Who ARE Those People?
Why do people read?
Most people read to find out what happens to the characters. The events by themselves have very little meaning until you insert the people who inhabit the story. As a reader, you want to get into the head and skin of the characters in the book. As an author, you want to give your reader the tools to do this. As in everything in the arts, there are many “right” ways to write a book. The best way to find your own style and fine-tune your craft is to read, listen, watch, and experiment with different techniques and formats to see how you can best perfect your own skills. However, there is one constant in storytelling, and that is the act of making your characters come to life so your reader loses herself in the book.
Real people vs. story people:
What is the difference? In real life, people are confusing, inconsistent, and sometimes do things without reason. They do things “out of character” and react in implausible ways. However, if your story people do this, you run the risk of angering your reader. You can still have a character doing something confusing or inconsistent, but you must have a reason for them to act this way. “Just because” is fine for real life but not in fiction.
How do you reveal who your character is?
You can show description, actions, likes and dislikes, interests, manner of speaking, and innermost thoughts. The best way to reveal a character is showing what he sees from his worldview. Study and understand point of view so your reader will know your characters.
What is your story about?
Are you telling a story about a bomb exploding, or is it about what happens to the victims of the explosion? What do you think is more important to your reader—the plot or the people? If someone drops a bomb on an empty warehouse with no one in it, who really cares? That’s just collateral or material damage to a building and its contents. However, if there are people in there, you have a story—or probably dozens or even hundreds of stories with built-in plots. Does everyone get killed? If so, who do they leave behind? If you’re not telling a ghost story, the plot is probably built around the survivors and their reactions. Does anyone survive the bombing? If so, their stories might be the most interesting. What are the obstacles and issues they now have to deal with?
Which do you plan first—character or plot?
There’s no right or wrong way to do this, so you need to come up with what drives your story and has the most impact. I generally know my characters, what motivates them, and work my plot around that. It helps me keep the story alive and prevents me from getting off-track. It makes my story more plausible and sympathetic.
How do I get to know my characters?
I do a combination of things. I do some geometry—either a triangle for a short story or a diamond for a longer story or book. The protagonists have major character traits listed on the points—mostly positive but with one negative. The antagonists have mostly negative but with one positive. There are sub-traits on the lines between the points, and depending on the importance of each character, I fill in what I need. Then I interview them and find out what drives them, what motivates them, and their worldview.
What motivates the character to speak, act, or react the way she does? Was it something in her childhood, or in the case of romance, was a former heartbreak the cause of her not being ready to find love again? Character motivation is the catalyst that can help form the plot or subplot of your story.
During the character interview, I find out what comforts as well as what bothers my character the most. I use characterization to create the conflict rather than the other way around. Can you create the conflict first then insert the characters? Absolutely. Just make sure you define your character well enough to justify why this person is in this particular story.
Power to the people
I like to give my characters the power to take my stories where they naturally need to go with only a little bit of guidance from me. When I do my homework on the front end, the rest of my job is much easier and more rewarding. The story almost writes itself.
You want 3-Dimensional characters
Give your character some depth. Your character’s beliefs, innermost thoughts (whether they’re right or wrong), and everything that drives him make up your 3-D character. Allowing your reader to get into the head and skin of the character will keep her turning pages with anticipation.
Is it ever okay to have Cardboard characters?
Yes, but never the hero, heroine, important secondary characters, or villain. The man on the street who smiles at your protagonist can be one-dimensional in the story. He serves his purpose if your heroine is having a particularly bad day, and all she needs is positive affirmation. The traffic cop who keeps the hero from being where he needs to be doesn’t need to be fully fleshed out unless he has another part in the story.
Power of the senses
How do you show who your characters are without simply listing traits? Use the senses. Does your hero pause before jumping out of the airplane when the frigid air smacks him in the face? When your villain enters the victim’s house, does the aroma of fresh-baked cookies accost his senses and momentarily bring him back to a happy time before his mother left home and never came back? Does the heroine who’s coming home after a long absence stop on the edge of town and take in the view of the skyline, which allows a flood of memories to remind her of all the things she left behind?
Have you ever heard that you’re judged by the company you keep? There’s some truth to that. Look at who your characters hang out with and who they avoid. Do your characters have friends who appear to be polar opposites for balance, or do they show up on the page when you need someone to bounce ideas off of. You might even use an association as a device to relay information to your reader through dialogue. Just make sure it makes sense for your character to have these associations.
Characters are defined by their innermost thoughts, feelings, and motivations. They are defined by their associations. The characters in your story are defined by your reader’s opinions and reactions, so be wise in how you draw and paint your characters.
Here’s a review of the way I begin working on characterization before writing the first word of my books:
1. Decide on the genre. This affects characterization because of reader expectations and knowing what traits to bring out to the reader.
2. Character triangle or diamond for primary characters and villains.
3. Interview questions.
Basic Character interview questions to start with
You can ask as many questions as you want before starting your story. There’s a balance between asking enough to get what you need and asking too many that give you an excuse to procrastinate. Here are a few to start with:
- How does your physical appearance affect you? The blue eyes and red hair are physical traits, but how do they affect the character? If the character is unattractive, maybe she feels the need to fade into the woodwork. How does your physical appearance affect others? Perhaps the character’s physical beauty gives people the impression that’s all she has going on. Or maybe people are jealous.
- How do you relate to your family? Were you a mama’s boy or a daddy’s girl? Do you currently have a good relationship, or are you estranged?
- Educational level? Do you have your doctorate, or did you drop out of high school? How do you think this relates to how you perceive yourself or how others perceive you? Are you proud or ashamed of your educational level? Do people assume that just because you have a PhD, you’re smart? Or if you dropped out of high school, do people think you’re not intelligent?
- Do you have a mission? What are you willing to do to accomplish this mission? Erin Brokovich is an example of a character whose mission drives the story.
- What do you want more than anything else? What are you willing to do to get it?
- What are your strengths? How have you used them?
- Your weaknesses? What do you do to overcome them?
- What do you want to improve or change? If you don’t want to improve or change, why not?
- What do you look for in a friend or romantic interest? What do you avoid?
Those are 9 major questions with sub-questions. Add more that you feel will bring out your characters.
Once you know your characters, the plot often shows itself in a way you wouldn’t have thought of before. Knowing your characters allows you to draw the reader into the story without feeling forced or false. Without characterization, most books would seem flat, clinical, or textbook-ish. Work on characterization in your stories, and you’ll add depth. Your story will come to life, and your readers won’t be able to put down the book.
Debby Mayne is the author of 11 books and 5 novellas published by Barbour and Avalon Books. Her 2007 Barbour novel Double Blessing was voted second favorite in the contemporary category among Heartsong Presents book club readers. She is the mother of 2 grown daughters and wife of an avid golfer who keeps bringing home trophies for her to dust. In addition to writing novels, Debby is an instructor with Long Ridge Writers Group and judge for Writer’s Digest contests.
Debby will be giving away a copy of one of her new releases, If the Dress Fits, to one of our Friday Seekerville posters. Please leave a contact email address. A winner will be selected at 8 p.m. MT.