What’s more interesting to you? How someone looks? Or what they are really like? Sure a beautiful vivacious person might grab our attention, but if that’s all there is, I doubt we’ll be friends. I like warm genuine personalities. I like a sense of humor. I like imperfect humans who are willing to show vulnerabilities. And I bet you do too.
So, how do authors get that across? My “go to” is always to look at examples. I’ll start with some middle grade novels.
From the graphic novel When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed: “Walking with Hassan sometimes takes a while. He stops to greet every neighbor we meet. If he sees someone pushing a wheelbarrow, he likes to help out. He says hello to the donkeys pulling carts.” Don’t you like how that shows Hassan’s heart? Of course, with a graphic novel we do have images of what the boy looks like, but the words go deeper than the pictures. Later on you find out about the narrator Omar because of what he says and does.
Listen to this one: “I’m allergic to trouble. It makes my hands itch. But today in science when Mr. Levy starts calling out lab-partner assignments, I don’t even get the lightest tingle. I just sit there, barely breathing, waiting for him to assign me to the perfect lab partner.” When Shayla hears who she gets, here’s her internal response: “No. And I mean no. This is the opposite of perfect.” (A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée) Do you like her? I do. She’s eager about science and she likes to avoid trouble. But now things are not going her way.
Here’s one that quickly creates sympathy in me for the character: “No luck that day for my pocket-pick hands, and I hadn’t managed to filch my supper or a bit of copper to buy it with. I was hollow with hunger. I might have tried somewhere else, except the Underlord had a word out on me, and his minions would beat the fluff out of me if they could.” (The Magic Thief by Sarah Prineas—I love the whole series!) Not only do I feel sorry for Conn, but I’m curious why the Underlord is concerned about him. I like how Conn speaks, too, and know he isn’t from my time and place..
Now for a few young adult examples:
From The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg, in the main character’s point of view: “For a brief moment, too brief even for a security camera to catch it, I close my eyes, release my grip on the cool aluminum handrail, and dare myself to wonder if this is what it feels like to fly. Weightless. Breathless. Free.” The next sentence reveals her name, Ana. I know hardly anything about the character except that she is being watched and she isn’t free. But I want to know why! This short section implies unhappiness and hints that something is going to happen, so of course, I have to keep reading.
“Why did I volunteer to do this stupid presentation? Public speaking: not my strong point. Let’s be honest, public anything: not my strong point.” And then a few lines later: “I suddenly feel very small, like my classmates have shrink rays attached to their eyes. Shrinking Violet. This makes me laugh—now I look unhinged as well as nervous.” (The Fandom by Anna Day) I can sympathize with Violet’s discomfort but she also has a sense of humor which is appealing.
So, what do we see in common in these examples? There is so much internal to the characters. Someone else in the same situation would not think, feel, say, or react the same. I don’t care about their hair, skin, eye color or other exterior features. I’m hooked by who they are.
I like this quote from Cat Rambo: “Characters must shape the story. They need to influence the action and make the narrative one that could only happen to them.”