Wordy Wednesday (“Show the Complete Picture”)

Reminder that you have through November 7th at midnight eastern time to enter to win a signed copy of Veronica Roth’s Allegiant!

Also, Hannah and I are giving away an Allegiant poster on our vlog: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DN_WvA9BeDQ

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a Writing Process post about how all you need to write a complex character is a single photograph.


I post a lot of pictures of myself on this blog. Partly because I have a tendency of being (more than) a bit of an attention hog (them creative types, ya know?), partly to be ironic (because selfies, guys–selfies), and partly because that old adage is true: a single picture is worth a thousand words.

One of my weaknesses in writing is creating complex, relateable characters readers want to trust and believe in. I didn’t realize it until recently, but now that I know it’s one of my problems, I’ve been really focusing on how to fix it. And the answer came from a surprising place.

A photograph.

Specifically, this one, taken by a friend while I was in England this past summer:

I’ve always liked this picture, because even though I don’t look the greatest in it, you can learn a lot about me if you know how to look at it right.

This shot’s not the usual, posed school picture in which everyone tilts their head to the same side, with their hair combed just right and teeth freshly brushed. Instead it’s me, standing at the top of Warwick Castle with the wind beating against my face and my stomach twisting into knots, dizzy and breathing just a little too hard, because I have a phobia of high, wide open spaces and the walkways along the tops of castles in England have this weird way of qualifying for that. I’m leaning against the wall just a little bit because of the dizziness thing (unlike most people, I get vertigo from looking up rather than down), and my hands are mid-action; I wasn’t sure whether to plant them against the stone or not, trying to decide which would look better for the shot.

My smile is uneasy–nervous, embarrassed–happy, proud–trying to repress the way my stomach dipped every time I stepped away from the inner wall, closer to the open air and space. Because that’s the thing: I have a phobia of high up, open spaces. You can see how my hair’s pushed back like I have on a headband, but the headband is nowhere in sight, because part of the panic my phobia induces manifests in the fear that I’ll lose something, so when we visited Warwick Castle, all potentially loose articles I had on me (headband, cell phone, etc) got stuffed into my bag the moment I walked out on the first tower. But I’m there anyway. I fought my irrational, idiotic fear and walked all the pathways, all the towers, along the top of Warwick Castle. And it was great, getting to look out at the beautiful English countryside and breathe in the history all around me. And I have this photograph to show for it.

Other things you can tell from this, if you know how to look: I’m wearing skinny jeans, because I’m naturally thin, and regular, straight-legged jeans have a tendency of ballooning around my legs because of it. I’m wearing a sweater from Oxford, which we’d just visited the day before. I chose to wear the sweater that day because Oxford is one of my dream schools to learn at, and because it was sort of a running joke for the rest of the trip that all of us would wear our Oxford stuff EVERYWHERE (even to Cambridge).

My bag is worn out and the white stripes aren’t very white anymore–I bought it in Costa Rica a few years back at a fair trade shop and had been using it endlessly ever since. My hair is in a ponytail–practical. I have on a grey, baggy wool cardigan that had seen better days and a green rain jacket–it was cool and wet out (so basically an average day in England). My nails are painted bright pink and I’m wearing a necklace and makeup, which means that I’m a little high-maintenance despite trying to be practical with everything else. Everything I’m wearing is some sort of color, because wearing bright colors makes me happy.

Basically: You can tell a lot about me just from this one picture. I could give back story galore about the decision behind everything I’m wearing, and my weirdo phobia, and the color of my hair. I could tell you how I came to stand atop that tower in England, and why I love Oxford so much, and the meaning behind every single thing in my bag.

I am a human being. I am a complex, relatable character. You can learn so much about me, just from one photograph–if you have the right back story to bring out all the intricate details.

Every single character you write should be the same way. They should live entire lives, not just what’s immediately important to the story. Maybe a lot of that doesn’t make it onto the page, but it should exist anyway. You should know why Character One likes to paint her nails sky blue and Character Two thinks baggy t-shirts are trash. You should know their favorite foods, colors, hobbies, and memories. You should know their least favorite ones. You should know what they think is important and what they think is stupid and what they think about political issues and, if they could change one thing about themselves, what it would be.

Look at how specific my phobia is: A fear of high up, wide open spaces. Put me on the top floor of a New York City skyscraper, and I’m fine. Crack open a window, thus connecting me with all that space outside, and I can’t handle it. It’s not something I have control over–believe me, I’d rather not be afraid of something so stupid and not dangerous. But I am. And it’s a complex fear that has developed over the course of many years, many experiences.

Not saying your protagonist should have irrational phobias, but everything about them should be that way: Complex. Both parts precise and still in the process of solidifying. Something they, and the reader, can understand without having to think too deeply into it, while still knowing that more exists beneath the surface.

Everything about your characters should be so detailed that not only the characters, but their lives, become real.

Stop and close your eyes. Imagine a character. Picture how she has a high forehead that she tries to hide behind bangs, only her cowlick and perpetually greasy skin make it difficult; picture how she wears a watch that she inherited from a favorite relative, because it makes her think of them, only it’s beginning to break so she babies it a bit now. Think of the reasoning behind everything, behind her thought processes. Think about her fears and her strengths and how they correlate with the way she presents herself to the world.

Think about all of these things, until you could draw a picture as beautiful and flawed and complex as any single one of you.

A photograph is just an instant–one snapshot in time–but just one photograph leads to an entire flood of information, and other snapshots, and memories. Look at a picture from the right angle, and you could eventually learn everything about a person.

You should use every single word of your story to deepen and further your character development. If a narrator describes another character in a certain way, be aware that that description defines both the character described and the narrator.

Show the complete picture. Don’t make your character a stick figure you fill in, fill out here and there, when it’s needed. Make them a living, breathing human being, more complete than any story could ever entirely portray.





PS. Here’s another picture from that day. Take from it what you will.

6 thoughts on “Wordy Wednesday (“Show the Complete Picture”)

  1. Great insight into character development.

    I found this sentence interesting too: “If a narrator describes another character in a certain way, be aware that that description defines both the character described and the narrator.”
    I never thought of it that way, but it’s true.


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