Grace's Mosaic Moments

Monday, November 5, 2012


The most important lesson to be gained from this series on "How to Develop Your Characters" is:  
No Cardboard Characters Allowed!

No characters taken verbatim from movies, television, or other people's books. No characters skimmed off the top of your mind without thought. (Except one-sentence walk-ons who don't really need a lot of depth.) Yes, movies, TV, or books might give you that germ of an idea, but you must take it and make it your own. Figure out who these people are, what made them who they are, and are they worthy of a place in your story?  If not, keep mining the depths of their characters until they are. Or get rid of them!

But how are you going to let your reader know what you've discovered about your characters? Are you going to sit down and write a couple of brilliant paragraphs telling us about them, as Nora Roberts told us about Tucker Longstreet? Sadly, today's market, particularly the romance market, says, "No." There are, however, several acceptable ways to "show" readers your characters rather than "tell" us about them.

1.  Dialogue. When writing dialogue, always keep in mind the depths of your character's personality. Would he or she really say that? As the book progresses, you reveal the various characters' personalities by what they say to each other. (It's possible your character might develop to the point where you have to go back and change previous dialogue because you suddenly realize he/she "would never say that."

2.  Narration. You can use your characters' actions to reveal more about them. Do they pace the room? Run hands through their hair? Do they remain calm, even cold, poker-faced, in time of trouble. Are they strong and silent, or do they talk all the time? Do they cry, panic, run for cover? (Hm-m-m, the last is definitely not recommended for anything but secondary characters. Modern heroes and heroines are expected to be stalwart.)

3.  Introspection.  Most important, and all too easily forgotten, is Introspection. This is revealing the Point-of-View characters' thoughts through narration. [Beginning writers are urged to keep to the Point of View of Hero, Heroine, and Villain (if applicable).] It is all important for an author to get inside his/her main characters' heads and let readers see the story through their eyes. Do not stand on the outside and be a narrator! Get inside the Hero's and Heroine's heads and let us see what they see, hear what they hear, feel what they feel. This is what grabs readers' hearts and makes them care about your characters. Repeat: readers do not want you to tell the story. They want you to let your characters show them what is happening. 

~ * ~

 A Note on Villains. 
I know no one who does a more evil villain than Karen Rose. I knew her before her first book was published and became an avid fan. The problem is, I had to stop reading Karen's last book. Really evil, sickly evil, villains just aren't my thing. They make me squirm. That's not why I read. But for those who do like something stronger than your usual villain, I strongly recommend reading Karen Rose's books and noting how she creates her villains. I've heard Karen speak on this subject twice now, and she has prepared herself with an excellent understanding of the inner workings of evil minds. She didn't just jump in and say, "I'm going to write a Bad Guy today."  

For those of us who prefer something less strong . . .
We still have to take the time to understand our bad guys and gals. Why would they be so mean? Is it money, jealousy, something twisted in their past? Or are they simply bad seeds? I personally prefer what I call Jack Higgins-style villains. I like to see some contrast in their personalities, something not all bad. I prefer villains who are not insane or basically evil. And, as Higgins has done, I like to see an occasional villain be redeemed. As he did with the villain who became the hero in a subsequent series of books. Or the German sub commander readers liked so much he had to resurrect him!

Whatever style villain you want to write, don't make him skin-deep. Justify the villainy with solid motives, glimpses into his/her background, and plenty of Introspection, showing us his/her thoughts. My best villain, I believe, is in Shadowed Paradise. I was almost shocked to discover that those scenes just flowed out, needing almost no revision over the several versions of the book that have appeared before its present incarnation as an online indie pub. Truthfully, I'm still not sure where that villain came from. An excellent example of a character taking over and telling his own story!

~ * ~

Look to friends, relatives, and not-friends for inspiration. Everywhere you go—Wal-Mart, Target, a sports arena, national park, Disneyworld, international travel sites—keep your eyes and ears open, your imagination quivering for input. Newspapers, TV, movies, the mall, the neighborhood—pay attention! Absorb the feel. Be aware. The world around us is a gold mine of characterization. No, not copying, but catching those tiny sparks that can lead to an explosion of something new. A smile, a frown, a slouch, an accent, a burst of laughter, a baby gurgling, the guy who yells, "Bitch!" because you passed him. A political rant that makes you wince. Any and all can inspire ideas that move your characters from two-dimensional to three.That take a cardboard stereotype and turn it someone readers can laugh and cry with, love or hate . . . and want to keep turning the pages (or flipping that button on their e-readers).

Or you can make every last bit of it up, straight out of your imagination. As long as you take the time to discover your characters and don't settle for a thin façade, it's okay to grab your characters out of the "cloud." 

How to Develop Your Characters? Just plunge right in, ask the questions a good reporter must ask:  Who, What, Where, When & Why? Whether your character is good or bad, sweet or annoying, weak or strong, figure out what makes them tick. And don't forget to share the parts that are important to the story with your readers. The rest, more subtly, will take care of itself. 

~ * ~

Thanks for stopping by. 


Coming sometime in November - LADY OF THE LOCK, a new Regency by Blair Bancroft in the tradition of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer


  1. Excellent series! Thanks for the tips. Writing in first person for YA, I tend to spend a bit too much time on introspection, and although it can really get you into the characters head and experience, I've also been accused of "navel gazing", LOL. Balance is the key, as it is in all things:-)

  2. PJ & Roxy, thanks for your input. And, PJ, I can see where YA readers might prefer zippy dialogue and action, but there's nothing like introspection to reveal what's really important. And in YA, particularly first-person YA, it can add all those clever "lines" that can't be said out loud. So don't let anyone spook you out of showing what your characters are thinking. Maybe it will encourage the kids to think with their minds instead of their hormones!