New writers look for books to guide them in their writing skills, whether they need help with plot, characterization, dialogue, or something else. Mark McCutcheon’s Building Believable Characters (Writer’s Digest Books, 1996) is a great title, but isn’t really a book on characterization.
Needs “Character Thesaurus” Subtitle
Writers wanting help in creating real characters, getting into their heads, and bringing them to life should look elsewhere – the closest Building Believable Characters gets to that is Part One, twenty-five pages of tips from six successful authors on how they build characters. If the book had a subtitle such as Character Trait Thesaurus, it wouldn’t be disappointing to readers looking for deep insights into characterization.
Lists of Character Traits
The disappointment disappears, however, for those who look closely. Many writers struggle when creating a strong character. How to make him distinct in the readers mind? What words or phrases will succinctly give the reader an accurate image of him? Building Believable Characters consists primarily of lists of character traits, both physical and intangible, and the adjectives are extensive and imaginative. For instance, words pertaining to “aged faces” include:
- Corn-kernel teeth
- Crow’s feet
- Fleshy wattle
- Hair sprouting from ears
- Hollowed cheekbones
- Ill-fitting dentures
- Laugh lines
- Leathery complexion
- Lined like old shoe leather
- And more.
For all those who have the image of an elderly person in their minds, but either can’t make him or her unique, or can’t quite find the words to describe this character, this list fills the gap. And if the word isn’t there, hopefully the list will trigger an “oh, yeah!” reaction and remind the reader of other descriptive words tucked away in the brain.
Descriptive Lists Categories
The main chapters are:
- Face and Body
- Facial Expressions, Body and Vocal Language
- Dialects and Foreign Speech
- Given Names & Surnames from around the World
- Character Homes
Within each main chapter are many sub-categories of character traits that go beyond the usual physical attributes, to include possible careers, diseases, and organizations.
Use Lists with Caution
First, some of the words and phrases are cliché, especially when a character would be extremely emotional. How many times have “she writhed in pleasure” or “his lips curled with disgust” been used? They’re still valuable to trigger a writer’s own vocabulary, however.
Second, a writer would be wise to have a native speaker review the words chosen from the Dialect and Foreign Speech section, and to round out the research with pictures to supplement the descriptions in the Dress and Homes lists.
For writers who like building characters from a list of attributes, Part Two is a 14-page character questionnaire. The questionnaire does go beyond physical traits, however, to include opinions, prejudices, fears, goals, etc., which would flesh out a new character nicely.
Copyright © 2009 by Jennifer Jensen