trunk full of bags of seasoned popcorn for stakeouts
Instead of using their shimmering blue eyes or full, trembling, red lips to convey emotion, think about implementing behavior quirks, nervous ticks, habits, trigger reactions.
Here are a few examples:
- Makes accusations when things do not go right or their way
- Becomes negative/hostile when not agreed with, or challenged
- Tends to blink rapidly when lying
- Habitually smiles when angry or sad
- Voice takes on a higher pitch in social situations
- Scalp sweats profusely when nervous
- Dizzy spells, or passing out under stress
- Stutters when near someone to whom attracted
- Rubs their ear when uncertain
- Wiggles toes when sexually aroused
Another way to convey a character’s uniqueness is to give them an interesting hobby, obsession, or a personal talisman/prop which they always carry with them. A hobby, such as baking, can add an unexpected human dimension to an assassin. An obsession with proper grammar can force a quiet, withdrawn character to constantly correct others when they speak.
Giving the character a precious talisman, or special item which they always carry with them, or keep safely hidden from others, may have a personal history for the character that explains something about their personality, or if lost or threatened, can cause a traumatic shift in character behavior or decision making. A character could have a small worry stone in their pocket to calm them or must kiss their lucky ring before entering a fight.
As you can see, there are lot of directions you can go with character traits but remember you do not need to implement more than a few distinct traits that stand out and set them apart from others.
In my next blog post I will be discussing character faults, or flaws, and explain the different levels and types that you may consider using.
Until next time,