Friday, July 18, 2014

Giving Your Characters Life Beyond the Page

with Carla Laureano

donna hayword(s)” by Rakka is licensed under CC By 2.0.
 You know everything about your heroine: hair and eye color, favorite food, how many pairs of shoes she has in her closet. Your hero is complete with endearing quirks, an interesting job, and an actor doppelganger whose pictures populate your novel inspiration Pinterest board. And yet, when you sit down to craft the story, you find there’s something… missing.

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.
Most writing books will tell you to interview your characters, but the character questionnaires from the back of writing books often read like a medical form or a job application: height, weight, place of residence, current job, length of time at current job, five-year plan. However, when we stop there, we’re only scratching the surface. We’re settling for an understanding that’s factual and impersonal.

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?

About Carla

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.


  1. What an interesting post! As a reader I do notice that some characters seem more "alive" than others. Please enter me in the drawing.

  2. WELCOME, CARLA!!! Rolling out the red carpet with a special RITA breakfast coming in the am.

    Catered of course.

    Thrilled to have you with us!

  3. I agree .. Some characters come so alive you think of them days afterwards. I never thought about why. Thanks, Carla. Five Days in Skye sounds intriguing. Please add my name

  4. Congratulations, on being a RITA finalist.
    There's nothing like reading a book that have such real characters.
    Great post!
    Please add me to the drawing.

  5. This is a great twist on developing character. Love your version of questions to ask. Thinking of those crazy email chain surveys you get that ask 10 bizarre questions that you have to answer and pass on to 10 friends. Must not delete the next one that hits my inbox. They'd make great character research questions!

    Congratulation on being a RITA finalist!!!!!

  6. Carla, welcome to Seekerville! I love this post. Yes, characters do need an ENTIRE, well-rounded life!

    I've never been able to interview charcters, they just don't want to talk when I have a pen and pad in hand, LOL! But when I'm working on a scene, they tend to mine extra grooves in my gray matter with little tidbit details of their lives and why they're now doing something the way they're doing it.

    For example, the hero in the novella I'm working on is trying to hide his past by remaining in background of life, never bringing attention to himself. But right there, smack in the first scene, out of the blue, his mother walks into my novel asking if anyone has seen her son. Dilly Westin is a personality to contend with -- exactly NOT what RJ wants!

    That's the great part of being a writer. Taking all those little reveals given to you and using them in ways that add richness to your plot.

    Yes, my characters talk to me. They just don't do it on command.

    Thanks for joining us today, Carla!

  7. Silly me, CONGRATULATIONS on double-finalling in the RITA!!!!!!!!

  8. Hi Carla, Welcome to Seekerville and thanks for the great tips on getting to know your characters. It is so important to really know them and you gave us some great pointers.

    Congrats on being a Rita double finalist. You only have one more week to go. I bet you are on pins and needles with excitement. Have a blast at RWA national.

  9. This is great! I love the question examples you gave. Maybe it's my acting background, but when I create characters, I like to "become" them. I try to imagine seeing the world through their eyes, tainted by their experiences. I'd love a chance to win Five Days in Skye! :)

  10. Carla, Congratulations on your double Rita finals. I enjoyed your post and will keep it handy as I write. Please include me in the drawing for one of your books.

  11. One of the most amazing things about the Harry Potter book is that the author developed so much on the characters outside of the story that she was able to provide more detail during the movies and in setting up "Pottermore."

  12. Tina – Thanks for the welcome! The breakfast sounds great, as long as there’s coffee. There will be coffee, right? ;) I’ll see you in San Antonio next week!

    Loves To Read – Thanks for dropping by! I’ve found that the characters make all the difference in whether I stick with a book or not. I’m always a little upset I won’t have an opportunity to run into my favorites on the street. (No, I don’t have any problems distinguishing reality from fiction at all… :) )

    Marianne – Thanks for dropping by, Marianne! What’s one of your favorites? I’m always looking for great new books to read.

    Amy C – Thanks for the congrats, Amy. It’s been fun so far.

    Kav – I never thought of that as a source. I’m not deleting those next time either! Thanks for the fun idea.

