Tips To Round Out Your Characters

Tips To Round Out Your Characters

Writers Write is a writing resource. This post will give you tips to round out your characters in the books you write.

Last week, I discussed how to introduce your character in the first few lines. This week, I look at rounding out your character by adding layers of characterisation.

Tips To Round Out Your Characters

Before we look at examples, let’s consider some theory:
  1. Show, don’t tell: when it comes to characterisation, it’s critical that you show the reader who your character is, and not tell. An effective way to do this is to use dialogue and action in a scene, but it doesn’t stop there. You can add details about a character’s appearance, manner, spaces, and possessions.
  2. Appearance: how does your character dress, what accessories does she wear, and how well groomed is she?
  3. Manner: how does your character interact with the world around him? Think of his speech, gestures, gait, and any habitual movements he may have.
  4. Spaces: what does your character’s house look like? Her office? Her bathroom cabinet? Her fridge? Think about virtual spaces too – what does her Facebook profile or Instagram account look like?
  5. Possessions: this is less about the possessions in your character’s spaces, and more about his relationship to certain possessions. What is your character’s favourite possession, and why? What does he always take with him when he leaves home? Include significant details only: as writers, we want to create real characters. We need to be careful, though. There’s a fine balance between creating a rounded character, and boring readers with the minutiae of your character’s life. To avoid the latter, pick only those details that pack the biggest characterisation punch, and then weave them skilfully into your story. It’s a bit like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for your readers to follow.
Create interplay between these elements: it’s not only the individual elements of appearance, manner, spaces, and possessions that are effective in showing who a character is, but the interplay between them.

Last week, I introduced two versions of Sheriff Elliot West. I’m going to use the heroic version to illustrate this theory.

The practice

Telling who a character is

As usual, Elliot was only interested in a single shot of whiskey. Sally supposed it had something to do with that alcoholic, good-for-nothing father of his. It was a good thing Elliot had run him out of town, even though it must’ve been difficult for him to do.

Showing instead of telling

‘Only one?’ Sally asked, lifting the bottle.
‘Only one,’ Elliot said.
‘Your father?’ she asked.
The creases around his eyes deepened.
‘Sorry,’ she said.
‘No. It’s better this way,’ he said. ‘He and his gang were destroying the town. And it started long before his drinking.’
The ‘telling’ scene gives the reader more information in fewer words, but the writing is wooden and (excuse the pun) lacks character. The dialogue of the ‘showing’ scene helps, but can be improved. Let’s add the elements of appearance, manner and possessions. 

Showing, with added elements

‘Only one?’ Sally asked.
‘Only one,’ Elliot said, smelling the whiskey in his tumbler.
‘Your father?’ she asked.
Elliot ran a palm over his stubble and sighed. The creases around his eyes deepened.
‘Sorry,’ she said.
‘No. It’s better this way,’ he said. He sipped half his drink, grimaced, and put his battered sheriff’s hat on. His spurs clicked as he unfolded his sinewy frame off the stool. ‘He and his gang were destroying the town long before this,’ he said, tapping the top of the bottle on the saloon counter.
‘Still,’ she said.
‘A man’s gotta do,’ he shrugged. He stood a moment – his eyes distant as he fingered the worn mother of pearl inlay of the pistol at his hip. ‘Anyhow,’ he said, ‘let me be off. Some cattle missing out at Farraday’s.’

Now that we’ve added these layers, we see something of who Sheriff West is, how he feels about his dad, and his sense of responsibility to his job.

Writing exercise: Why not write a paragraph from the deputy sheriff’s viewpoint, describing Elliot’s desk down at the sheriff’s office?

 by Donna Radley

Posted on: 21st April 2015

3 thoughts on “Tips To Round Out Your Characters”

  1. 1st Published 2001

    Donna, your advice to new writers is spot on. Keep up the excellent, concise suggestions and advice. 🙂

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