Building Characters that Sizzle, Part Two: Dominant Impressions

Welcome to Part Two of the wrap-up of Deb Dixon’s talk on Characterization.  If this is your first visit, you can find Part One here.

The Dominant Impression provides a snap shot of your character.  According to Ms. Dixon, a character’s dominant impression is described through a marriage between an adjective and a descriptive noun; for example, a beleaguered intellectual or an instinctive warrior.  The adjective is how a character does things and the noun is what they are likely to do or their worldview.

If you have more than one protagonist in your story, as is typically the case in Romance or Romantic Suspense, Ms Dixon suggested that the individual dominant impressions could be the initial source of the characters’ internal conflict.

It’s time for me to confess.  I have the hardest time conceptualizing ideas into 2 – 3 sentences.  I don’t know, perhaps it’s some kind of genetic defect or something.  So now I’m told that I need to summarize my two main characters in two WORDS??!!

So, let’s see if I can work through this:

Detective Micah Langston Hughes is a veteran cop of the Memphis Police Department.  As the story begins, Micah is recovering from an injury incurred in the line of duty.  He is experiencing survivor guilt.  Micah is solid, that quiet problem-solver works relentlessly in the background, usually on behalf of others but who never allows anyone to see him sweat. Professionally, Micah is well-liked and respected.  Personally, he is emotionally stable, has a solid family background, and maintains a loving relationship with his parents and younger sister.  He has never married but longs for a life-partner to share a marriage that has the strength of his parent’s marriage.

Along comes Ima DeCostas.  She is a lawyer, a political consultant and she is in distress.  Ima is intelligent, a bright and energetic social butterfly.  She has no interest in permanent attachments; she’s seen first hand, the damage couples can do to each other.  Her parent’s relationship was a mess.  Ima’s mother is bitter and borderline abusive; her father disappeared years ago.  Ima tells herself that she has become a serial dater in order to keep emotional attachments to a minimum.  But, sometimes, late at night, when no one is around, she longs to find an anchor.

See?  I told you I couldn’t do it.

For egg-heads like me, Ms Dixon recommended that one way to construct a dominant impression would be to generate a list of adjectives and nouns.

So, I made a list of adjectives and nouns that I thought fit each of my protagonists.  For the purpose of this exercise, I will focus on Micah:

Adjectives Nouns

solid Cop/detective
capable musician
dependable friend




It was at that third noun when I realized I was in trouble.  I was describing what he does, his occupation and avocation and not his worldview.  I wished I’d’ve raised my hands in class.

The dominant impression can be helpful in several ways

You can assess your client’s emotional journey over the course of the novel.  The dominant impression that your character generates as the novel opens may evolve into something different at the story’s end.  Or the impression itself may not change, but the character’s perception of self may change.  She may accept who and what they are and value traits that they formerly despised.

Once you’ve clarified your dominant impression, at least in your own mind, how do you communicate that to your readers?  Use distinguishing tags:

  • appearance – let it mean more than brown hair.  Details are important.  Let the situation reveal a character’s appearance.
  • ability – what special trait or ability does your character have?  Can he put out a fire?  Is she able to calm anxious children?  Let your readers see your characters in action.  Contrast their weaknesses and strengths
  • speech – how do they say things?  Simple?  In contractions?  What are your character’s speech rhythms and cadences?  Does he pause and think carefully before speaking or answering?  Or is she impulsive, jumps in feet first and thinks later?
  • mannerisms – how do they behave when nervous?  Anxious?  Angry?  Do they stutter?  Walk with a limp?  Rub their heads before telling a lie?
  • attitudes – what is your character’s habitual view towards life?  This will be well rooted in their worldview.

This was an awesome workshop.  I took away a couple things.  I left the training with a better understanding of how to develop my characters in such a way that readers could easily identify and empathize with them.   And I have a heightened sense of how I need to discuss my work with editors, agents and publishers.

Thanks Deb!

Y’all can see that I’m still struggling a bit with the second part.  Feel free to jump in and help me out.  I’ve given you an overview of both Micah and Ima.  What was the dominant impression that jumped out at you?

C'mon! I know you got something to say . . .

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