Some of the best instruction on characterization I’ve ever received came in the form of a rejection letter. The editor was Nick Harrison of Harvest House, and the year was 2001, so I’ve had a lot of time to mull over his comments--and lots of practice attempting to put his advice into practice!
Basically, Nick told me my story heroine was too “generic.” She could have been any middle-class Christian housewife. Nothing about her stood out as unique or intriguing. Well, the truth hurt, but I eventually had to agree with his assessment.
Nick’s rejection letter also included a copy of an article entitled “Creating a Character the Reader Has Never Met,” by Shelby Hearon. (As best I can determine, the article originally appeared in a 1994 issue of The Writer.) Ms. Hearon states that her first rule for writers is:
After considering what made certain characters stand out in her mind among the many stories from classes she’d taught or contests she’d judged, she determined that the successful writers had chosen a specific characteristic, habit, or behavior and “exaggerated it. Emphasized it. Enlarged it.”
But she goes on to say that “memorable” doesn’t necessarily mean freaky or strange, but rather a character whose life somehow tells us a truth we hadn’t thought about in that way before.
Let’s talk about some examples. To make Julie happy, we’ll kick off with Scarlett O’Hara, a memorable character if there ever was one! She’s the typical Southern belle of her era, pampered and prissy. But she also has a backbone of pure steel and a love for the land that will drive her to any lengths to preserve her home.
Now one of my favorites, Frodo from The Lord of the Rings. Hobbits are known to be peace-loving homebodies, and yet Frodo has a longing for adventure, just like his uncle Bilbo. Even more, in order to save Middle Earth, he must draw upon an inner strength he didn’t know he had.
In Ruthy’s debut novel Winter’s End, she gives her tenderhearted hospice nurse heroine a sharp wit and a love for stylish clothes and cute shoes.
Mary’s heroine in The Husband Tree thinks all men are worthless, and yet she can’t seem to stop marrying them. And in contrast with most women of her day, she’s also a skilled rancher and a crack shot.
Who are the characters that stand out in your mind, the ones who seem almost as real as your next-door neighbor?
And while you’re thinking about it, here’s another Seeker quiz to twist your brain. Each of the snippets below portrays a real trait of a real Seeker. The traits are real enough, but the names, events, and dialogue are all fictionalized. See if you can guess who’s who.
“You’ve got to be kidding!” Abby rolled her eyes. “No way I’d be caught dead in that outfit.”
Betsy glared at the auto mechanic. “I’m telling you, it just needs a new battery. Don’t try to sell me the entire engine.” At his scowl, she nodded toward her bumper sticker: I’M NOT BOSSY . . . YOU JUST NEED TO BE TOLD WHAT TO DO.
Catching her reflection in the shop window, Claire noticed her lipstick was fading. She ducked into the nearest ladies’ room and quickly applied another coat of Passion Flame Red.
“The class needs how many cupcakes?” Denise grabbed her Betty Crocker apron. “Oh, mylanta! I’ll get started right away!”
Edith tucked a loose strand back into her ponytail and heaved an annoyed sigh. “That’s the third time this year you’ve overdrawn our checking account. What is so hard about entering payments in the register and subtracting them from the available balance?”
Two in the morning and the kids were just now getting home. The later it had grown, the faster Frannie’s knitting needles clicked. Just a few more rows to take the edge off, and maybe she’d be calm enough to give her children the lecture they deserved.
Georgia’s leg seemed to have a will of its own. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t seem to keep it still. How many times already had she accidentally kicked her date’s shin under the table?
Haley had given up counting how many times she’d been teased about her trademark laugh. It was always short and sweet, starting low and ending high. At least her boyfriend thought it was cute.
Hoping no one would notice, Ingrid picked a couple of blond dog hairs off her black slacks. Could she not manage just once to leave the house without wearing her pets?
“This is delicious.” Jenny smiled at her date across the table and spooned up more of the creamy tomato bisque. Then she glanced down to see the dribbles she’d just deposited on her new white linen blouse. “Great. Now all I need is some blueberry pie and they can run me up a flagpole!”
Kimberly’s own heart broke as her best friend poured out her latest boyfriend troubles. “Oh, honey, put the popcorn on and I’ll be right over. I’ve got a spooky movie we can watch that will get your mind off that creep in no time flat.”
Sometimes it was hard to be the big sister, but Linda couldn’t turn away a sibling in trouble. If her family thought she was bossy, well, she’d just remind them they did ask for her advice.
Monica tiptoed into the dining room to double-check the table settings. Caterers could be so careless. A fork too close to the plate, the teaspoons and soup spoons reversed. She spied a sloppily placed napkin and carefully squared it up with the edge of the table.
Organ music swelled, jarring Nancy out of the scene she’d just been plotting. Oh, no, she’d missed half the church announcements again. But she had some really cool ideas for stirring up trouble for her story hero.
Another ten inches of snow had fallen overnight, and now Ophelia couldn’t get her car out of her own driveway. Her stomach plummeted at the thought of facing twice the work at the office tomorrow. But for one day at least, she could curl up in front of a roaring fire and enjoy a whole day to catch up on all those novels she usually had no time for.
By the way, later this week I'll select one lucky Seekerville visitor to receive a copy of my latest release, Romance by the Book. Tina will announce the winner in the Weekend Edition.
Sailor Kern led a sheltered childhood and never learned to appreciate her own worth and beauty. When she isn’t teaching swimming and water aerobics classes at the YMCA, she finds romance vicariously in the pages of novels. Now she has a chance to meet her favorite romance writer in person and needs to improve her image fast!