    Audra – It’s a good thing when characters become so real that they develop their own personalities and start bucking the author. I’m currently writing the sequel to Skye, and despite the fact I absolutely told him not to do it, the hero insisted on kissing the heroine smack in the middle of chapter three. That was the sign he was going to be a force to be reckoned with. (And thanks for the congrats too!)

    Sandra – Thanks, Sandra! I’m definitely getting nervous, but it helps that my competition is also a good friend. Any tips for RWA? It’s my first time!

  13. Janette – I’m the same way. I also write very “cinematically,” which makes it easy to be descriptive if I can actually see the scene unfold.

    Wilani – Thanks for the congrats. Good luck in the drawing!

    Walt – I’m a big HP fan. JK Rowling definitely stands out in terms of world building and giving characters all their own distinct personalities. I like that example.

  14. And wouldn't you know it, Carla is in Colorado. I find that out AFTER I leave the state.

  15. So how hard is it to write in two totally different genres?

    How to you mentally prepare yourself for a day of writing in one of them?

    Or do you write both in the same day?

  16. Welcome to Seekerville, Carla. Huge congratulations on the double Rita final!!! Five Days in Skye sounds wonderful. The title gives the sense of urgency of your characters.

    I love digging deep into my characters' pasts and uncovering the hurts and fears and weaknesses that keep them from risking love. The hard part is getting that information on the page in snippets that hook the reader. Even harder for me is developing the external conflict, but that's not a topic for today.


  17. I brought apple fritters for breakfast. I've been hungry for them since the characters in Ruthy's Loving the Lawman had them for breakfast. Loving the story, but not fair to make me crave donuts, Ruthy!


  18. Good morning, Carla.

    I'll add my congrats on the DOUBLE RITA final. Can't say I'm surprised. Five Days in Sky was one of those books that I knew from the very first page I was going to love!

    You've given me much to think about today. I'm in the midst of revisions on two different books so keeping the various characters straight is fun!

  19. It helps to think of a novel as a snapshot: a short peek into the lives of real people.

    A snapshot ... what a super way to look at a novel! And I'd never thought about the craziest thing a character has ever done. What insight that could provide.

    Congrats on the double final. What an achievement!

    Please enter me in the drawing for 'Five Days in Skye.' The blurb has me wanting to know more.

    Nancy C

  20. I forgot to add, I'm looking forward to meeting you in San Antonio. I'll stop by the literacy signing. I have the ebook of Five Days in Skye, but I want my very own autographed print copy.

  21. Welcome, Carla!

    Love the questions you posed concerning the therapist's office. Yes, those are the ones that reveal inner conflict and add substance to the story, IMHO! :)

    Congrats on your RITA finals!!! Such a thrill. I'll be cheering in San Antonio!

  22. I'm going to interview my characters this weekend!

    Thanks for the question suggestions and I'd love to read Five Days in Skye! I have a friend with a Skye terrier!



  23. Tina – Isn’t that always the way it works?

    In answer to your question about writing different genres, it ranges from “not difficult at all” to “uh, what am I supposed to be writing today?” Mostly, though, I find it’s a great way to give my brain a break. I write six days a week, but I need time to let a finished draft marinate, so it’s nice to be able to switch between WIPs.

    I have fairly limited time to write every day (my youngest is only going into full time school next year) so I spend time plotting out my next scene while driving, doing dishes, etc. Most of the time, it takes me at least 30 minutes to be able to get into the mindset of the story again, which drives me crazy when the clock is ticking. I write as much as I know and then go do something else. Sometimes that’s only 1000 words. Sometimes it’s 6000. It just depends on story flow and my mood and the amount of caffeine available to me.

    And no, I don’t write in two genres in the same day or even in the same week. The only exception is when I’m writing a novel in one genre and I get edits back on the other. Even then, I generally have to focus on one thing at a time. Otherwise, my contemporary characters end up saying “mayhap” and my fantasy characters run to the supermarket. I don’t have trouble marketing a different genre than I’m writing though. I think it must use a different part of my brain.

  24. Janet – Thanks for the warm welcome! I agree with you, uncovering those barriers are both the fun part and the difficult part of writing romance. I write these ridiculously messed up characters, so it can be challenging to parcel out that information in a way that makes their behavior understandable without revealing everything too soon.
    And… mmmm. Donuts.

