One of the most overused phrases in texts on writing is “Show, don’t tell.” Another, equally repeated, is “what does your protagonist want?”
Character desire is so paramount to the story, yet it is no small thing to figure out. I find that in my students’ work and in my own writing, the trick is to keep delving deeper for what that character essentially wants. So often the answers we come up with are superficial. We check off the answer and move forward in the plot. Digging further into what the character wants, what the obstacles are to keep her from getting it, what actions she takes to fulfill that desire are all helpful left-brain work.
I just read “How to set a Fire and Why” by Jesse Ball. The protagonist Lucia still lives with me. I think she’ll step through my door, probably with her dad’s zippo lighter, her only remnant of him. I don’t know how Ball created Lucia, if he did any analytical work to produce such a voiced, real character. But I hold Lucia Stanton up as a model for deeply delineated character.
Orson Scott Card in his book, “Character and Viewpoints,” defines character in his first chapter. He says the 3 most important details in developing real characters are:
What the character does…work/actions,
What the character’s motive is,
What the character has done in the past, and what’s been done to him.
In addition, he suggests looking into the character’s habits and patterns, his stereotypes, his reputation (not always a true picture of the person), his persona (since people show different sides to family than to friends or colleagues, etc.), the unique talents, and finally the physical appearance. Physical limitations as well as physical beauty affect personality in a variety of ways. But physical description is much less important than the other aspects that define character.