When we start a new story, often we focus so much on the plot details, the story beats, the conflict turning points, that we forget to think of our characters as real people. As a result, they feel like cardboard cutouts, words on a page, when we really want the feeling of living, breathing people who will stay with readers long after the last page is turned.
Easy to say, but harder to do, right? How do we accomplish that sense of depth and continuity with our characters?
Your story is only a small slice of your character’s life
It helps to think of a novel as a snapshot: a short peek into the lives of real people. In a romance, it might be that point in which the separate stories of two people intersect and become one. In women’s fiction, it could be at the start of a particular problem in the POV character’s life. Either way, when you stop thinking of characters as people who only exist when they are “on screen,” it opens up new avenues for character development. The characters have a life outside of the tiny view that the readers glimpse on the page. They go to the grocery store, they avoid the gym, they play with their pets. Likewise, their story began at birth, not with the opening page. Every event that happened in their lives have conspired to make them the people that they are now.
For example, my novel Five Days in Skye takes place over five days in England and Scotland, so it shows an extremely narrow segment of my character’s lives. But I know that before my hero, James, was a celebrity chef, he worked his way up through the ranks of London’s most demanding kitchens, working twelve hour shifts, seven days a week. I also know that because he didn’t want to subsist on family money, he shared a dirty flat in a bad part of London with three other guys who chain smoked in the reception room and left their dishes in the sink. None of those details ever made it into the story, but knowing about his distinctly unglamorous path to stardom helps ground James’s swagger in much-needed practicality.
Don’t stop with the first interview
|30_book” by Sara Lando is licensed under CC By 2.0.|
Instead, take your characters out to dinner and evaluate them like a potential date. (Yes, I’m speaking figuratively here, even if we writers are known for taking our imaginary people a little too seriously.) Delve beyond the surface level questions and get to know them like a potential romantic partner might. Some questions you might ask:
What do you like to do on your day off?
What do you love and hate most about your job?
If someone gave you a free travel voucher, where would you go?
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
Then, to extend the metaphor to a slightly creepy level, follow them to their therapist’s office and eavesdrop for a bit.
What do you regret most about your last relationship?
What childhood experience has shaped you most?
If you could change one event in your life, what would it be?
What is the one disappointment that you fear you could never recover from?
These are the kinds of questions that will help you understand the personalities, hopes, and dreams of your characters and begin to flesh them out into fully-rounded people that exist outside the pages of your book. Plus, once you start delving into deep-seated fears and past hurts, you’ve got plenty of material to mine for story conflict. More than once, a “discovery” about a character’s past helped take my plot in an entirely new and unexpected direction.
And if all that fails… well, there’s always Pinterest!
Tell me, what is your favorite way to get to know your characters? Do you have a tried and true method to get into the heads of your leading men and women?
Carla Laureano has held many jobs—including professional marketer, small-business consultant, and martial arts instructor— but writer is by far her favorite. Her first novel, the contemporary romance Five Days in Skye, is currently a 2014 RWA RITA® Award double-finalist. Her fantasy debut, Oath of the Brotherhood (as C.E. Laureano) was recently chosen as one of RT Book Reviews’ Top Picks for June.
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About Five Days in Skye
Hospitality consultant Andrea Sullivan has one last chance to snag a high-profile client or she'll have to kiss her dreams of promotion good-bye. When she's sent to meet Scottish celebrity chef James MacDonald on the Isle of Skye, she just wants to finish her work as efficiently as possible. Yet her client is not the opportunistic womanizer he portrays himself to be, and her attraction to him soon dredges up memories she'd rather leave buried.
For James, renovating the family hotel is a fulfillment of his late father's dreams. When his hired consultant turns out to be beautiful, intelligent, and completely unimpressed by his public persona, he makes it his mission to win her over. He just never expects to fall under her spell.
Soon, both Andrea and James must face the reality that God may have a far different purpose for their lives—and that five days in Skye will forever change their outlook on life and love.
One lucky commenter will win their choice of Five Days in Skye or her newest release, a fantasy debut, Oath of the Brotherhood (as C.E. Laureano). Let us know you'd like to be considered. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition.