Last week I mentioned that the characters in my earlier—and rejected—novels were all plastic, one-dimensional characters who looked, acted and sounded like me. Sound familiar? Surely I’m not the first writer to make that mistake.
Since I neither smoke nor drink, none of my characters ever lit a cigarette or had a drink, but they all ate frequently and drank a lot of coffee—just like me. Fascinating as I may consider myself to be, apparently readers are not looking for stories populated with David clones.
Okay, how do we avoid that? We’re going to have to create interesting characters with their own identities and personalities. Their personalities and backgrounds are going to have to contain the seeds for their behavior in the story.
It may help to visualize a movie star or other public figure when we create a character. In fact, let’s go to IMDb and find a photo of the person we’re thinking of, and let’s put that picture at the beginning of the character’s profile. There’s no law that says we must do that, but at Warrior Writers’ Boot Camp, we’ve discovered this can be a big help in keeping a character in focus.
Okay, so we’ve got a photo. What else? What is our character’s height and weight? Eye color? Hair color? These physical characteristics can affect his behavior and thinking. If he or she is small or ugly or fat or skinny, that could result in a chip on the shoulder that makes him or her mean, testy or defensive.
Let’s build some personal history, too. Any siblings? Single-parent family? Father beats the mother? Loving aunt or uncle of particular importance? All of these things affect a child growing up, and we need to see where our character’s behavior comes from. We probably need a page or more of this background information before we proceed.
How about mannerisms? Does this person always let a cigarette burn until the ashes fall off without flicking them into an ashtray? Wave hands to illustrate or emphasize oral communication? Squint or blink a lot? We can use these little mannerisms to make this guy distinct and separate from our other characters.
How about fears? What things keep him awake at night? Prevent him from taking an action he may want or need to take? Drive him to do things he maybe shouldn’t do?
What are his dreams?
Does he see himself in a multi-million dollar mansion? Owning a private island with a bevy of women serving him? Running a criminal empire? What moves him and gives him long-term motivation?
What are his stressors? A stressor is something that triggers a fear or a reminder of some important bad experience. If our guy grew up in an abusive family, seeing someone yell at or strike a child might be a stressor. For Poppy Montgomery’s character in Unforgettable, seeing a young girl reminded her of her murdered sister and practically sent her into histerics. These stressors will cause a strong reaction in our character.
How about his manner? Is he boisterous and obnoxious? Quiet and calculating? Kind? Polite? Rude?
What is his inner conflict? What does he really want to do or really want to be but he can’t because . . .
Goals? NY Times Best-selling Author Bob Mayer (http://writeitforward.wordpress.com/) suggests asking these three questions: What does he want? What does he really want? What does he really, really want? We should have three different answers to these questions, each a little more revealing about our character.
What blind spot prevents him from being able to see his path clearly?
What is his main problem in the story?
We might be able to come up with a few more things to put into his profile, but this gets us a pretty good sketch to work with. One of the things we accomplish by building this profile is that we can see in the course of writing our story what sorts of things this person would or would not do. Anyone who will be involved in beta-reading or critiquing your novel should have access to this profile to help you stay within the character’s personality and behavior.
How about our other characters? Let’s talk about them next week.
Ø Think about the cast of your favorite television show. What things so completely identify one character as opposed to another that you don’t even have to see them to know which is which?
Ø What things can you do to create such distinctive identities for your characters?
A graduate of Duke University, I spent 42 years as a health insurance agent. Most of my career was spent in Texas, but for a few years I traveled many other states. I started writing about 20 years ago, and have six unpublished novels to use as primers on how NOT to write fiction. Since my retirement from insurance a few years ago, I have devoted my time to helping Kristen Lamb start Warrior Writers’ Boot Camp and trying to learn to write a successful novel myself.
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Very good advice and pointers. Writing a twin reflection is so easy to do. 🙂
Excellent tips! I really struggled with characters – still do, but I have cheat sheets from blogs like yours to help me remember the things I need to know about them before I start writing!
Thanks, Marji. I’m glad to be able to help a writer of your caliber.
Fab post, I must admit I have to be really careful when I’m planning out my own characters not to make the same mistake as you talk about in the start of your post. This is something I’ve always wondered how other writers manage. Thanks for sharing
Thanks, LK. Most of us need crutches here and there to keep things straight.
Great tips, David! I like to snag a photo of my characters. It really does help and I have to be careful not to allow all my characters to drink coffee. I guess those are the ones I like least! Ha!!