    Mary – Thanks for the kind words! And good luck on the revisions. I had a similar problem when I was writing the third book in the fantasy series while reviewing copyedits on the second. I couldn’t remember where I was in the overall storyline. I look forward to seeing you in San Antonio!

    Nancy – Thanks for the congrats! It definitely helps to think of the characters having lives outside what is shown in the book. I think being aware of the idea as the author automatically gives a sense of expansiveness to your writing. I recently read a great article about books needing some ambiguity to allow the reader to exist in the story world, and I think this goes along the same idea.

    Debbie – Hi, Debbie! What does it say about me that all my characters really could use therapy? :)

    Stephanie - Glad it's helpful! I've never heard of a Skye terrier. Is it anything like a West Highland? I've always wanted a Westie. :)

  25. Hey Carla,

    Thank you for these great character questions! I agree that most interview sheets read like a medical report or a police report. Your questions really get to the heart of the matter.

    And a huge congrats on the success of your book! I think I grabbed it on a free Amazon day and absolutely loved it. In fact, I think I might have to read it again!

    Best of luck at the RITA ceremony!


  26. Good morning, Carla! Those pictures are incredible! And I'm hooked on Five Days in Skye. That's a part of the world I'm dying to visit. Please enter me in the drawing.

    I haven't thought through specific questions with my characters, but as I read yours, I realized there are a couple I search for already. Thanks for the suggestions.

  27. Both of Carla's releases sound wonderful. Gorgeous covers too.

    Do you have a set writing schedule, Carla?

  28. Great tips, Carla! I've been trying to breathe life into my characters and this sounds like just the thing to do. Thanks so much for visiting Seekerville today. :)

  29. Hi Carla,
    Figuring out my characters in a way other than the 'interview' is a revelation. That takes the process from sterile to personal, JMHO. Making reservations now to take my hero to dinner this evening! I know he likes a good steak, lol. Great tip!

  30. Carla, you live in Colorado? Where? I'm in Longmont, just north of Denver. Wow. A double RITA finalist just minutes to many minutes away from me!!

  31. Carla, all the interviewing, character charts, etc. For me...I get to know my characters by writing their story.

    And often I'll have 'lightbulb' moments that force me to go back to the beginning and bend and shape the character after I've learned more about him.

    But I don't consider that wasted time, it's just my process.

    And writing and revising and bending and shaping....well, honestly is that MORE work than the complex interviewing.

    And don't get me wrong, there is NOTHING wrong with doing it that way.

    The longer I write and the more authors I know, the more I can see there is NO right or wrong way to write a book.

    Find a way that works for YOU and don't let anyone tell you it's wrong.

  32. That's why I think Seekerville keeps going year after year. It's so interesting to see into another author's process.

    We can learn and make changes to our own process, experiment, try and fail and tweak.

    Find what works for us personally.

    This blog post is a great example of that. Thank you.

  33. I'm quoting this, Carla: have a tried and true method to get into the heads of your leading men and women?

    Because Tried and True is the title of my August Book!!!!!

  34. Hi Carla!

    Congratulations on the double Rita final! Five Day in Skye sounds like an awesome book.

    I agree that the sample interviews you find in most writing books only scratch the surface. They're like a first date, and necessary, but not complete enough for me.

    One thing I like to do to really bring out my characters is to put them in a situation and see what they do. It might be something I use in the story, or it might not be, but when they start talking to each other, they reveal much more than they tell me in an interview!

    Please put me in the drawing!

  35. CARLA!!!!!!!

    SOOOO good to see you here, my friend, and SOOOOO incredibly excited for you this week with the double Rita final -- PRAYING you win!!

    Great blog today, and one I actually needed pretty badly as I have hit a wall with my current WIP, mostly because I'm not in love with the characters, which as we both know is ESSENTIAL, so thanks for the tips!!

    I LOVED Five Days in Skye as you know, and am hoping it flies off the shelves extra much after your Rita win!! :)


  36. Great post, Laura!

    First, yes, I have interviewed my characters before. Once I scheduled a pretend interview with a heroine so that I could get to know her better. This heroine had amnesia and in my "mind's eye" (us writers do have such a thing), I sat at this cute little outdoor cafe waiting for her. I wanted to visualize her as she arrived. All I remember about that particular interview was that she showed up in a RED dress, and she hadn't been that flamboyant up to that point.

