Tag Archives: Descriptors

An interesting life










What has made your life interesting?

Some people might say that they lead a boring life and nothing much happens to them. Yet, I have met very few people that after a few minutes of conversation, I would agree with them. Granted, some people’s lives are more “exciting” than others. But that doesn’t make one life less interesting. Everyone’s life is unique. Even identical twins grow up to be different people. So, what is it that is interesting?

Here’s a little exercise you might enjoy. Pick a famous person that you find interesting. Take some time and write down all of the things that you find interesting about them. Your list may include appearance, type of work, travels, political views, hobbies, events they participated in, etc.

Next, pick a family member, relative, friend, co-worker, or neighbor. Someone you know well and find interesting or admire. Make a list of interesting things about them. As before be as complete as you can.

Now the fun begins!

Write your name at the top of a piece of paper. Without judging whether you think it’s interesting or not, complete a list for yourself. Use the same criteria and categories you used for the other two lists. Include appearance, type of work, travels, political views, hobbies, events they participated in, etc. Don’t think about your answers, just write.

When you have finished, compare all three lists. Are there any similarities? What from list number three would someone else think is interesting? Are there any “mundane” things that jump out as interesting on any of the lists.

If you are really brave, ask a close friend or someone else that you trust to be truthful what they find interesting about you. Be prepared for a few surprises.

Now, for those of you who write, think about your characters. Are they a bit flat? What can you add to their back story to make them more interesting? Did they have a job repairing organs while they went to college? Did they travel to the Yucatan during spring break and got lost in the jungle? Do they carve bear figurines out of soapstone to relieve stress?

A few lines of your story mentioning one of these points can add depth to your character that makes them more real.

So, I ask again, “What makes your life interesting?”


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What’s in Character – Natural Environment

We started with the heart of the character, that being their core personality type. Then we added the skin which is made up of physical appearance. Now we need to start adding the bones and muscle that will make our character move and breathe.

Natural environmental factors such as birth order, family issues, education, talents, love language, and self-esteem are critical aspects to consider when you are creating a character with depth. As we look at each of these new layers, remember to go back to the core personality and see how this individual would be affected by the new layer.

Let’s start with birth order. Volumes of books have been written on the subject of family dynamics and the personalities of specific birthing order. Suffice to say that there are well-documented personality characteristics based on when a character joins the family unit. The oldest child tends to mirror the parents. Some call these children the golden children. The middle children tend to be adaptable and are considered the diplomats. I call them spies and instigators. The “babies of the family” tend to be overly indulged but are usually charming and … unusually handsome. ūüėČ Sorry, couldn’t help myself. These are very broad statements and are not carved in stone. However, they can be used to assist in developing how a character reacts to authority or a subordinate.

What kind of family dynamic the character was brought up in can have a huge impact on their abilities to cope with outside influences. Was the character an only child of a drug addict mother and an abusive father? Or, was it fourth out of ten kids with a family that was close-knit and fully supportive of each other? Remember to consider the character’s core personality. How would each of these family situations affect the personality you chose for your character.

How would the Twilight saga have changed if Bella Swan, the protagonist, had been the youngest of three children in a family that did everything together? Would she still have felt like she was born to be a vampire? Perhaps and perhaps not. However, the story would have been quite different, don’t you think?

How much formal education does the character possess? Did they graduate from the sixth grade or do they have several¬†PhD’s¬†from MIT. Perhaps the character dropped out of eighth grade and has been living on the streets of a major city until the age of twenty. They probably have street smarts galore instead of being book smart. This could have its advantages. Once again, look back to the core personality. What is the effect on the character.

Does your character have any special talents? These can be story related or not. An assassin who is also a cello virtuoso. Or, a coal miner who paints portraits. Or, from real life, a homeless man with the perfect radio personality voice. Talents can be obvious or hidden. They can be a driving force in the story or a side note. However, a special talent can and usually does have some impact on character development. For example, the shy stutterer that becomes the country music superstar when he learns that doesn’t stutter when he sings. You’re a writer, use your imagination. This alone can be the genesis of a story. For our purposes though, a talent adds depth and realism to a character.

A while ago, I was reading “Plot versus Character” by Jeff Gerke. In the section on character building he talked about a layer called Love Language. This one was new to me, but after reading this section a light bulb came on for me. I saw how it would affect my characters, but also how I am affected. Mr. Gerke referenced Dr. Gary Chapman’s theory that there are five love languages. They are: “Words of affirmation”, “Quality time”, “Receiving gifts”, “Acts of service”, and “Physical touch”. Each person has preferences as to how they give love and receive love. A quick definition is in order.

