Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Finding Character

Plot makes a story interesting and page-turning, but characters make readers care about that plot.

Suspense novelists need to set a fast paced story, and so to be successful at character development, we had better know how to nail them fast. This post isn't about character arcs where events alter our creations for better or worse, this is about beginning the story with fully formed, four-dimensional (at least), human beings. You can't take the time to "build" them, and your story is what changes them.

Think of the thought and planning a pilot needs to go through when landing on an aircraft carrier at sea. There's no room for error, and no way to mosey down the runway until he feels like stopping. And because he's gone over and over the process (backstory) he doesn't need to think much about why he's taking the various steps and making his decisions. Everything is automatic. Everything makes sense. Everything works.

In order to land on the "character" carrier sure-footed and ready to role out the plot, the novelist has got to know their characters intimately before introducing them to readers. What are some of the ways to do this?

Character charts abound. Most of them leave me feeling like I've created a cardboard cutout of some dull, predictable clod. Not even near as interesting as Flat Stanley. Occasionally I'll run into a question or two that opens doors for additional insight, but more often, they make me get bored with a character before I've even found a way to care about them. And these are my characters! Sheesh.

A young writer friend asked about character charts and I told her I didn't use them. And I told her why. But then later, it dawned on me that she writes paranormal, fantasy kinds of things, and builds a rather unique storyworld. So, for her, figuring out what her strange creature eats for breakfast might be kind of fun. Sometimes the minutiae can really get a writer juiced, as long as it's unique.

There are two things that work best for me (and I'd love to hear what works for you).

The first is writing a first person character study. Free-form. Just let myself go. What I'm looking for in the process are the defining moments (thanks, Dr. Phil) of my character's life. What made them the people they are today? This exercise lets me get into the skin of the person I'm writing about and keep them real and true to character.

The second thing sort of happens while I'm doing the free-form first person character study. I keep asking them questions. The main one is "Why?" It's kind of working backward. Rather than constructing a character, I'm deconstructing one. Let me get to the crux/core/heart of the matter.

When I think of favorite books, the plot might be a sharp point of remembrance, but it's the characters who invade my psyche and hold on that truly make a story memorable. That's what I strive for with every paragraph I write.


Most writers have pages on their websites for other writers. Many times, you can find character charts on those. Pick an author whose characters grab you, and see what they've got available.

Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins is an excellent book on character development.

Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card is one that comes highly recommended.

45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt is also one that is recommended.

Heroes & Heroines by Cowden, LaFever and Viders is another option.

Fiction never exceeds the reach of the writer's courage.

JF: Fire and Ice by J.A. Jance. I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Look for it on sale July 21st.

CR: Pandora's Daughter by Iris Johansen. So far, this one isn't doing much for me. That's why I put it down for the Jance, but have picked it up again. I'm forever hopeful.

Next, I'm thinking I'd like to give J.D. Rhoades a try.

It's all better with friends.


  1. I think both your strategies sound fantastic, and I aspire to be that exacting (and deep) prior to writing. It must save all sorts of time revising, and make for the kind of lush details up front that come from knowing who you're writing about.

    The only way I've found it possible (and mind, my novel is currently out on sub, not even bought yet, so who knows where this approach may go) to learn who my characters are is to write a complete first draft. By the time I type t-h-e e-n-d, I know just who I'm working with.

    Then it's time to go back and make every single page that came before reflect who I ended up with...

  2. I have to laugh, Jenny. Not at you, but at me.

    My current protags and their family have evolved over TWO other wips. Both of which are stuck in the proverbial drawer. It wasn't necessarily character development that landed them there, but it's funny that they've come through career changes (some non-descript sales position and a housewife in the first one to a shrink and EMT in the second (contracted with the local PD), to a former shrink-now bookstore owner and EMT in this one).

    My greatest eye-opener with this exercise was for my antagonist in my current project. He's a seriously twisted individual, but now I kind of feel sorry for him. And he has the strangest hobby . . .

  3. Well, talk about deeply knowing who they are, Peg!

  4. Great post, Peg. I'm going to have to think about my characters more intimately. One of my crit partners printed out that in my new suspense, she doesn't really connect with the MC in the first few chapters.

    One thing that I've been doing to "get to know" my character better is joining in on a side story with my crit partners. We take a character from our current WIP and put them all together in a new world/situation and see what happens next. I've learned a lot about what comes natural to my character (as she has no memory).

  5. Interesting . . . about your critter creations, but mostly about a character with no memory. You've got to REALLY know that one since she doesn't (yet) know herself and why she does/thinks things. Zowsters.

    Of course, sometimes even with memory, I don't know why I think the things I think, or do the things I do. I blame it on hormones.

  6. You're absolutely right, which is why I think the second and third chapters fell flat. I am going to go back and revise before I move on. Now that I know her better, I think it will be more realistic...better tension. Oh, and participating in this story also gave me an idea for a plot twist later on! Love it when that happens!