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:
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.
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.
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.
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