Words of affirmation – These people say the words. the feeling of love is spoken.

Quality time – These people show love by providing complete and undivided attention. They set aside special times to be with those they love.

Receiving gifts – These people show their affection by giving thoughtful gifts.

Acts of service – These people show love by doing things that they feel help their loved ones. Such as, cleaning the dishes, vehicle maintenance, watching the kids.

Physical touch – These are the huggers, the touchy feeley people. You know someone who always touches your arm when they talk to you or hug you hello and good-bye versus and wave or a handshake.

People can use any and all of these to send and receive feelings. However, each of us has a preferred method to send and a preferred method to receive affection. They are not always the same. Mixing and matching these can be fun. I am thinking of the lumberjack who gives everyone he meets a bear hug, being introduced to the British Queen. That would be interesting to watch.

Each of the layers we have discussed can affect and be affected by the core personality. Each of them will have an affect of the character’s self-esteem. How the character sees themselves may be very different from how others see them. Do they like themselves? Do they feel incomplete? Do they loathe who they are but feel unable to change? Very powerful stuff here. Take your time and think this through.

If you’ve been taking notes about your character as we go, you should have a number of pages filled with ideas. Your character is beginning to take shape, move, and breath. Next time we will add layers relating to life experiences and the external environment.


Posted by on March 17, 2013 in What's in Character


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What’s in Character – Physical

Last time we gave your new character a core personality. If you have completed your research on your character type, you should have several pages of material that will help you in the days to come. However, there is much more to a character than their core personality. Today, we will give them some physical characteristics. As we work through this topic, remember that physical appearance is only the window dressing for your character.

When the chromosomes came together to create your character, there were two sets. make a decision as to whether your character has an X and a Y or two X’s. Depending upon your story, a different gender for your character can change the whole look and feel of the story. Writing cross-gender¬†can be interesting for the writer.¬†Some writers feel more comfortable using their own gender for the protagonist. It seems natural and can be somewhat easier. However, we’re not talking about you, we are talking about your character here. Other writers feel the gender of a character makes no difference. I agree that actions during the story can be accomplished by either gender. However, we are talking about the effects of gender on character development.¬†Based on the personality type, how would the character be different, other than plumbing, if they were a different gender?

The potential race of your character can play a huge role in the way they see and interact the world. Once again don’t just consider race alone. How would the core personality respond to the effects of being a different race. As with gender, any race can act and interact any way the writer wishes. Stepping outside stereotypes can be very interesting and beneficial to the uniqueness of the story. I know of a particular author that chose to write about a Dark Elf, one of the most despised creatures in all fantasy. That character is now one of the most recognized and popular in the genre. Differences in racial morphology, especially if you are writing fantasy, can give the character a very unique perspective. More of morphology later.

The age of you character comes in two distinct varieties, actual and projected. Both can play differing roles in character building. Actual age should be considered during many character building stages. It is especially important to consider when building the layers which include life experiences and traumatic events. A child experiencing the death of a friend may deal with it differently than an adult. consider the core personality as well and things get twisted even more. For instance, how would a thinking extrovert child react to seeing its best friend killed in a drive-by shooting? Now make you character an adult sensitive introvert. How would they respond?

I will say two things about physical attractiveness. First and most important,¬†attractiveness¬†is in the eye of the beholder. Ever hear that before? Second, and this relates directly to the first one, a vast majority of people are average looking. That’s by definition. So, consider not only how your character looks, but what they find attractive in others. Most of us see our own physical flaws more clearly than anyone else. We also tend to not see or ignore the physical flaws in those we care about. Decide how your character’s personality type will view their own physical appearance. How will they react to those they find unattractive. Will they react with pity, arrogance, compassion, etc.

From the writer’s point of view, the general attractiveness of the character is not as important as the actual physical features. Face shape, body shape, eyes, hair, ears, complexion and any combination thereof can influence the character and the reader. What do you see when I give this description.

The man was a barrel with legs. A large round bald head sat squarely on his shoulders. A roll of fat protruded on top of his collar where his neck should have been. The roll disappeared into four chins in front with a thin black mustache and goatee framing thin lips.

How would you react to this character? How does this character see himself? Now place this physical description on a few different personality types and see what you get.

Now let’s add one more layer. Take this man ad put him in a $1,000 three-piece suit and $500 shoes. Does your view of him change? Now let’s say he is wearing a long purple robe with a jeweled crown on his head. How about a Speedo and a sunburn? Ouch, that even hurt my eyes. Sorry.

How the character dresses and how they groom themselves can also be affected by that pesky personality type. Are they meticulous? Are they flashy? Are they a slob? Why?

