Monday, November 03, 2008

Writing Advice Monday: Creating Characters: The First Decisions

First, a note--I'll be doing a writing workshop at the Carnegie Library in Angola, IN this Wednesday night on Show, Not Tell. If you're in that area, you'll want to stop by! The details are on the right, in the appearances section of the blog (as are all my other upcoming workshops).

This week, I'm giving away a great book by a fellow author. Janet Dean's Courting Miss Adelaide, which was released last month and is the first of two books set in Noblesville, Indiana. Heartfelt, moving and just plain awesome, you'll really enjoy this one!
Now, on to the advice! You've got your idea, you've begun writing, maybe you're even participating in National Novel Writing Month. But what you want to do is create GREAT characters. Because truly, wonderful books are based on great characters. Well, this next series of Writing Advice Mondays posts are designed to help you do just that!
The first decision you have to make is WHO your character is. Is she a murderer? An actor? A chef? Is she the protagonist or antagonist? Is he the father of the murder victim? The doctor who diagnoses a life-threatening disease? A lot of times this vocation will come from the plot. If you’re writing a murder mystery, obviously you need a killer, a victim and a hero. If you’re writing a romance, you need a hero and a heroine who have a few conflicts between them but not so many that they can’t get together. If you’re working on a children’s story, then you need a child protagonist who goes through a life-changing event.
Okay, so you have the situation. You have a vocation or role for the character to play. Now the next step is to figure out who this person is.
Many things help you make these decisions. What kind of person would be thrust into this situation? And why? This can send your plotting into a 100 different directions so brainstorm on this. One of the best ways to brainstorm, according to experts, is the spoke and wheel method. Draw one word in the center of the page (protagonist, murderer, and antagonist) then draw out lines that lead to all kinds of possibilities. Maybe the murderer is an innocent framed for the crime. Maybe it’s a desperate woman backed into a corner. Maybe it’s an accident. Maybe it’s a serial killer. Feel fee to let yourself go, even if you end up with 100 ideas on the page, and come up with as many ideas as you can. Even if you don’t use all these ideas, hold on to the paper. When you get stuck later in the plot, pull this out and see where it leads you.
Third, you need to name your character. For me, I like names that have meaning. I have a baby name book I use to look up meanings, derivatives and nicknames.
Fourth, create a character “bible.” This can come from a character interview, from your own thoughts, however you want to develop it. The character bible is comprised of the simple stuff - eye color, hair color, etc. But also tackle the bigger issues -- what happened to this character as a child? What is he or she afraid of? What’s his worst habit? Greatest trait? Biggest weakness? How does he feel about his parents/ pets? Last girlfriend? All of these things become fodder for great, well-developed characters.
These are the kids of details that give characters life. One of my first rejection letters praised my writing up and down but aid that my characters didn’t breathe and live on the page. I had no idea what this meant at the time, but learned later ho to pump life into people on a page. Characters shouldn’t be static -- they should have past habits, annoying traits, likes and dislikes, etc. Those are the little details that make them as real as the neighbor you don’t like.
One of the things that will affect who your characters are and what they do is your setting. Think about that . Would a book set in a haunted castle be different than one set in a busy subway? Of course they would. Character reactions, actions and events would all differ based on the setting.
So now you have the basic elements for a character. The bare outline of who they are, the situation that they’re in and where that situation takes place. For some writers, that’s enough of a launching pad to write a whole book. For others, more planning and development is needed. Here are some questions to ask your character:
1) Why did your parents name you (fill in character's name)? Does it have any special meaning?
2) What is your problem? What are you trying to achieve?
3) How are you going to overcome this problem?
4) What weaknesses make it hard for you to achieve your goals and get past your problems?
5) What in your background makes this harder for you than for anyone else?
If you’re writing a romance, think about secrets the characters can keep from each other; things that would touch their hearts; things that would make them work together. In a mystery, you’ll want elements that will center around the dead body and how it got there; what clues will lead to the suspect; who will find the clues; what motivations the murderer has.
By asking questions -- as many questions as you can -- you create better, more well-rounded characters. Ask them aloud, ask them on paper. Just ask them. Your characters will thank you by coming alive on the page!


  1. Great help here, Shirley, thanks! I hadn't ever thought of the secrets the hero/heroine can keep--what a great idea, one that will make a big difference for me! to examine my characters. LoL.

  2. Hey Shirley,
    Janet's book is the greatest! She always says such great things about you . . . all true, of course!

  3. You've made me think, Shirley! I don't have problems with my story people and avoid as much work as I can. But I'm going to give this a try because I can see how effective it'll be to have this info up front.

    Generally, I discover things about my characters as I go along. But this would be a good way to get some depth.

    Thanks again, Shirley,

  4. Glad the post was a help, all! I think the more you know about your characters, the deeper the story is, and thus, the more emotional!


  5. Anonymous9:30 AM

    Do you ever base characters on people you either know or have met in real life or do they pretty much spring from your imagination?

  6. BlueSocks,

    No, none of my characters are based on real people. There are probably snippets of things I've observed over the years that slip in here and there, but really, these people all spring out of my mind, as real as the neighbors. Kinda scary, in a way, that these imaginary people are so real, LOL.


  7. Since this is exactly the question plaguing me this week, as I start a new story, this writing advice is right on time.

    Sometimes characters show up fully formed. Other times, like now, I have an idea that needs lots of work. Thanks for some helpful tips.


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