Steps on the Journey: Building Believable Characters

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The books we've been looking at so far have been books about the craft of writing and how to improve it. Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon is a little different. It's a little bit of a craft book, but it's more of a sourcebook or a reference book. You'll find a character questionnaire that you can use as a jumping-off point toward creating your characters. But by far, the more important part of this book is the "thesaurus" of character traits.

In my writing, the most challenging part for me is description. I don't pay much attention to hair color or eye color when I read, so when I write, character descriptions tend to suffer because I don't really care. I have to struggle to convey what the character might look like (I often don't have it nailed down in my own head, really) without sounding boring or monotonous. I mean, how many different ways can there be to convey that a character has blonde hair and blue eyes?

Apparently, a couple dozen. A blonde haired character can have bleach blonde, honey, golden, flaxen, peroxide blonde, tawny (though that could be brown too, I suspect), platinum blonde, vanilla, washed-out, sandy, straw or ash blonde hair. Blue eyes? How about azure, cornflower, ice blue, indigo, baby blue, blue jay, snow shadow, teal, Prussian blue, sapphire or misty blue. And trust me, there are a lot more blues.

Body types, face shapes, facial expressions, mental disorders, personality types, even ways of dressing and historic fashion styles can be found in this book. It's a wonderful tool for adding dimension to your writing.

One word of caution: Some of the suggestions for phrasing in the book are cliches, which you will want to avoid, of course. Example: eyes become saucers. Also, in the dialogue section, the book gives a list of ways to convey emotion within a speech tag and most of the list contains adverbs. Example:: she said, acidly. Most experienced writers know to avoid adverbs as much as possible, so you should keep that in mind when using this book.

Recommendation:
This is a great book, especially during the rewrite portion, when you're polishing your prose and working to make your writing more vivid.

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3 Comments

  • Reply
    BTCassidy
    March 8, 2008 at 9:03 pm

    Hey, Hey, Up at Number one on writing and literature on Entrecard- Great work, Vanessa, I was waiting for you to kick over the top = ) Great to see you’ve made it, despite the Entrecard strangeness of late = )

  • Reply
    Kevin
    March 11, 2008 at 11:03 am

    Great stuff, as usual! 🙂

  • Reply
    Martha Alderson
    March 28, 2008 at 9:03 pm

    Emotion is how a story connects to an audience. Character conveys that emotion in response to the dramatic action.

    Great blog. Helpful information.

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