Creating Whole Characters

By Amy K. Nichols

The other day I met my writing teacher, James Sallis, for coffee. He’d chosen a table at the front of the cafe by the window. When I joined him, he said, “Look,” and he nodded toward the window.

Outside, a girl and a boy sat at a table. Both had their legs propped up, and sat not quite facing each other, seemingly relaxed. But as the girl spoke, she smiled and fidgeted. Sometimes her hands grew animated, excited, then she’d control them again. Hold them together, still. The boy remained subdued; though now and again his own emotion showed in a sudden wave of his hand or a smile.

“Look at the body language,” Jim said. “Fascinating.”

Jim is a compulsive people watcher. And it shows in his writing. His characters are authentic. Visceral. If you ripped the page, they’d bleed.

He translates what he sees in people — how they live and breathe — to the page. It sounds easy enough, but takes practice. Practice in seeing. Not only the people around you, but the characters in your mind.

When your character arrives to deliver that bad news, what does he do? How does he move? Where are his hands? Where does he look? How does he interact with his physical surroundings? Taking the time to watch him in your mind before you write him on the page is, I think, the first step toward creating a whole character. And it does take time. Rushing brings cardboard characters (or “central casting” as Jim calls them). Taking time to see them adds roundness to their being and authenticity to their words and actions.

The boy and the girl outside the window got up from their chairs. Jim and I watched them walk to the parking lot, watched them give an awkward hug before going to their cars.

We returned to our coffee and our chat. But even as we talked, I knew we were both still thinking about the boy and the girl and crafting characters in our heads.