    Another time, I was really frustrated with my cardboard characters and in the middle of typing out the story, I wrote, "STOP!" and "walked" into the scene, just like a director on a movie set. Then the hero, the heroine and I hashed it out. Actually, they got into an argument and I just listened.

    Disclaimer: If anybody comes to haul me off to the funny farm, I will deny this comment. Mary Connealy hacked my blogger profile. She's that good, you know.

  37. Mary C said:I get to know my characters by writing their story. And often I'll have 'lightbulb' moments that force me to go back to the beginning and bend and shape the character after I've learned more about him.

    Pam sez: Yes, this is my go-to now. I mostly have overall internal/external journey, but the getting to KNOW them happens as I write. Just yesterday, I had to write an earlier scene to plant the seeds for something that comes after.

  38. Susan—Thanks for the congrats and the kind words. I always got frustrated with the interviews, so I combined a bunch with my own thoughts to make a worksheet of my own. I now have it as a template in Scrivener, so it’s right there for reference.

    Meghan – Thanks so much, Meghan! Skye is one of my favorite places on earth, as you can probably tell. :) Good luck in the drawing.

    Tina – During the year when my kids are in school, I do have somewhat of a regular writing schedule. Five days a week and Saturday mornings. During the summer, it’s a little more difficult. But lately, I’ve found I work better with daily word count goals. I might be able to complete it in two hours or I might have to work into the night, but having to meet my work count before I go to bed makes sure that deadlines don’t sneak up on me unexpectedly.

    Anna—Thanks for dropping by! I hope it was helpful.

    Audra—Ah, a fellow Coloradan! Excellent! I’m in Centennial. I’m actually going to be speaking at His Writers in Westminster in August. Email or message me and I’ll give you the details if you’re interested! Maybe we can meet in person.

    Mary – It’s so nice to find another writer who has a discovery process, especially one as well-known and celebrated as you! I usually write a discovery draft, even when using character worksheets, and typically throw out 50-75% of it on the next pass. It makes my editor a little ill to hear about, but like you said, it works for me. And every time I read about another author’s process, I try it out and take what I like. What did we do before the internet???

    Jan—I love that! It doesn’t work for me (though I’ll try it if I’m really blocked), but it’s so much fun hearing what works for others. Good luck in the drawing!

    Julie – Hello my lovely friend! I’m flattered if you take away something from this, because as we know, you are so good at bringing the dramatic characters! And thanks for the well-wishes. <3

    Pam—I’m fairly certain there is enough evidence at this point to have me committed, so we can talk character in the padded room together. I hear they serve good pudding, though. I’m also an insane rewriter. Sometimes the draft my editor gets will be #7 or #8. Eek!

  39. Add my name for Five Days in Skye. I LOVE that title.

    and I realize I do not know my present characters well enough to make them three dimensional. I'm using this post to have a "date night" with my characters to get that added dimension.

    Awesome post! I love how much I learn here everyday. Thanks again for visiting Carla.

  40. oh, and huge congrats on the double RITA noms. wow!

  41. Thanks Carla! Characterization is one of the things I'm working on right now in my WIP...Your books look good!

  42. Oh, I'm so late! I tried getting over earlier and day job took over my life....

    But I'm here now with Zucchini Bread for youse!

    Cara, super congrats on being a double RITA finalist! Go, you! And thank you so much for taking the time out of your lovely start to this career to be with us.....

    I love seeing the variances of how we all work, what works for us, and how amazingly well the Holy Spirit works in our lives when we but open our ears, hearts and minds to let him take charge.... And from the looks of the two very different books, you've got an INTERESTING BRAND going, Carla!!!


  43. Enjoyed your post/visit! Congrats on the double Rita final!!
    I grabbed Five Days in Skye on a recent free day..this makes me want to rush and read it!
    Please count me in the drawing for your other book.

