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It’s All About Character…by Jennifer Probst

by Jennifer Probst

TantricPrinciple.Final .fiona  178x300 Its All About Character...by Jennifer Probst

                I’m going out on a limb here (pardon the cliché).”

                I believe the most important ingredient in a great story is   character.

                Yes, plot and dialogue and strong voice all help drive the story home. But if you don’t have a character that a reader can identify with, you only have a shell. A reader needs to experience love, hate, lust and humor for a book to be balanced. How do you create a character who leaps off the page? I can give a list of all the popular techniques writers use, including character sketches, Christopher Vogler’s brilliant hero’s journey, and playing twenty questions with your hero and heroine. Instead, I am going to share my own process, which is more apt to the pantser writer rather than the plotter.

                Let me quickly address the pantser versus plotter issue. When I attended the RWA National conference this summer, I had the pleasure of hearing the great Susan Elizabeth Phillips speak on the process of writing. When the terms pantser/plotters were brought up she wrinkled her nose in distaste. She explained she hated the word pantser because it sounded so unorganized. She said she preferred to name the term: organic. As in, she is an organic writer who takes the materials, melds it together slowly, and comes out with a process. I agree – so I decided to follow her example and call myself an organic writer.

                Here are the most important parts of my own process for creating memorable characters:

  • BRAINSTORMING

For an organic writer developing character, it’s all about brainstorming. Usually a character just shows up: the brooding heartbroken businessman; the seething dominating alpha male; the funny, emotionally unavailable dad of the month; etc. I’m driving to work, taking a shower, watching dumb television but not really watching and BAM: there he is. Oh, that first meet is delicious. He is always gorgeous and difficult. And then I begin to play.

I like to know what my hero does. I love exploring different careers, and since I am a contemporary sort of girl, this is my time to delve into all the stuff I always wanted to know about. I’ve had heroes as vineyard owners, architects, restaurant owners, mercenary soldiers and CEO’s.

I love brainstorming a name. Once I get a name for my hero, he begins to come alive. Then there’s his past. Now, his past is more for me than my reader. A reader doesn’t want to be bored by every detail of what happened before, but I do!  I need to know why he’s the way he is. Once I know, I can write him the way he needs to be with no apologies.

I follow the same steps with my heroine. I like to imagine a physical type, a career, a past, and a name. Then I’m set to go and begin some writing.

What’s interesting about the writing process is the characters usually come alive a couple of chapters in. As I write, I’m getting to know their rhythms, how they speak, and all the yummy details I hadn’t imagined beforehand.

  • THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE

Your characters need to surprise you. If they surprise you, they will surprise the reader. A hero needs to keep his heroine off kilter – same with her. This is how people relate to each other.

My husband and I have been married for six years with two kids, a house, two jobs and two dogs. And every time I feel like there’s no way I can be surprised anymore – he does it. The other night we had a fight and he called me the next day at work. With a low, breathy voice, he whispered in my ear, “Baby, this is your dinner call. Don’t be mad.” We have an inside joke that married couples do not make booty calls any longer – we make dinner calls, as in “What’s for dinner tonight?” I laughed so hard and I didn’t care about the fight.  I love a wicked sense of humor.

Or how about my son? I was taking my little one to school and we were late, as usual. I rushed him into the car, threw the book bag in the van and yelled at him to please hurry up. Those little legs moved as fast as he could but before he climbed into the car he made an announcement. “Wait mommy. I have a surprise for you.”

I groaned inwardly – no time, no time, was my mantra, but he raced away from me and disappeared behind the car. When he re-appeared, I was irritated but he held out a beautiful little weed. “Surprise mommy!” he squealed in delight and presented me with the stubby yellow dandelion, sadly bent in half. I blinked and suddenly, everything quieted and I calmed down. His glowing face filled my heart. My son had brought me a flower because he wanted to make me happy. Love just doesn’t get any better than that.

  • FLAWS

 A character has to have flaws or the perfection factor will be a bore. Sure, they can look hot as hell, but an inner flaw is needed to deepen the character. My personal favorites?  Possessiveness; arrogance; perfectionism and being emotionally scarred from the past. Then I always throw in some sort of daily annoying habit that makes my character human. One of my characters had a perchance for singing old musicals under her breath. One quoted poetry. Another cursed like a truck driver. My last hero was completely OCD and needed to have the house perfect, and hated any type of messiness or disorder. Enter my crazy heroine who left clutter in the rooms and had a soft spot for rescue dogs – especially ones who tore up the hero’s expensive pillows.

