Writing technique – how to make fiction characters visible
Invisible fiction characters are great fun. From the Invisible Man to Bilbo Baggins to Harry Potter, characters who vanish from view are a much-loved touchstone of fantasy writing.
But sometimes, fictional characters aren’t meant to be invisible. And yet the reader can’t see them.
Some characters are unintentionally invisible, because the writer hasn’t made them clear enough.
There aren’t enough visual signposts to create a lively image in the reader’s mind.
Sometimes, the character has no face and a sketchy body.
Does your fiction suffer from invisible characters syndrome?
Unfortunately, it can be hard for writers to know this about their own work.
You know your characters inside out, so it’s easy to assume readers do, too.
You’re so immersed in the imaginative world you’ve created that it’s tricky to step back and see it with fresh eyes.
But especially in beginner fiction, invisible characters are a common problem.
I’ve read countless fiction drafts where it’s impossible to get a clear picture of the characters in my mind’s eye.
It makes it hard to connect with them, care about them, and ultimately the book feels less engaging to read.
The good news is, invisible fiction characters can often be miraculously revived with a simple editing pass. Here are some of the ways to do this:
If your characters’ names have clear gender signals, readers may find attunement easier. For English-speaking readers, Doreen and Matt are easier to ‘read’ in those crucial opening sentences than gender-neutral Lee.
Of course, names are conventions, and you may want to challenge convention, leave gender open, or write a non-binary character.
Whatever names you choose, make a conscious choice, and bear your readers in mind.
Make your character names distinct, with different first letters, lengths, rhythms and age signposts.
It’s easy to see why Bert, Bob and Ben might tend to mush together in the reader’s mind and get confused.
But to a lesser degree, perhaps surprisingly, so do Jim, Fred and Dave. They’re all monosyllabic, English and short versions of longer names. They all evoke a similar level of informality, and a certain status and age group.
It’s possible, of course, that your characters are all from a similar culture, background and age group. You don’t have to change their sexes, native language, age and appearance just to create diversity (though consider it, as greater character contrast creates more potential for dramatic action).
But even just in terms of sound and rhythm, you’ll instantly create a more distinctive sense of character by swopping their names for Maz, Connor and Mr Enderby.
This will make it easier for your readers to remember who’s who.
It’ll make your fiction characters less invisible.
When characters do something, it’s easier to visualise them. Lee striding out, tapping feet or lopping tree-branches evokes momentum, and motion is vivid and memorable.
If you’re using static character description for a specific reason, check that the characters don’t feel inert and without tension. Which brings us to…
Reinforce the character impression with congruent verbs, not just in meaning but also in sonic qualities.
Lee strides – a feisty, solid character, with that thudding, voiced d and long vowel sound. Foot-tapping Jo – probably small in stature, nervy, reinforced by the unvoiced consonants t and p, and the short vowel sounds.
Verbs and sounds are extremely powerful in picture-building. Check all your verbs. Does each one count towards solving the invisible character issue in your fiction?
Fill in bodies. Lee may have a powerful stride, but what about his/her legs? If they’re just a movement without a physical ‘reality’, they can feel disembodied, and it’s hard to see them. Give at least a sense of Lee’s build, or use other words to help suggest physicality and other attributes – rangy, masterful, bell-bottom denims swishing…
Notice that masterful suggests male, and the denim details suggest more than physical facts – they also start to chime with our sense of someone’s era, fashion attitude, confidence.
A few telling details like this – remembering those verbs! – really help to form stronger pictures in fiction and get round the invisible character problem.
Facial details aren’t just vital for filling in that mental jigsaw for the reader. They also help to draw the reader in closer. If you’re close enough to see the reader’s grey-blue eyes or glossy lips, you’re only an arms-length away, which creates a sense of intimacy.
It can be hard to come up with new ways of describing faces – there are a limited number of facial features – so use your writer’s notebook to gather close observations about people you see.
When introducing new characters, don’t go overboard with blow-by-blow description and veer towards puppeting. I use this term for the tendency to give lists of descriptive detail, which makes the fiction characters feel mechanical, as though they’re being pulled on strings.
Readers can feel the lifeless effect, and may struggle to connect with your characters, even if they can’t explain why. Description needs to be woven through and integrated seamlessly into your prose, to give a sense of flow and immersiveness.
Invisible fiction characters – first person
Showing first person characters is a special case. It’s admittedly tricky.
If you’re inside a character’s head, how do you step outside and show what they look like?
So if you’re first person fiction character is invisible, you may find yourself resorting to a few time-honoured techniques.
Looking in mirrors, self-noticing, other characters’ reactions, hopping into other character viewpoints, and straight-out telling are just some of the strategies writers use.
Some of these techniques are mighty clichéd, so beware!
But where to be really careful is when your character does this kind of self-admiring head-hop:
I threw my bag at Lee, tossing my long blonde hair.
I flexed my honed muscles and lunged for his throat.
This isn’t just puppeting, it’s self-puppeting! Which is a whole other ball game.
First person invisible fiction characters are hard to solve with description alone. Concentrate on voice, action and their engagement with the world and other characters to bring them fully to life.
Scifi and fantasy
Scifi and fantasy characters are a special case. When you create an extraordinary and unfamiliar world, readers can struggle far more than usual to ‘read’ your characters, as there are fewer shortcuts for context and orientation. On top of that, your characters may have unusual looks, genders, habits and actions, so your reader can’t make assumptions.
Unless you’re deliberately withholding crucial information for suspense or plot reasons, it’s best to sketch in your characters early on. But see the warning about puppeting.
It isn’t enough to sketch in your characters at the start, and expect readers to remember them. Building a relationship takes time. Readers can easily lose ‘sight’ of your characters, especially if others turn up, or there’s a passage of dialogue without clear character signposts. Keep each character fresh in the reader’s mind’s eye by subtly weaving in ‘anchors’ to act as reminders or placeholders. These can be appearance, action, voice – anything that makes the character distinctive and clear for the reader.
And finally, note that these pointers don’t work in isolation. They mesh together in ways your reader may not overtly notice, to create the overall reading experience.
If any of your characters feel invisible, lifeless or underrealised, check your writing against the tips above. Small edits can make a world of difference!
Not sure if your characters are visible or not? See this example of invisible fiction characters. Warning: You may be surprised!
Jules Horne is an award-winning writer with 13 years’ experience teaching students on The Open University MA in Creative Writing.
For more advanced fiction writing techniques, see Dramatic Techniques for Creative Writers.