edit: character

Quick tips on expressing character

Anonymous asked you:

i’m sorry if you answered a question like this before, but i couldn’t really find anything, so i apologize. i’m writing a scene where one character beats up another character in front of a large group of people, and the one getting attacked can’t fight back (which is part of the plot but it’s long and detailed so i won’t go into that). she had no idea about this plan to attack her beforehand, and i’m not really sure how i should write her humiliation or how she deals with the pain.

Firstly, in order to most effectively and honestly portray a character, you’ve gotta climb deep into that character’s brain. Take their psychological makeup and spread it out in front of you. If you’re a visual person, create a chart.

Let’s take the feeling of “humiliation”. What led to this humiliation? Any or all of these things might be it:

  • Being forced into a compromising position.
  • Weaknesses (both physical and mental) shoved under public display and dissection.
  • Being treated like a “lower” or “lesser” human being.
  • Physical trauma generating a sense of fear.

Secondly, find out what the feeling of humiliation causes your character to do. Really dig deep, find out what’s realistic for this particular character. Here’s a list of examples:

  • Anger sets in and causes violent reactions or thoughts.
  • Depression turns character completely numb or off to everyone around.
  • Anxiety causes fear of others, surroundings, or even what might happen the next day.

When expressing these emotions, think in terms of showing, not telling. “Tendons swelled in my arms, and veins bulged between my knuckles as my fists shook,” versus, “I was angry and I thought of punching something.”

Of course, “telling” does have its appropriate times when used effectively. The two example sentences might even form a greater combination than they would singly if phrased like this: “Tendons swelled in my arms, and veins bulged between my knuckles as my fists shook. I wanted to punch something. Anything. I didn’t care what.”

Inner reflection is a good thing, as it conveys some things (like character voice) that simply showing through actions can’t. Just make sure to practice finding the right balance.

Thirdly, figure out how these emotions dictate their actions.

  • Anger: Thoughts of revenge or retaliation. Character might plan something to humiliate their abuser in turn. Character might try to get into better shape and become stronger so they’re never put in that position again, and/or character might gather up materials to do something dangerous.
  • Depression: Character pushes others away from helping, shuts door, cries out of thoughts of hopelessness. Character tries to find outlets to escape depression, anything from reading to drinking, or even more dangerous things. Can’t focus on daily chores or maintaining relationships.
  • Anxiety: Panic attacks cause character to lose control of breathing or go into shock. A constant sense of fear drives character to check locks all the time and keep curtains drawn on every window, maybe keep a weapon of some sort handy or 911 on speed dial. Too scared to leave home or sleep at night.

Depression, anxiety, and anger problems are always best researched so that the character is portrayed realistically and respectfully, but these are some basic examples of how the character might react. A character might even react in a combination of ways, perhaps even contrastingly. Contrast and inner conflict build a stronger dynamic.

Also, in terms of traumatizing events, make sure to check out shock, and when considering wounds/physical damage, research the heck out of that. (As an example, one type of physical trauma that I see portrayed inaccurately the most is concussions. Make sure to always get facts straight on wounds.)

Think not only in terms of instant after effects, but also long-term effects. Reveal these things physiologically, through inner reflection, and also through action. Each of these things adds depth and conveys a sense of humanness that characters should portray.

Remember that characters aren’t cardboard cut-outs, but reflections of real, complex people. If you keep this in mind and focus on bringing this human element forward, a lot of things should fall into place on their own. Or, you can try checking when characters aren’t standing out.

Good luck!

Archetypes can be useful to help you decide exactly what role you want your characters to play in your story. Though many people argue there are only a select few archetypes with all other personalities coming from differences in characteristics, this post contains over seventy-five different archetypes to help inspire you.


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