  • CONFLICT

Give them conflict. Some writers will say this goes in a separate category such as plot development, but conflict can be internal and character driven. Make sure the hero or heroine wants something badly – then put the other in direct opposition. This can be very basic. Example: In the The Tantric Principle my hero has a strict code of not getting involved with his students. Enter my heroine, who doesn’t care about his rules and wants to get him in her bed. Simple, but effective. Internal conflict can carry a book if done correctly. My hero from The Marriage Bargain had an emotionally scarred past and didn’t believe in marriage or long lasting relationships. He kept himself distant from anyone who could threaten his control. My heroine believed in family, commitment and a loving household. A marriage of convenience forced them together, but they both had to struggle past their emotional contradictions.

Those are the basics. At least, those are my basics. Each writer has different processes for developing character, but if you’re stuck, going through a quick checklist to see if you’re missing an important element can be helpful.

Happy writing. Happy reading.

Check out my website at: http://www.jenniferprobst.com

Check out my blog at: http://jenniferprobst.wordpress.com

Follow me on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jenniferprobst

Visit me on Facebook at:  http://www.facebook.com/pages/Author-Jennifer-Probst-Fan-Page/111073648957581

Visit my mommy blog at: http://4badmommies.com

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14 comments

Carly Carson May 5, 2011 at 2:18 am

Such a sweet post. Love the stories from your two “men”. And good ideas about characters, too. They are so much fun.

Tara Stearns May 5, 2011 at 10:51 am

Hi Jen – You make it sound so easy :-) Thanks so much for sharing. Usually I get more like a situation idea first, with a hint of one of the main characters take on it. But recently, I had a character that just popped into my head and I want to so much to give him a story. I think this will help flesh him and his heroine out.

Thanks and I am looking forward to reading Tantric Principle.

Oh, and I had such a good laugh over the “dinner call”!!!!

Shoshanna Evers May 5, 2011 at 11:55 am

Great post! Your son sounds so sweet :) And your hubby too, LOL. I’m a mix of plotter and pantser…um, organic writer. :)

Wendy S. Marcus May 5, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Great post, Jen! And very timely as I begin work on my next book. I love your writing. You can even make a lesson on characters enjoyable. (And I wish someone sexy would call me baby!!!)

Jennifer Probst May 5, 2011 at 12:26 pm

HI Carly, Thanks for checking in. My “men” are my best heroes!!

Jennifer Probst May 5, 2011 at 12:27 pm

HI Tara! Yes, after eight years of marriage we have stooped to the dinner call! But we laugh about it and that’s part of the fun. Creating characters are so exciting – especially when everything is fresh and new like a first date! Thanks for stopping by.

Jennifer Probst May 5, 2011 at 12:28 pm

HI Shoshanna! LOL, yes, an organic writer sounds so much more intricate – I think a mixture of both is the best balance in working a novel.

Jennifer Probst May 5, 2011 at 12:29 pm

HI Wendy! That’s so sweet, thanks for the complement! Calling me baby def helps when it’s a dinner call he’s checking in with – LOL!!!

Jenna Kernan May 5, 2011 at 11:14 pm

Lots of great information in this post. Thanks for sharing, Jennifer.

Raelyn Barclay May 6, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Awesome post! Love to glimpse into your life as well, very sweet.

Each story/character is different for me but almost always I start with the characters. Like you, I’m often 3-5K into a story before the characters voices really click. I guess I’m a mix of organic character writer and plotter, LOL.

Thanks for sharing your process, I’m bookmarking this :)

Jennifer Probst May 7, 2011 at 3:25 am

HI Jenna, Thanks for stopping by and I’m so glad you liked the article!

Jennifer Probst May 7, 2011 at 3:27 am

HI Raelyn! I love hearing how other writers create too -and I think a nice mix of organic character writer and plotter is the perfect balance! So glad you liked it – thanks for visiting!

RM Brand May 8, 2011 at 2:55 am

Excellent post! You hit it all right on the nail. Honestly, I have been using this technique for quite some time. It is by far my favorite part of writing. It can be a little frustrating at times to stop, redirect, and re-engage, but I find its easier to get to know my character simply by putting him/her through seeming impossible challenges just to see what they’re made of and if it doesn’t fit, then I change him until he feels alive, real.

Jennifer Probst May 10, 2011 at 10:26 pm

HI RM, You are so right – the journey is the whole part, not the finished product (though writing the end are the best words I ever wrote!) Thanks so much for stopping in and taking time to comment!

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