Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Ways to Shade Characters

By: Karen Albright Lin

Your princess bride, bratty urchin, and curmudgeonly gumshoe need qualities that distinguish them from all others. Defining them with a telling word or two can give readers a taste, but there are hundreds of vivid ways to shade characters to bring them alive. One way is to let their external worlds symbolize their internal worlds.

One technique is to link a character’s vocation to a consuming passion: palm reading, coin collecting, or sculpting. If your main character goes to conventions to buy and exchange lariats, he has a place to run into conflict related to your plot. At the end of the book, your character and reader may never look at a noose the same again. That's part of the magic of writing: you never stop learning. Even more rewarding: you teach your readers something. Molière believed the purpose of theater was to entertain and to educate. That can be applied to fictional personalities’ endeavors. How education is earned and applied is a result of your characters’ qualities.

A hobby can be a demonstration of a character’s natural traits. Consider two of your heroine’s most outstanding traits (one good, one bad). Then lace both together in the form of an interest or obsession or quirk (Dr. Temperance 'Bones' Brennan’s seeming lack of emotion) or a distraction (Janet Evanovich’s hamster, Rex). Weave an avocation carefully into a subplot. It’s best to have it play a real role in the plot, not simply exist in the book.

Those good and bad traits can play even bigger roles; perhaps your man tries to hide the negative trait but unsuccessfully (Marty McFly’s lack of courage). Maybe a good trait gets your character into the most trouble. Or the bad trait solves the problem (Monk’s OCD).  

Distinctive traits can be conveyed through dialogue. Characters could speak past each other; that allows the reader to hear something important yet know that a character missed the vital point communicated by the other. Your protagonist could notice but interpret statements wrongly or want to attribute them to something else. And there's the overheard conversation or an antagonist grumbling under his breath about something that shouldn't set him off. If you hit a snag, think of the sleaziest person you know and make that come out in little snippets here and there.  

Different character traits allow you to capture degrees of discomfort and to insert varying ways of handling “mixed signals” from other characters. A suspect is being nice, but his vibes feel a bit “off.” Your main character’s judgment may be impaired or heightened by a past trauma. Perhaps a very nice man in her life turned abusive.  What does she do with lingering anger, loss, despair, and fear about what the future holds.
Brainstorm traits for your characters. Incorporating hobbies, miscommunications, shadows from the past, and blind spots are just a few of the tricks that lend nuance and make your characters richer. 

About the Author: Karen is an editor, ghostwriter, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at


  1. Karen, I love this post. One character I particularly remember was Lawrence Sanders' Edward X Delaney. The man was a New York police chief who had a thing for thick, juicy "unhealthy" sandwiches. Whenever his wife was out, or later when she was in the hospital, he stood over the sink after making one of his infamous sandwiches. Such an inconsequential act, but one I've never forgotten after 30 years. I believe Sanders really knew how to shade his characters. Great post! Thank you.

    1. should have written stood over the sink and ate ... his sandwiches :)

    2. Donnell,
      Isn't it funny how the small things will stick with us? So true. Because they are real. And in our lives, the ones we love most have those funny little things that we most miss if they are no longer in our lives, for whatever reason. I downloaded one of your books, and once I have a moment to come up for air (things are crazy right now) I look forward to dipping in and seeing what quirky little things define your characters. Thank you, once again for inviting me to teach for Kiss of Death, a great honor. Karen

    3. Yikes, now I'm nervous. You're such a pro, Karen Albright Lin ;)

  2. As we write, we develop a more specific knowledge of our characters. The traits you wisely mentioned seem to be naturally assigned to them. I'm a believer in multiple readings and revisions, as this is when those sudden inspirations come to the author. They bring the characters alive.

    1. Yes indeed Ann! And if they can be made use of in the plot, all the better. I love it when the quirk of the character ends up being a solution to a problem. A deaf girl feels a vibration that solves the mystery... splendid! Thanks for reading my post. Best of luck in your writing!


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