  44. Carla! I love this and yes, a lot of the helps don't always give you a full view of your character.

    I like to do an prompt thing I got from Art of War for Writers where I open a blank page and let the character "talk" in first person for at least ten minutes, sometimes longer. I'm honestly shocked at some of the things I learn (which I get how weird that sounds, LOL). I tried the character interviews, even tried customizing my own, but finally I found this method. Freestyle personal narrative.

    I loved your "If all else fails there's Pintrest," LOL. HUGS!

  45. Carla, congratulations on your RITA nomination! I love the blurb about your book. My son and DIL raved about their hiking trip to the beautiful area of Skye. I'd like to travel there someday. I enjoy armchair travels, so please enter my name in the drawing for Five Days in Skye!

    Your post has me thinking about taking my characters out for dinner.....with lots of questions. Thanks for sparking new ideas!

    Best wishes for your experiences in San Antonio!

  46. I love having the weekend to catch up on my writing goals.


  47. Hi Carla, I read Five Days in Skye last Sept. And just loved it. I instantly tried to find another book of yours and was stunned to discover it was your first book. That's amazing and speaks to how very talented a writer you are. The nominations are well-deserved and I'm pulling for you!

    I would love to read Oath of the Brotherhood,just because you wrote it, so add my name to the drawing please.

  48. I often get so involved in characters from books, TV, or movies that they feel like real people I know. That is how I want to feel about my own characters. It helps if I think of them as similar to real people I know, but then add my own characteristics.

    I would love to win Five Days in Skye.

  49. What an honor to be a double Rita finalist. Congratulations.

    My characters have to want something that I care about. They don't have to pursue it in the same way that I would, but I have to own the passion that motivates them.

  50. Sorry, ladies, I disappeared for a while. I was getting my hair cut and buying clothes (yes, Tina, you called it!) this afternoon to prep for RWA next week. So let me catch up here…

    Deb H – So glad this is helpful! Just make sure you make your hero pay for dinner. :) And thanks for the congrats!

    Jennifer—Best wishes for the WIP. By the time you’re done with them, you feel like you know them better than a lot of your friends, don’t you?

    Ruth—Zucchini bread! How did you know I just bought zucchini with the intention of making bread tomorrow? I’ve kind of got two brands going, linked together by a serious level of crazy. Definitely a God thing, because this was the last thing I expected to happen!

    Jackie – I’m having a blast! You guys are great. I hope you enjoy Five Days in Skye.

    Nancy—Ooh, that book is on my reading list. Love JSB. Do you know he was one of the first people to encourage me on the path to publication? It was fun running into him last year as a published author, fifteen years later. I’m going to have to check out freestyle personal narrative as an alternative.

    Sherida—Thank you! Don’t forget to check out my Pinterest board for tons of Skye pictures. It will definitely spark the wanderlust. Happy brainstorming!

    Tracey—Thanks for the lovely words. Oath is definitely a different kind of book, but I hope you enjoy it all the same. Wishing you the best.

    Sandy—I get inspired by real people as well. Some I know, and some I just come across in daily life. Like the bearded, tattooed hipster wearing Google Glasses in the shoe store. He’s got to show up as a bit character in a book some day. People like that are just too unique not to write about.

    Becke—Thanks for the congrats! I’m much the same way about my characters, though sometimes I end up enjoying unexpected activities through the course of researching them. I never enjoyed watching rowing until I started researching it for James’s brother Ian, whose story I’m writing now. Once I got a peek into that peculiar and fascinating culture, I was hooked.

  51. Hope everyone's been having a great summer! It's been awhile since I was last here ...

    I'm a reader, but I remember making up my own characters in middle school using charts like that (they were pretty one-dimensional, as you mentioned). Those deeper questions would have definitely helped me to flesh them out. =)

    I'm always game for new Christian fantasy novels! I haven't read anything my Ms. Laureano, but it sounds intriguing --thanks for the chance to win!

    --"Lady DragonKeeper"

  52. As a reader I want to finish reading a book feeling like I know the characters well.

    Count me in for the books thank you - Five Days in Skye or Oath of the Brotherhood.

  53. Carla, I'm sorry I'm a day late for your post! My son came into town yesterday for a visit.

    What a great post. I used to do a lot more character work than I do now. I think I need to go back to my old ways! I need to know my characters better.