Okay, so far we have given the character a base personality. We have determined their gender, race, and age. We have decided on their physical appearance and what physical attributes they find attractive. And, we have dressed them appropriately for their personality. So far, so good. These are some of the tags and traits the writer can use to help the reader see the character.

I caution you. If you stop here, like most writer’s do, you miss the things about a character which are most important to your character and potentially, your story.

In the next post we will add other natural environmental factors such as birth order, family issues, education, talents, love language, and self-esteem.

If you are building a character as we go along, please let me know how it’s going. I would love to know. Also, if you would like me to dive deeper on any portion of this exercise, I would be happy to do so.


Posted by on March 4, 2013 in What's in Character


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First Drafts

Those of you who follow my blog have seen several posts entitled, The Actress and the Warlock¬†parts I, II, III. It is an experiment that I started after a writing exercise during a writer’s group meeting. For those who are just viewing this blog for the first time, let me give you a little background. I took the character and setting from the writing exercise and am trying to write a complete story using a series of flashes. So far, each flash has run fifteen or thirty minutes. Once the timer goes off, I finish my last thought and go back over the piece to clean up spelling and obvious grammar issues so I don’t look like a complete idiot when I post it. They are VERY rough pieces.

I’m still not sure where the characters are going to take me and that’s half the fun. But, to help keep some continuity, I went back to the beginning and am taking notes on what I have already written. Three things jumped out at me as I re-read the first drafts.

One, I need to add more sensory interaction, including character tags and traits. This was not really surprising to me. I am trying to write as fast as I can (which is not all that fast) in a limited amount of time. So, the result is the bare bones plot with very little description or back story. I like to take my time and look through character and setting notes to add these details. Giving the reader key sensory details makes the characters and setting come alive.

The second thing that I realized is that I will need to add considerably more tension during the re-write. This did surprise me a little. Maybe it’s because, I see the story in my head and the tension is there. However, because I am writing fast, the tension does not make it to the keyboard as fast as my mind has laid it out.

Lastly, writing in first person POV is different from what I’m used to. This is my first extended experience writing in first person. It’s fun in that I am the protagonist with all of his traits and abilities. However, I have to be careful handling the other characters since I no longer know what they are thinking. I can only respond to their words, ¬†actions and what I already know about them.

I need to hold off starting any re-writing until I finish the first draft. I do need to create some back story on a couple of the characters. They came into being outside my usual method so I have to do some character building based on what I’ve written so far.

So far this has been fun and educational. I originally thought this would be a short story, but it seems like it will go much longer. I will just keep writing the flashes and see where it takes me. I hope you are enjoying this project and I look forward to hearing any feedback you would like to share.


Posted by on January 14, 2013 in Thoughts on Writing


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Character Traits

Last week¬†I provided some commentary on the use of character descriptive tags. I promised that I would follow that up with one regarding character traits.¬†So, let’s clear up the question that I know has kept you awake every night since my last post, “What is the difference between a tag and a trait?”

The correct answer is: It depends on who you ask. But, since this is my post you will get my opinion. Tags are primarily, descriptors of¬†a character’s appearance. These are words you might use to describe a picture of your character to someone else.¬†Hair color or style, eye color of shape, general body type, height, weight, clothing worn, tattoos, scars, jewelry, tools carried, weapons, are all examples of tags.

Traits on the other hand, are those descriptors that make your two-dimensional character jump off the page. In most cases they are action or sensory oriented. Traits help the reader create a motion picture that affects all five of their senses.


How does the character move? Does she limp? Does she have grace? Is she a good dancer? Does she routinely trip over her own feet? 

What is the character’s mannerisms, gestures, and expressions? Two of my favorite bloggers have already addressed this, so here are the links to their posts. Carlie¬†Macullen¬†¬†wrote a wonderful¬†post relating to this group of descriptors. Also, Nicolette Jinks¬†wrote an interesting¬†post on body language. They are certainly must read material.

How does the character sound, smell, feel, and taste? What does his voice sound like? Does she wear perfume or does she reek of garlic? Is his handshake cold and clammy? Does her throat taste like the apricot scrub she used this morning? The more senses you can include, the more real the character will become.


This where you should go back to the volumes of character information you generated at the airport, (See previous post) and dig through your character personality, family history, back story, life crises, etc. What you want to do is find quirks, oddities, phobias, likes, and dislikes that will give your character that extra spark of interest and make them REAL! If you did your home work you should have a boatload to choose from. Decide on a couple to use that help clearly define your character. Clearly, this is where you insert flaws into your character.

