Wednesday, January 12, 2011



Hello and Happy New Year to you all.

Today I’m going to recycle one of my older posts. LOL, I know, you’re probably thinking how cheap and lazy, but honestly, there is a reason for my cheapness.

Lately I have read a lot of posts about plot, story structure, how to write that breakout novel, how to ensure your manuscript never gets lost in the slush pile, etc, etc, and this got me wondering just what makes a good story. Then it hit me. It’s the characters. You can have the most nail-biting action scenes, have the most compelling plot, but without the characters your story is like an elaborately designed city with no people.

When you read a novel, what is it about that particular story that sticks with you? What makes it worth reading? Most likely it is the characters. Really, the characters are the story. What they go through, how they handle themselves in certain situations is what makes a story memorable.
But why are they memorable? They are after all not real, only words on paper. How then do writers turn words into characters you love or even hate? Let’s take a look and break it down.

First, an author discovers a character. Some do this by basing their character or characters on people they know personally. Others base their characters on people they may have seen in passing: in a store, at work, hair salon, the bank, etc, etc.

Now that you have a character in mind, here is a list of five things you should know about him or her before you start writing.

1) Physical appearance.

2) Background, history.

3) Personality, beliefs.

4) Types and patterns of behavior.

5) Dominant traits.

The next step is adding certain characteristics to this character. Is he happy, sad, broody? Maybe your heroine is a worrier, has an anger problem? Also, build what ifs. Give the one dimensional character a history, personality, and problems to solve.

At this stage you will have a rough idea of what your character looks like, know what type of personality he or she has. In essence, you will know the basics, but how do you get to know your character in-depth?

One way to accomplish this is through a character interview. Actors use this exercise to get better acquainted with the character they will play. Three rules apply to this exercise.

1) No in-depth planning ahead of time. Best answers are spontaneous.

2) You must answer as the character.

3) Make sure the answers are consistent. Example: your character shouldn’t be happy go lucky one minute, then a brooding worrier the next.

You as the writer can play both roles. The interviewer and the interviewee.

Set up a few basic questions you would like to know about this character and answer as if you actually are the character. LOL, I have tried this and it is really fun. Some of the answer you come up with will surprise you.

Making a character sketch is another excellent way to flesh out your characters. Begin by writing a description, physical appearance and personality traits. Next apply the setting. This will add even more details to your character. Examples: where he/she works, and lives. Do they live on a farm, in a big city?

Next, write a scene of conflict. This helps you learn your character’s values. What he/she stands for. Also, placing two characters together will give you more clues into a character’s behavior by noticing how they interact with one another.

All these methods will help fill out your flat characters so they become characters readers can relate to, fall in love with, and even laugh and cry with. They turn from words on paper to become real people.

The characters in my current WIP are made up of bits and pieces of people I know. For example, my heroine’s job is based on a friend of mine’s job. But my heroine and my friend’s personalities are quite different. My heroine’s persona is really based on different traits from all my friends. One of my secondary characters loves jokes and pulling pranks. His behavioral qualities are very similar to mine.

I have read many, many novels over my life and some—most--I can’t even remember their titles, but I remember names of certain characters that have touched my heart.
I’m going to give you a few examples of just how much well formed characters can and do affect stories.

One of my critique partners has recently begun writing a new story. She’s been kind enough to allow me to read and crit as she writes. I’m only four chapters in and already I love it. Actually, I was hooked before I read the last word of her first chapter.

So what makes her story so great you may ask? I’ll tell you. The plot is fresh, good conflict has been hinted at, her descriptions are out of this world, but really what had me hooked was her characters. First chapter and her hero already touched my heart. I want, no, need for him to overcome his demons and find happiness. Her characters feel real to me. They are three dimensional, not just words on paper.

This brings me to another critique partner of mine. Mouths back when I first began reading her story, I fell in love. Her technical writing needed a little help—to be fair she was very new--but I saw through the head hopping, missed punctuation, and telling, to the great story underneath. It was really her characters that grabbed my attention. They literally JUMPED off my computer screen. They were real to me. I cried, laughed, got angry—in essence I went through all the emotions her characters did.


Penelope said...

Great summary. I think one additional thing that you need to know about your character is what their weakness is. What really challenges them, or what sets them off. That speaks volumes to how they will react in a given situation - and to conflict.
Thanks for sharing, you made some great points and shared some nifty tricks.

Sheri Fredricks said...

I've never tried interviewing my characters before. My current hero is so moody, he might kick me out of his house before I ask the first question! But these are great ideas to use in addition to a character sketch. If this is how you created your characters, it certainly worked because they've stuck in my mind. Thank you for this post!

Charli Mac said...

My story is character driven, absolutely. I get so into my characters head I forget the structure and where the story is supposed to go. It's a delicate balance between plot and character but I have to agree, characters are at the root of it all.

Martha Ramirez said...

Great post, Brenda. RE: It was really her characters that grabbed my attention.
Isn't something that some NY best selling authors can break all the rules and yet still be compelling.

Brenda said...

Hey Troll, thanks for stopping by. You are correct. Another great way to get to know your characters is through their weaknesses and how they handle them or not, lol.

Sheri, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. And oh yes, your hero is moody, lol. I can picture him slamming the door in your face!!!!

Charli, nice to see ya here, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Yep, it really is a delicate balance between plot and characters. A balance that is very hard to get right, but without three dimensional characters that a reader will love, even the best plot will fall flat.

Mart, thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment. LOL, it is so true. Us newbies try to follow the rules to the letter, but we see rules broken all the time. The trick is is to learn the rules and then once you do, you can break some just as long as you know WHY!
Oh, and the author I was speaking of isn't a NYT's best seller--yet, lol!!!! I know she will be!

Trish said...


Agree with you completely here. Without characters I care about, the plot won't hold my interest. You can have the strangest, most interesting plot in the fiction world. But for me, characters carry the book. It's the characters I care about, they are the reason I keep reading.

Julie said...

Thanks Brenda! This is great. I'll be saving it for a reference. Great job!