How do you make a character really pop? How do you give the reader an insight into the inner-workings of a character?

I’m not talking about a listing or a physical description. Knowing what a character looks like, down to the eyelash, is important to some readers, and not so important to others. (Mirror-gazing characters who seem to only see a mirror that ONE time, somewhere in the first few pages of a story are a bit of a pet-peeve of mine, though I see that “trick” used in so many ways that I can’t completely condemn it.)

But as a reader, I feel more connection with a character when I sense or understand that he’s afraid of spiders, but even more afraid to be seen as “a man who is afraid of spiders” than I ever will identify with an otherwise flat character that I could describe to a police sketch artist. Looks don’t matter to me very much.

In this blog post (and the next one) I am going to offer two pieces of advice on making a character stand out. Both of these suggestions are given with one thing in mind: what makes a character relatable, sympathetic, or otherwise interesting, to me, is to understand some of HOW they think, feel, and react to the world around them. Eventually, I want to know more about WHY a character is who she is, but at first, what draws me into an empathetic mindset is to see how she responds to a situation.

But there is a caveat: If what is revealed about the character isn’t interesting or insightful, then it is no better than knowing she has, “golden curls, the color of the bottom of a Twinkie.” Interesting? Maybe, but only because I’m hungry and now I’m considering a sugary snack.

How do we pick details about the inner working of a character that will be illuminative? Make them uncomfortable.

One woman's mundane trip to the beauty parlor is another woman's fearful experience. A hair cutting scene is only appropriate for one of these two examples.
One woman’s mundane trip to the beauty parlor is another woman’s fearful experience. A hair cutting scene is only appropriate for one of these two examples.

Here’s a quick example: I was reading a client manuscript this weekend. In the story, the main character has been shut up inside her house for months and months. Her husband was killed in the war, and she has refused to acknowledge the world. She has locked herself away and refused almost every act of human kindness. Finally, after a series of half-successful attempts, she manages to make her way outside her own garden gate and she makes it into town. What she sees is so different. The post-war boom is in full swing. Technology is changing. Fashion is changing. People are changing. The world has changed. She finds her way to a beauty parlor, unravels years of uncut hair from the bun atop her head, and sits in the chair, ready for something new.

And the scene ends.

ARGH!” I cried, aloud, in Starbucks.

I wanted to see this character react to this situation. Yes, the end result is important. The woman’s hair is so different (modern, lovely) that the one person she HAS been in contact with during her self-imposed exile doesn’t recognize her, at first. And that fact is a necessary part of moving the character forward.

But, for me, this was a missed opportunity for me to identify more fully with the character, and to come to care a bit more about her.

I can only imagine: the touch of another person after so many months of isolation, the shearing of the hair, the transformation of herself as SHE sees it. These are all powerful moments between this character and eventual readers. They should be highlighted, not skipped.

Which brings me to my advice: Whether you are writing fiction or a non-fiction piece, showing us your character in an uncomfortable moment will help us know him.

Yes, in a sense, the act of getting a haircut is a mundane and boring thing for most of us, and in tomorrow’s post I’m going to suggest you skip many of the mundane things you currently think are “setting the scene” for your character.

But getting a haircut for this woman is NOT mundane, in the least. It is uncomfortable enough to leave her trembling and breathless, I’m betting. And because it is so uncomfortable for her, it is something we should get to see as readers.

I had this advice given to me, for a story called, The Silence of God is Impossible to Bear. In that story, there was a scene where the husband is given grave news about the health condition of his wife, but in the original draft of the story, that conversation happens between the husband and doctor, outside the wife’s hospital room. The reader never got to see any interaction between the husband and wife, after the prognosis was confirmed. That interaction all happened between scenes, off camera. An astute reader said, during workshop, that skipping the details of that weakened the believability of the husband and wife’s relationship, and sapped needed emotional energy from the story.

As this reader pointed out to me, we can not only deprive the reader of something interesting (or even crucial) if we fail to recognize these uncomfortable moments, we can also make the reader doubt our ability to accurately tell the story we are trying to tell.

Putting your character in an uncomfortable situation, and showing how he reacts, is a sure-fire way to get the reader to know more about who this character really is, and is often a direct line to creating some sort of emotional reaction between your character and your reader.

Show Us Your Character, Part One: Uncomfortable is Good