Some notable examples include: Indiana Jones¬†was afraid of snakes. Dr. Robert Langdon had claustrophobia from being stuck in a well as a child. Felix Unger was a neat freak. Ocean Eleven’s, Rusty Ryan¬†was constantly eating something.

Don’t be afraid¬†you will hurt your character by making them unusual. Trust me here, we are all unusual. Even identical twins are not truly identical. Otherwise, my trip to the airport would yield a blank notebook.

Like tags, traits can be overused. If a character has too many flaws, the become unbelievable and the reader will get bored. On the flip side, if you don’t use them, your characters will come off flat and uninteresting. This results in the reader getting bored. We all know what happens¬†when a¬†reader gets bored, the book closes. Just like chocolate and alcohol, use tags and traits in moderation.

One more thing, while I’m on the subject, Do not forget your supporting cast. Unless your main characters are interacting with crash-test dummys, add a few tags to your minor characters. It would not be the first time that the ogre”s spanish accented, sword-wielding side-kick cat, became the star of his own story. (I love that movie.)

So, go forth and flaw your characters. Make them real. And please, let me know how it works for you.


Posted by on March 13, 2012 in Other Strangeness


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Character Tags

The last week or so has been busy to say the least. Sunny southern California looses something when the only time you are outside is to drive from the hotel to the office and back with just enough time to grab a quick dinner and collapse into unconsciousness. The upside of the business trip was the seven and a half hours of plane travel.

Yes, if you follow this blog and you were at the Lindberg Terminal, you know that I was the strange man watching you and taking notes on¬†the way you¬†dress and your behavior. There are some real interesting people out there. ūüôā¬† Now back to the flights.

Having spent two hours collecting “data”, the task before me was to create two in-depth characters. Core personality types soon were expanded to include: family histories, tragic situations, love languages, physical looks, costumes, education, etc. All told there is twenty to thirty pages of notes for each character. This¬†page count¬†will go up dramatically as the writing unfolds. However, it is a good start.

Somewhere over Nebraska, at 36,000 feet, it struck me. From all of this material, what six or seven words or phrases would I use as tags for the characters.¬† Those descriptive words that help the reader identify who the players are. How do we as writers decide what, of the volumes of physical description, psychological¬†detail, back story, and personal background will we use to create¬†a vivid image in the reader’s mind? Tags are the physical descriptors. I will discuss Traits in a later post.

Physically descriptive tags can create a cliche’. For example: a witch with a wart on her nose, a pointed hat, a broomstick, poison apple, and a black cat familiar. How many stories¬†have you read where the villan¬†has beady eyes and wears black clothes? Or, how about¬†the villan’s¬†bodyguard is a hulking¬†brut with the IQ of a slug and hands like meat cleavers? What turns my stomach is the hero with blond hair, blue eyes, strong chin, six-pack abs.

However, tags can also give¬†the character…well…character. Doesn’t the villan¬†become more disturbing when he looks like the boy next door, wears designer clothes, and is a great cook to boot? The fact that dinner consists of the census taker’s liver and farver¬†beans just adds more flavor to the story. ūüôā Why can’t the hero have a wicked scar across her face, a crippled leg and dress in thrift store cast offs?. The hero in one detective show I watched as a child was short, always wore a rumpled trench coat, smoked a cigar, and came across as extremely forgetful. Yet, he always figured out who the murderer was and usually got a confession.

Try to stay away from the clich√©’s¬†unless you have a very good reason. To me, clich√©’s are boring. I have the attention span of a gnat when I read. If I get bored during the entrance of the main characters, the chances of my finishing the book are slim at best,¬†¬†

So, use the volumes of character details you have worked so hard on and pick out the most unusual descriptors you have. If you don’t have anything that is unique, go back to the airport and sit there until you do. It should take you all of about two minutes.

Now that you have six or seven interesting¬† tags, use them. Not just the first time you introduce the character, but often throughout your story. I am not saying to use all six every time¬†the character shows up. but, one or two inserted within the action, help your reader create a picture in their head. When you are finished reading this post, go pick up¬†a book where you really liked the characters and find where the main character is introduced. Look for the tags the author uses. Then flip back a chapter or two and see what tags the author is using. Are they the same tags? Go back a few more chapters and see if the tags are still being used. I will bet you a magic acorn that the author is using the same tags throughout the story. The repetition reinforces the character’s image.

Take a look at your current project and see if adding a few tags will help bring color to your story. Let me know if it works for you.

In an upcoming post, I’ll talk about traits which are the psychological and action descriptors that really bring your character to life.


Posted by on March 8, 2012 in Other Strangeness


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