Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Glynna's Bookshelf: Characterization

Last week Cheryl Wyatt discussed how important characters are to the story. In fact, characters ARE the story.

Quite often, my fictional people just “appear” in my mind. Out of the blue. Usually, for me, it starts with their voices chattering away in the midst of some situation they’ve gotten themselves into—and don’t know how to get themselves out of. So I grab any handy piece of paper and transcribe whatever they’re gabbing about. Don’t dare rely on my memory! And then when the “rush” is over--what? Who ARE these people? What internal force drove them to get into this mess? You know, what makes them tick?

Sometimes the “ticking” piece arrives full blown, but most often I must dig deeper. Much deeper, to get into their psyches and figure out their goals, motivation, and the true conflict. Sometimes I’ll wrestle with their GMC for days. Weeks. Yes, and sometimes months. Everything I come up with seems flat, insipid, boring. It doesn’t ignite that spark I’m looking for. Everything I think of seems to be in the realm of been-there-done-that—by somebody else. I crave something to prime the GMC pump.

That’s when I’ll finally get a light bulb moment and turn to my handy dandy writer’s reference bookshelf. And among those volumes are some of my favorite characterization jump-starters. Maybe they’re among your favorites, too.

The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes (Tami D. Cowden, Carol LaFever, Sue Viders – 2000 Lone Eagle Publishing Company) If you wonder what kind of heroine will most get under your swashbuckling hero’s skin, this little book is a gem. It’s split into hero and heroine sections, and each highlights eight gender-specific archetypes (you, know, like ‘bad boy’ hero and ‘spunky kid’ heroine). Each of the types features a discussion of the psychological make-up of this “type,” their virtues, flaws, background, styles, occupations. Then another section explains how the archetypes can evolve and how you can layer your characters by mixing and matching and mingling traits. Yet another section deals with how these hero/heroine archetypes interact, how they mesh, and how they change each other. I love this book!

Believable Characters: Creating with Ennegrams (Laurie Schnebly – 2007 Cedar Press) “Ennea” is the Greek word for nine, the number of personality types that are represented in this system (i.e., The Adventurer, The Peacemaker, The Romantic, etc.). Each chapter type begins with a short quiz that helps you determine where your hero/heroine fits psychologically. Sections for each type include strengths, fatal flaws, the type as children, at work, and in relationships. And because few human beings are ALL of anything, Laurie breaks down the types into subtypes and blends, and also discusses how the types interact with other types. There’s a wealth of information here to get that right brain of yours humming.

The Ennegram: A Christian Perspective (Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert – 2006 The Crossroad Publishing Company) While this book isn’t designed for writers creating characters, it does provide fascinating spiritual insight into the “nine faces of the soul” (i.e., The Need to Be Perfect, The Need to Be Needed, The Need to Succeed, The Need to Be Special, etc.). The authors provide a type overview and explore the temptations, roots of conversion (what draws them to a relationship with God), and spiritual maturation of each type. It’s slightly more “academic” perhaps than the previous two books I mention here, but nevertheless it held my interest as it took me deeper into the spiritual realm of my fictional characters.

Do you have any tricks up your sleeve for digging deeper into your characters’ psyches? Please Come on over to the Seekerville comment section and share away!



  1. WOW! Glynna, great post!!! And more books I need to buy for my reference shelf! I can see where they could spark ideas for memorable characters. Thanks for the tips!

  2. Oh, Glynna, I so totally agree -- "characters ARE the story"!! I love a good plot, but am a character-driven author who craves to get inside of the heads of my imperfect characters, especially regarding their relationship with God.

    One of the best tools I've found for doing that is Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maas, but your suggestions sound like must-adds to my writing TBR list for sure.


  3. Very good post! My stories start the same way.

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  6. Messed that last one up. Fingers going way too fast. Sorry!

    Thanks for the references, Glynna. I love to hear about helpful writing resources and I can certainly see how The Ennegram can help with the Spiritual thread in my novels.

    I'm off to go book shopping now.



  7. Glynna, Glynna, Glynna.

    What an informative, wonderful thing you are!

