At a booksigning at Orlando’s Central Library last August, a young lady asked me: “How do you develop your characters?” I gulped and thought fast, because I never took a writing class, read a “how to” book, or even stopped to think about it before. Fortunately, I managed to come up with at least the germ of a reply, but I vowed on the spot to examine the subject more thoroughly and write a blog post about it. So here is Part 1.
Put quite simply, there is nothing more important than characterization when writing fiction. Even the best Action/Adventure books and the best Erotica feature well-drawn characters. Are there many books that don’t? You betcha! (And I never get beyond the first ten pages.) But most readers demand more than guns/swords/chase scenes/explosions or heaving bosoms and graphically delineated bare body parts. For which writers like me, who really care about our characters, are eternally grateful!
As I have written when critiquing hundreds of contest entries for the Romance Writers of America: readers want to love their hero and heroine. They want to empathize with them, feel their joys, their sorrows, the warmth of that final Happily Ever After. It’s all right for these main characters to have faults. In fact, faults, whether major or minor, usually add color to the story. But readers always need to know that these faults are going to be resolved. Or perhaps realize that the fault is so minor it can be more endearing than annoying.
Secondary Characters are important too. Even though they might not have a Point of View (the story is not being seen through their eyes), they can add an immense amount of color to your book. Villainy, humor, anger, spice, annoyance, etc. The secondary characters can be a sounding board for the Hero’s and Heroine’s thoughts or actions. They can provide shock, condemnation, comic relief. They allow exposition of ideas and plot action through dialogue with the Hero or Heroine. They can also be the Villain or the Bad Guys. As long as you don’t allow them to overshadow the Hero or Heroine (which can happen all too easily), Secondary Characters are vital to a good book.
So how do you make your readers empathize with your characters?
Where do you start?
1. NAMES. Your characters can’t come to life until they have names, first and last. When approaching a new book, I spend a lot of time looking through my old baby-name books, searching for first names. I scribble a bunch of possibilities on a yellow legal pad, and then I go on a search for last names. For example, for my Regency books I have a notebook full of typical surnames for the English upper classes. And long lists of less noble English surnames, most of them garnered from the phone book! I also have a book listing all the towns and hamlets in England, an excellent source of last names for that era. If I need foreign first names, an Internet search can be very helpful. Last names? Again, the phone book, adjusting for possible Americanized spellings. (Of course, if you’ve given up phone books, you may have to look elsewhere!)
When I have a list of first and last names on my yellow pad, I try pairing them up, seeing which ones will work. Which one best suits my hero . . . which best suits my heroine. Naturally, as I do this, I am forced to think about them, molding vague outlines into more human form. After that, I use a similar method to develop names for the characters in the book’s first scene. As well as any important characters who appear later in the book.
Is this name search important, worth spending the time? For the Hero, Heroine, and major Secondary Characters, absolutely. The names should suit the people you have in mind. And the process of choosing will help anchor these people in your mind. They go, for example, from “Heir to a duke” and “Engineer’s daughter” to the names you see in the list below. They rise off the paper and become people.
2. CHARACTER LIST. After I have created names for my Hero, Heroine, and the characters in the book’s first scene, I type up a Character List. I put the character’s name first, then who they are. (If I don’t know the physical description yet, I add it as soon as it becomes clear.) Example - the first few entries from my newest book, Lady of the Lock (Release Date - c. November 2012):
Character List - Lady of the Lock
Bourne Granville Hayden Challenor, Marquess of Montsale [From Lady Silence]
Heir to the Duke of Carewe [added later: brown hair, flint gray eyes, mother - Rosalind]
Amanda Grace Merriwether - a young lady of the upper middle class
[added later: bronze hair, green eyes, mother - Caroline]
John Merriwether, her father, a canal architect/engineer [added later: blond, blue eyes]
Lady Eulalia Tynsdale - wealthy & eccentric dowager baroness
Note: at the beginning, before I’ve named everyone, part of the list might read:
Lady Tynsdale’s companion
Nasty mother & daughter in Bath
John’s young engineers
Butler in Bath
As the book progresses, I add each new character to the list, from friends of the h/h to butlers, housekeepers & maids. In Lady of the Lock, the list eventually ran to three pages, plus a scribbled entry for the name of a horse!
3. FAMILY BACKGROUND. Although you may not use all the people in your main characters’ backgrounds in your book, it is helpful to figure out what their background is. Were they raised with the proverbial silver spoon, or did they struggle in poverty? Were they only children, or was the hero hen-pecked by a bevy of sisters? Did the heroine constantly struggle to keep up with a host of brothers? Is his/her aunt or grandmother kindly or a shrew? Does the father dote on his daughter, or is he, perhaps, a monster? Has the hero been on his own since an early age? Is he a bastard? Or is his greatest obstacle learning to stand on his own two feet, because he has led too privileged a life? Is there an uncle who wants to do away with the heroine because he will inherit her fortune? Or is the heroine someone who is willing to sacrifice her happiness for her family? Do we have a wounded hero who returns from war to a country where no family waits? Or one who is deluged with so much love and “help” that he has to get away? Do we have a policeman from a long line of law enforcement, or is he the first of his “old money” family to join the force?
The list of questions you should ask yourself could be endless, but usually only a short Q&A will be enough to get you started. The rest of your characters’ personality traits or outside influences can develop as you go along. Don’t mire yourself down with endless note cards, storyboarding, movie star photos, etc. Get your names down, decide on your main characters’ background and consequent personalities, and let the rest develop as you begin to know your character better. As you craft dialogue that is “right” for that character. As your character interacts with the other characters in a variety of ways. Each scene should speak to you, as well as to the reader. Telling you who these characters are.
Special Note on Character: For those who missed Nora Roberts’s description of Tucker Longstreet, posted in “Edit the Blasted Book, Part 5,” please check out my blog for June 18, 2012. It is the most perfect example of delineating a character in a few brief paragraphs that I have ever seen. Warning: It is in Omnipotent or Author POV, which seems to be out of favor at the moment. But that doesn't keep this passage from being an outstanding example of characterization. You can always use it as a shining example of how you should develop your hero or heroine in your mind before you begin to write.
For my other blogs on writing topics, see “Index to Writing Blogs,” August 26, 2012.
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Next Blog: In Part 2 of “How to Develop Your Characters,” I’ll list more questions you can ask yourself in an effort to create characters with depth, characters readers can empathize with, characters readers can love, hate, laugh with, etc. (From the many notes I wrote myself today, I suspect this topic may run to a Part 3.)
Thanks for stopping by.
Grace, who writes as Blair Bancroft
or check out my books on Kindle, Smashwords, Nook, et al