The man was standing stiff and upright, which made his stomach strain at the buttons of his white shirt. His face was screwed up like a bulldog, and his beady eyes shifted slowly back and forth over the crowd like everyone was up to no good.
If I was writing about a security guard, I might describe him something like that. Capturing someone’s character is an important skill to have, because without characters you have no story.
However, (especially if you have many characters in your story!) it can be hard to make them stand out. As a writer you want your characters to be memorable and ‘unique’. As a reader you want them to be interesting and relatable.
When my dad was reading through one of the many drafts of Aza he paused and looked at me. “Sonora, you need to give Thorn Wolf some more description. All you say is that he’s gruff.” —— I thought about it for a moment. “Well… he’s tall.” —— My dad shook his head. “No, no. Aza has her eyes, Sesp has his scar, what does Thorn have?” —— I think my response was, “Um…” —— “Maybe you should give him red hair.”
I refused to give Thorn Wolf red hair, but I did give him a shaggy, grey beard. Later, looking through books, I discovered that most characters had at least one thing memorable about them. Harry Potter has a scar. Alanna of Trebond has copper hair and purple eyes. Ani, the Goose Girl, has golden hair. President Snow smells like blood and roses.
These features are mentioned often enough that they become the character’s trade mark. Sometimes the author just has to mention them and we know exactly who she’s talking about. Or even in reverse– someone says the character’s name and our brains automatically go ‘oh yeah, that guy with the cucumber nose’.
Try giving your characters a trade mark (and when you’re reading, see if you can spot the author using the characters’ eyes or hair to convey information). If you’re having trouble thinking up a ‘unique’ feature, that’s because as far as stories go ‘unique’ is hard to find. Try observing real people– friends, family, people sitting in a cafe or standing in line. If you find something you like, steal it. Give those ears or that smile to your character. That security guard I wrote about at the beginning of this post? I lifted his description completely from an actual security guard I saw last night.
Characters turn words into stories. If your characters are memorable, then they’re one step closer to being people that readers will care about.