Character building

This blog is for writers, or those who would like to write, but haven’t quite gotten there yet.  I just want to cover one major aspect of writing, and that is character development. 

As far as I’m concerned, well formed characters are the most critical part of any book.  You can have a great outline, a compelling plot with ample suspense and drama, but without characters who  are real to you, the story won’t be as good as it could and should be.  You need to know much more than just the basics like hair and eye color, height and weight, and what they do for a living.

You need to know their family life was like when they were growing up.  Did they break any bones doing stupid childhood stunts, or have their appendix out when they were ten?  Who was their best friend?  What were they afraid of, and did they have any recurring nightmares?  What was their favorite subject in school?  What did they want to be when they grew up?  Is it related to what they actually do now?  How did/do they get along with their siblings?  Do they have any siblings?

This isn’t something you’re going to be able to take shortcuts with.  You want to take all the time you need to make them as real to you as you are.  You want to think about them often.  Imagine them in a variety of situations-and know how they would react.  Would they help a little old lady get groceries loaded in her car?  Would they stop at the scene of an accident and put their life on the line to save a victim from a burning car?  Administer CPR to a drowning victim?  Do they even know CPR?

These are all things you need to know to create compelling characters. But sometimes, no matter how much time and effort you spend, some of them are going to give you headaches.  Migraines, in fact!

I had one heroine that, no matter what I did to make her likeable, I just could not stand her.  And that was a really bad thing, since she was slated to be the star of the last book in a series of five.  I couldn’t come up with even one redeemable quality about this woman and was afraid I’d have to scrap the whole idea.  And that would have been a royal pain in the neck as I had already finished the first book.

So what did I do?  I Googled.  And Googled, and Googled, and Googled.  And finally found a solution.  At first I felt pretty stupid doing it.  So stupid, in fact, that I wouldn’t have had the guts to tell even one person about it, much less make it the subject of a very public blog!

But it worked.

How did I overcome my dislike of this key character?  I ‘interviewed’ her and her sister, another character I didn’t particularly like.  At first it just felt silly, until I got into it, and then I enjoyed it so much I sometimes felt like I might have a multiple personality disorder.  Until I realized it really wasn’t all that different than what I’ve been doing for years.  It was just another tool to use to in the creation more realistic characters.

During the course of that ‘interview,’ I discovered the reason behind the unlikable woman.  It all came down to a childhood where she and her sister felt very insecure. 

Yeah, I was in charge.  I could have gone a hundred different ways with that, but I built on what I’d already invested in her, and worked my way to a logical conclusion.  I opened my mind to make believe, which is all fiction writing really is.  

It was hard in the beginning, but I’ve done several more since, when a character is giving me fits.  And you know what?  It might take a few minutes to get into it, but then it turns into the most amazing experience.  You simply imagine the subject of your interview as a real living, breathing human being.  Keep the fact sheet you created for him or her handy, and then do your best to imagine their responses to your questions, given what you already know about them.

I was quite surprised to find that one of my characters had a very sharp sense of humor that, if I’d just stayed with the character outline, I’d never have discovered.  He turned into one of my favorite heroes in the series. 

So you can take it or leave it, but I think interviewing characters is a fantastic way to add new dimensions to them.

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