    This is why I stick to SOTP writing, because I can't plan supper, much less character archipeligos, or whatever they are.

    Come on, you SOTP lurkers. Help me out here. Do you plan your characters or do they plan you?

    And yes, I'm back with a fully loaded breakfast table in honor of Glynna's brilliance and my lack thereof...

    Therefore you will find toast and jam (Ruthy, but at least it's homemade jam, thick with fruity essence...) next to Eggs Benedict with Hollandaise sauce on the side (Glynna).

    But I did pick up some Vanilla Biscotti flavored ground coffee at Sam's Club, can you smell that wonderful aroma????

    Try it with some Almond Creme creamer, or French Vanilla. Too good to be believed.

    And comforting while I go and try to figure out this characterization stuff.



  8. Ruth,

    I hope you write comedy because you are TOO funny!

    Thanks Glynna for those great suggestions. I'm a mixture of a pantser and plotter. I start off with a plan, but the pants take over!

    Have a good day everyone


  9. getting to know my characters is a big, hairy deal for me.
    I always want to start with story.
    I need to know what story I'm going to tell then create the characters out of that.

    Which gets tricky when you're writing series because the first book is rooted in story, but the second one usually springs out of some interesting secondary character.

    I had dental work today, so I'm a little weird...I mean even more so than usual.

    That, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call and 'aside'.

    Back to my point.

    With Petticoat Ranch it was vigilantes. The he said/she said quality of the story came out of the characters, but later. It was not my beginning. The mountain man in an all girl world came secondarily, too.

    Then Calico Canyon, that was meant to be the flip side of the man in a woman's world story. A woman in a man's world. And I was able to go back and insert the entire subplot of the prissy school marm and the out of control boy students into Petticoat Ranch, as well as the third book Gingham Mountain which I thought, okay, lets do a mix.
    A great thing about Gingham Mountain is Grant, the hero has grown up with a mix of boys and girls, and adopted a bunch of them. So when he gets a chance to talk to flustered Daniel Reeves about how to deal with his wife, Grant gives her some really good advice. Whether Daniel takes it we don't know.

    I'm crazy today. I'd better go before I get us all in trouble.

    Ruthy, so great to see you here. We're all imaginarily hungry.

  10. I've wondered what characters' spiritual gifts are, but, that's about as organized as I can get.

    Organization is not one of my strengths!

    I'm really digging the vanilla biscotti coffee. IRL I boiled the coffee pot dry this AM and everything tastes scorched.

  11. Thanks for the suggestions Glynna. I'm always looking for new ways to add depth to my characters.

    In addition to Laurie's enneagram book (which is great BTW) I have Fiction is Folks by Robert Newton Peck on my shelves. It's a great book to browse because each chapter is a unique look at characters.

    Cat--off to buy The Complete Writers Guide to Heros and Heroines.

  12. My 'trick' is pretty lame for characterization.
    I start writing.
    It used to take me about one hundred pages to 'get to know' my characters. I do it better now, more quickly. But I'd write adn write and write and all of a sudden something would CLICK and I'd know the characters, seems like the woman would come before the man always.
    Then I'd go BACK to the beginning and start over. I'd save a lot of it but weave the REAL characters into the book instead of the whatever 'Vanilla' characters I'd been using up until then to flesh out my story.

  13. See Mary's post above.


    No matter how many how-to books I have, and no matter how well explained it all is, my characters look at me and say,

    "You're kidding, right? No way am I going to be THAT kind of character."

    Eventually, I get it all down on the hard drive, and after several, years of wrestling with those PEOPLE, I ship it off to my agent while my characters aren't looking.

    See how easy it is?

  14. Glynna, thanks so much for the GREAT list of books!! I'd never heard of that last one, and it looks fantastic!

    I'm off to order it online. :)


  15. Ann, so sorry to hear about the scorched coffee!

    I recently killed a coffee pot (actually, the auto-off feature didn't work so it scorched!). So I bought a new one that doesn't have a hot plate. The coffee goes into a thermos type pot. I love it! I don't have to worry about smoking us all out of the house again. :)


  16. Pam, I'm sitting here laughing, picturing you sneaking out with the manuscript clutched against your chest, maybe you're wearing a trenchcoat, rushing to the post office to get the thing mailed before your characters notice you're gone.

