10 steps to making your fiction characters visible

As a fiction writer, you need to bring your characters to life. But what if they aren’t so much lifeless as invisible? What if the reader can’t see your characters clearly?
You know them inside out, of course, so it’s easy to assume readers can, too. But I’ve read so many fiction drafts where it’s impossible to get a clear picture of the characters in the mind’s eye, so it’s hard to connect with them.
The good news is, this can easily be fixed with a simple editing pass. Here’s how:

  1. Gender signals. Consider giving your characters names with clear gender signals, as a broadbrush way to help readers to tune into who’s who. Felicity and Matt are easier to ‘read’ in those crucial opening sentences than ambiguous Lee and Jo. If Matt is a girl, make this very clear from the start, or your readers will assume a boy, and need to adjust the picture they’ve built in their heads. If you do use gender-neutral names, give plenty of other clues as below. This will help to orientate your reader clearly from the start.
  2. Distinct names. Make your character names distinct, with different first letters, lengths, rhythms and age signposts. Bert, Bob and Ben will tend to mush together and get confused. But so will Jim and Fred – they’re all monosyllabic, English and short versions of longer names, suggestive of informality and a certain age group, and possibly status. Swop them for Maz, Connor and Mr Enderby, and it’s much easier for your reader to remember who’s who.
  3. Action. When characters do something, it’s easier to visualise them. Possibly because as animals, we’re primed to be alert to movement? Lee striding out, tapping feet or lopping tree-branches creates 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…
  4. Verbs. 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, and make each one count.
  5. Bodies. 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.
  6. Faces. 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.
  7. Puppeting. 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 characters feel as though they’re being pulled on strings. Readers can feel the mechanical 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.
  8. Visible first person. Showing first person characters is a special case. It’s tricky! If you’re inside a character’s head, how do you step outside and show what they look like? Time-honoured techniques for showing first person characters include looking mirrors, self-noticing, other characters’ reactions, and straight-out telling. Some are clichéd, so beware! Beware also of self-admiring head-hops such as “I threw my bag at Lee, tossing my long blonde hair.”
  9. 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 good to sketch in your characters early on (did I say actions?). But see the warning about puppeting.
  10. Keep weaving. 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 should hardly notice, to create a seamless and immersive 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 a writer and teacher on the MA in Creative Writing at the Open University.