How do we give a character personality?

I was working with a writer this week and I asked him to add details to a character so that it became more recognisable. I often find that writers assume we know their character simply through what they say.

However,(add comma) characters, like people, all have personalities and they reveal their personality, not only through what they say, but additionally by mannerisms and actions. They also reveal their personality through the things they wear, the sort of rings a character wears, for example. What kind of person might someone be who is wearing a silver skull ring? What would you imagine lies behind a woman adorned in large gold hooped earrings? These are stereotypes but we, as readers, recognise them. We start to expect them to behave in particular ways and to say things we attribute subconsciously to them.

So if they act counter to those expectations, we are surprised. Sometimes that can be a good thing because we have decided that a persona is not as readers expect him or her to be. But that is a deliberate decision and it is fine. However, if we portray a man wearing a roughly hewn silver skull ring as a stockbroker, we would want to counter that mystery with some explanation. We would also want to dress him in clothes or other adornments consistent with readers’ expectations of stockbrokers to make that character believable. The reader would also expect him to speak in a particular way. The clothes or adornments a character wears give the reader clues as to what kind of person that character is.

TV Tropes defines personality as “A dynamic and organized set of characteristics possessed by a person that uniquely influences his or her cognition, motivations, and behaviours in various situations.”

It goes on to say that personality is like the masks we adopt. Persona is Greek for mask.

We all set up a persona in order to ensure that those we meet will come away with a particular view of us. Sometimes characters do this in order to deceive and sometimes they do it for other reasons. The important thing is everyone does it.

I have always advised writers to give a character a distinctive mannerism in order to give the reader insight into him or her. However, characters reveal themselves, as do people, through the clothes they wear, the jewellery, the shoes, earrings, and so on. The character this writer was describing was a property owner who looked ten years younger than she actually was. The writer expressed this in the following way:

Yogi has difficulty believing she is 40 and had guessed she was in her 30s.

With a segment like that, the reader can accept it and might even build a picture that creates a forty-year-old woman who looks thirty. However, the reader will always feel that they need more information and the lack of it may even prove frustrating.

As readers go through a story, they are always asking questions at a subconscious level and if the text does not answer those questions they will create their own answers. These may be entirely wrong and cause confusion further on.

In this instance, a key question a reader might ask is, “Why does the narrator think she looks thirty and, more importantly, why does this matter?

These are two relevant questions.

The writer’s role is to fill in gaps without giving so much detail that the reader grows impatient and wants the writer to ‘get on with it.’

So what kind of details should writers supply? It depends on the situation but usually a sentence will do the job.

Take the sentence above and see how the profile of the character becomes less nebulous when we add the following detail.

Yogi has difficulty believing she is 40 because she is wearing long drop crystal earrings and leopard print pants. He had guessed she was in her 30s.

What we choose to wear reflects our personalities. The long drop crystal earrings suggest a woman who aspires to a certain sophistication and the leopard print trousers undermine that effort. So we have a woman who is definitely trying to be younger than she actually is and she appears to be succeeding.

So, what would a woman who is wearing a pleated skirt be like, or a man with seams ironed down the centre of his casual trousers/jeans? This suggests a certain fastidiousness and if he behaved in a way that showed a lack of care for things he did, the reader would wonder why and be puzzled because the character is behaving out of character. For example, is this exact neatness a front for a man who is involved in complex subversive activities that requires attention to minute detail?

Creating character calls for more than physical features. Clues woven into a story make that character come to life in the reader’s mind.