When I posted here back in April (about writing a novel in two sentences), it got a great response. I wanted to follow that up with another post in the same vein, this time about creating “two-word” characters.
Originally introduced to me through the great Dwight Swain, this is a wonderful method for drafting initial character concepts.
Every character has a goal, a mission. Sometimes the “goal” is to simply to serve as an extra—a body to be killed, a boy to be shunned, etc. Other times, their missions are as apparent as the back-cover text.
When you write a novel or an outline and place characters in it, it’s important to know them in and out—this is a truism that’s been rehashed by many writers. While true, it’s not always intuitively helpful for figuring out exactly how much detail you should include.
Some writers swear by including an entire dossier of informational material on each of their main characters—before starting the writing process.
Others choose to be “pantsers”—allowing the sparks of creativity to shape and mold their story people. All of these things can lead to setbacks, but if you focus on creating believable characters, it’ll make the rest of your job that much easier.
In Dwight Swain’s book, Creating Characters: Building Story People, he claims the art of character building can be reduced to a fundamental two-word level. This method won’t be perfect for everyone, but it can sure speed up your planning and outlining process!
The Two-Word Character
Before I get too far into this, I want to disclaim my beliefs on the subject. First,there are many, many ways to create art, and characters are no different. This method is just one of many. But it’s one that has truly helped shaped my characters, without causing me undue stress.
Second, your mileage may vary. As with my previous statement, there are many ways of reaching the same conclusion, and that’s mainly because different things work for different people. If you don’t like this method, don’t use it—but if you’ve never tried it, at least give it a shot!
The Two-Word Character method involves giving at least your main characters a two-word (didn’t see that coming, did you?) description. You’ll expound on these two words as you continue to write, ensuring your creativity,personal style, and overall flair is not stifled by a “formulaic” approach.
The Two Words We’re Looking For Are:
1. A noun of vocation.
2. An adjective of manner.
The “noun of vocation” is simple—it’s what the character does. Either for a living (a job), as a retirement hobby, a lifeblood, or whatever. It’s the way you might describe someone at a party (or how you might describe yourself).
Your character can be a pilot, a seamstress, a prostitute, a carpenter, etc.
The “adjective of manner” will help further chisel out a nice-looking image in the readers’ mind of who your character is. As we all know, a pilot can be charismatic, mean-spirited, idiotic, charming, or anything else, and a prostitute can be gracious, exuberant, regretful, etc.
Overall, you want to capture the main essence of your character. What they’re like, boiled down into one single word that describes their mannerisms and their personality.
What to Do With the Two Words
Once you’ve figured out the main line of vocation and a general word of description for each character, you can start to write. Sometimes you’ll want to work out a few more specific qualities or quirks for each of your main characters, but if you’re at all like me—you’ll just want to jump in to the story.
The first time I wrote a novel, I messed up big time when I tried to write a character into a scene that I’d never met before. I had no idea if he was young or old, patient or demanding, charismatic or short-tempered. I had to do a lot of extra, unnecessary editing before he really started to take shape in my mind.
My second mistake in character development was going the exact opposite route. I tried to plan in advance every single trait, characteristic, and historic feature of my characters before even typing a word. Of course, this led to thousands of unnecessary words, and while I knew my secondary villain’s nephew inside and out—my readers never needed to.
The Two-Word approach lets me hone in on the two most important, overarching qualities of my characters that will truly bring them to life for my readers.Two words don’t allow me to get into the nitty-gritty details of their childhoods, nor do they allow me to get hung up hair color, eye color, etc., when those things aren’t important to my story.
Using Two Words
Obviously,most of your characters will need many more than two words of description before they become living, breathing people, but the Two-Word Method is great for getting you into your story faster.
Let the story guide the rest of the details—how they talk, react, think, live. Let their two words become the memorable traits your readers will take with them, long after they’ve finished reading your novel.