When building characters, a great strategy I like to use (among others) is to consider both internal and external characteristics. External character traits include “physical traits, traits seen on the outside. Internal character traits include personality traits, characteristics on the inside that can be inferred through thoughts, feelings, actions, and dialogue” (gynzy.com). I’ll illustrate the difference by writing about Ana, the main character in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Book of Longings.
External – What can we see? A female, an adolescent (~16 at the start of the novel) living in the time of Christ, in Sepphoris, Gallilee; comes from a Jewish family and has a brother named Judas (yep, that one). Born to an upper class family, her father is the head scribe for the much-despised 1st century ruler, Herod Antipas. Her closest confidant is her Aunt Yaltha, a bit of an outcast who has been exiled from Egypt to live with Ana’s family after a mysterious incident prevented her from remaining there; the two are often seen together. Actually, Monk Kidd doesn’t spend too much time on Ana’s external characteristics; as such, I imagined her as an ordinary, abeit upper class, teen.
Internal – understands that women are restricted and treated differently than men; secretly writes stories on parchment about the lives of famous and local women who have been wronged in some way. Yaltha encourages Ana’s writing, and gives Ana a secret incantation bowl of the kind used by Egyptian women for their prayers but considered sacrilegious to Jews due to the custom of women to draw an image of oneself in her bowl (Judaism in an aniconic religion prohibiting the worship of graven images). As such, Yaltha is a bit of a rebel and brings out this same nature in Ana.
Her father, a scribe, encourages Ana’s literacy at first but quickly realizes that her learning and writing might be a problem should she wish to marry or take part in Jewish society, as women were prohibited from being literate. This issue of literacy and awareness of inequality is the driving conflict that motivates much of Ana’s behaviors. She is wrongfully vilified in public and nearly stoned for insufficiently mourning her betrothed (a terrible arrangement Ana’s father had made to an older man who died before they could be married) but literally saved when Jesus witnesses her ordeal and admonishes the crowd. This begins their friendship as Ana sees the good in him that is lacking in so many others.
Monk Kidd beautifully illustrates Ana’s drive in the following quote: “Lord our God, hear my prayer, the prayer of my heart. Bless the largeness inside me, no matter how I fear it. Bless my reed pens and my inks. Bless the words I write. May they be beautiful in your sight. May they be visible to eyes not yet born. When I am dust, sing these words over my bones: she was a voice.”
- Writing from experience can be a powerful tool to add detail to a character. Consider someone you actually know. How would you describe them externally? Why are these external traits important in understanding or empathizing with the character? If they aren’t, do they need to be present? How about internal characteristics?
- Consider that internal characteristics might be more subjective than external; one character’s hero might be another’s bully. How might you play with this to your advantage?