    Great, if somewhat...ummmmm... eccentric visual

  17. LOL, Mary!! I got the same visual. :)

    Forget voices in our heads. Pam has "people" who try to rule her life!


  18. lol - Kinda like paperback writer.

    Reminds me...when does that movie about the writer and the little girl on an island come out? The little girl emails(?) the author that her father is lost in a storm and the author is a recluse, but the hero of her books forces her to go help the girl.

  19. Excellent post, Glynna! I don't have any of the books you discuss. They sound interesting. They might even help. I'll have to take a look.

    I wish people appeared in my mind like you describe. I usually start with a plot idea, then make up the people to fit. Later after the book is underway, I discover more about them. Upon occasion, their conversations pop into my head. That's fun. But it's not the way I get the story.


  20. Ann, I've killed more pots of coffee and coffee pots than any woman should live to tell about.

    So yeah, the vanilla biscotti blend is sweet respite!

    Missy, those thermal pots are the bomb.

    Isn't that so cool, how I can grab today's innate lingo out of the air and apply it at will?

    I have no idea what it means, but I heard it on American Idol last year (as current as I am, unfortunately) and I've adopted it along with a few snarky Simon-isms that are waaaaay fun.

    Anyway, Mary, your characters jump out of the book to grab people. Whatever you're doing, it's working.

    Missy, yours in Unlikely Family were wonderful. No problem seeing, sensing and feeling them.

    I had the pleasure (at Audra's behest) of getting to know Cat as a result of the Barclay last year, when she finaled in Contemp--- is that right, Cat, was it short contemp???

    Anyway, I found myself championing her characters from the beginning (The Christmas Bargain) and she had a wonderful way of bringing them to the foreground while weaving a fun story around them.

    Characters make a book for me. They're the chocolate in the frappuccino, the icing on the cake, the creme in the brulee...

    Plot-driven stories don't grab me if the characters don't draw me, so I'm glad the trend today is with character-driven books, at least in romance.

    That doesn't mean I don't like strong settings and descriptors, but give me a hero I can set right over 300 +/- pages, and a heroine who comes into her own regardless of circumstance, and I'm a happy woman.

    As long as there's chocolate in the house.

    Which reminds me:

    I brought some buttercream-frosted chocolate birthday cake by for all of you to try. One of my little ones celebrated her birthday today, and I need help with this cake.

    Any takers?


    P.S. Glad to see some pantsers sprinkled in among you planners. I was getting a little nervous initially.

  21. I must be weird, because I can't REMEMBER how my stories come to me. I think it's a combination of story and character, and then it slowly evolves in my head. I don't write anything down, either, as it's evolving. I figure I'll remember it if it's a good idea. I know, it sounds dumb. I just can't stand the thought of writing anything down until I get it all worked out in my head.

    But those books do sound like great helps for fleshing out characters. I'll have to get a couple.

  22. Thanks Glynna for the great list of resource books. A writer never has enough of those. I have Laurie's book on Ennegrams and it is wonderful. If you ever get the chance to take her class from WriterU its well worth the $30.00 I know you have taken it Glynna, but for the rest of you, its a wonderful writer's tool. She crits your work also.

  23. Here's some trivia for you. I used to critique with Carolyn, Tami and Sue and helped write that book. I pulled out do to some differences of vision. My late husband helped with some of the psychological profiles on it--he was a psychiatrist.

    One of my favorite books on character is Linda Seger, Creating Unforgettable Characters.

  24. Thanks for mentioning my characters, Ruthy! I'll send you payment asap. ;)

    I would love some cake!!


  25. Wow, Tina. Interesting trivia! I don't think I ever knew what your late husband did.

    I have that Linda Segers book. I need to look at it again.


  26. Pam, I believe that's Nim's Island, and it's been out a while. It's already at our dollar theater. I plan to see it soon! It looks great.


  27. Glynna this was fascinating! I loved all the references you listed.

    Thank you for posting this!