Characters Welcome by Mary Connealy
Today I’m going to talk about developing three dimensional characters.
I’m going to point out three distinct things I need to do to make my characters come to life.
I give them a backstory (which should NEVER BE EXPLAINED IN ONE SCENE)
I give them a goal (which is the heart of the story I plan to tell)
I give them a quirk.
I’ll use my heroine in Cowboy Christmas as an example.
About a year ago I listened to Angela Hunt say she wanted to get married very young. Her parents told her no. I remember Angela saying, “They were my spiritual leaders so I did as they asked.” And I thought, “But what if (when you're a writer it’s always ‘what if’ isn’t it?) What if your spiritual leaders weren’t trustworthy? At what point would you have to defy those leaders?
This was my starting point. I made Annette a ‘good girl’. She’s been working with a traveling mission group, singing. New leaders take over the mission group. These leaders act like Christians at first, but they press Annette to act more and more against her faith. Nothing big at first. Wear brighter colors. Sing patriotic songs, not strictly Christian songs. Inch by inch they ask her to step farther from her belief system. And then comes the day when they ask too much. They finally ask something of her she cannot do. And they’ve set the stage so there is no safety for her. To defy them will put her in terrible danger.
That’s where the book begins. I don’t give you any of that backstory in my book at the outset. Instead, my book begins with a defiant, terrified Annette being knocked down by the villain.
Actually I just re-read this scene. It came out pretty good if I do say so myself. I got a little weepy.
Why she’s being beaten isn’t important in that first scene. Annette’s fighting for her life. WHY just doesn’t matter. And enough of the WHY is revealed by a description of the shameful dress Claude Leveque wants her to wear to that night’s performance and Annette shouting, “No, I’ll die first.”
So Annette gets away but trouble is pursuing her. Her goal, to get to her father for safety. Her worthless rejecting father who sent her away from home to school back east after Annette’s mother died (I'm weaving in backstory-by the end of Chapter three the reader knows the bare bones of this). And along the way Annette meets Elijah Walker. The cranky man who doesn’t trust woman.
I could write what all brought Elijah’s crankiness on but I’ll let you find out yourself.
Annette has her backstory.
Now she needs a goal.
Her goal is to live bravely for God and bear the crosses God gives her. She’s not real good at it. She keeps fumbling the crosses, usually dropping them on poor Elijah’s head. But she keeps trying and Elijah keeps rescuing her and Claude keeps coming.
There’s our story.
Except to me the thing that brings a character to life fully is quirks. Annette's quirk is that she sings when she’s emotional. When she’s happy, sad, scared, excited; her reaction is to sing. A second quirk is that she's practicing being brave with poor Elijah. Snipping at him makes her feel courageous.
Her backstory that makes her who she is. The good girl who always thought if she’d just been better her father would have kept her with him. So she keeps trying desperately to be good.
Her goal, to learn to live courageously for God, even at the cost of her own life, which amounts to defiance, something she sees as the opposite of being good.
Her quirks, that singing, that sass.
Now I want you to think of a character in your book and tell me those three things.
Backstory, goal, quirks.
And do it in once sentence-each. I don't want a chapter long backstory dump showing up in the comment section. BOIL IT DOWN.
Since then Cowboy Christmas has won the 2010 Carol Award
in the Long Historical Romance category
Just let us know you want your name in the drawing and what you'd like to win. Winners announced in tomorrow's Weekend Edition.