Creating Characters

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dangeronxyone_msrWe interrupt this Wordy Wednesday for a message….

Okay, lame, I know, but I am just so excited about my new cover and that one of my favorite books is out in paperback. This week’s theme is all about characters and I had so much fun creating these two. Really would appreciate it if you’d take a look – and maybe buy a copy. Just click on the book cover and it should take you to the right place.

Commercial’s over. Back to your regularly scheduled discussion.

When you create a new character, you have the chance to make him or her however you want. What you want, though, is a well-rounded character, not a cardboard cutout.

As children, most of us played with dolls. Whether they were GI Joe’s®, Barbie’s®, or even Cabbage Patch Kids®, each type had one thing in common – their size, shape and clothing. If you had a nurse’s outfit for your fashion doll and your best friend also got the nurse, you had identical outfits. The office outfit consisted of a dark suit, white blouse and briefcase. For GI Joe®, well, olive drab is still olive drab. Unless you were creative with a needle and thread, your doll looked the same as everyone else’s.

Is that the way your characters look? Do your heroines all have long, luxurious hair that falls in natural waves to their hips? Are the women all tall, athletic with enough curves to keep it interesting, fair skin and exotic eyes? What about your heroes? Are they all tall, dark and handsome?

I once judged a writing contest in which, of every one of the seven manuscripts I read, the heroine was tall with reddish hair and green eyes. Oh, there were subtle differences between the seven, but not enough to make them unique. After the third red-haired, green-eyed siren, I started looking for something – anything – that would make the character different. Even identical twins have something that allows their parents to tell one from the other. It may be a subtle mannerism such as the way one tilts her head a little further to the right than the other, or a physical attribute such as the number of freckles. The trick is to find the trait and identify the person with it.

Stereotyping characters is something many writers do without even thinking about it. Not all people of oriental descent are small of stature with eyes that tilt up at the corners. Some of them are quite tall and have eyes that tilt downward. Not all people of color are the same color. Not all Germans are Nazi madmen or jolly rotund women toting pots of coffee and serving strudel. Do not stereotype and, especially don’t stereotype by race or nationality.

The same is true for your characters. If you have an office worker, instead of putting her (or him) in the same dark suit/white blouse as all the other workers, why not give her a bit of flare? Give her a brightly patterned scarf to go with that suit or put him in a pink shirt. And give her a reason for this. If you’re going to break the pattern, you should have a good reason. If it’s a character quirk, it has to be consistent with the rest of her life. You can’t have her being conservative in all aspects of her life and then suddenly wearing that bright yellow scarf for no reason at all.

Instead of long flowing hair, why not a short, perky cut that stands on end when she runs her hand through it in frustration – as she often does. Or make one eye green and one eye brown. I actually know a young woman with eyes like this. I asked her one time why she didn’t wear contacts to even the colors out and she said it gives people an interesting way to start conversations. She was in sales and did quite well. She used her quirk to her advantage.

Make your hero somewhat on the short side. It gives him something to overcome and still come out the hero. While this won’t work for all fiction, it may work for some. If he has to be tall and muscular, what about making him blonde with gray eyes? Or even a redhead? In all my reading, I’ve never seen a redheaded hero. Granted, men with red hair are unusual – but it could work. Why not try something different?

So what makes a quirk and what is just an annoying mannerism? Go to any public place and sit down for a while with your notebook and watch the people. A mall is a good place to do this. Pick out a couple of people and watch them (without being obvious). How do they walk? Is her head up like she owns the world or down like she’s afraid to face anyone? Is his stride long and powerful or a short shuffle? How do they carry their packages? How do they move in relationship to other people? Does she make people move aside for her or does she move to the wall to get out of the way? Does anybody stand out in the crowd? Why?

Now, pick out one or two of the people that really got your attention and give them a background. Who are they? What do they do? Why are they acting the way they are? What are their other physical attributes? Do these add or detract from their personality? Take a good look at the people around you. No two people are alike and neither should your characters be.

For each scene, decide how you’re going to refer to your characters at the beginning of the scene and be consistent with it. If your character is Mary Doe, you can refer to her as Mary, Mary Doe, Ms/Miss/Mrs. Doe or some other name, but it must be consistent throughout the scene.

Below are some questions you can ask yourself when creating your characters.

  1. In each scene, how much time did you spend describing a new character? Is his or her importance worth the amount of time?
  2. Have you introduced the entire cast of characters on the first page? Don’t character dump – introduce multiple characters gradually. This allows you to introduce more information about each character.
  3. Do you have too many characters? Can you combine several secondary characters into a single character without losing the story?
  4. Have you told us about the character’s emotions? Or shown them through actions?
  5. Which point of view are you using? Have you been consistent throughout the story?
  6. Do your characters seem like real people? Do they have both good points and bad? Even bad guys have good points and good guys have flaws.
  7. What do you like about your main character? Does s/he have traits that you like? What about ones you dislike? The more enjoyable you make him or her, the more time your reader will want to spend on them.
  8. Does your main character change or grow through the course of the book? If not, you may have to go back and check on the premise of your story.
  9. Is your antagonist (a.k.a. villain or bad guy/girl) morally bad and not just a bully or brat? Those with bad morals are more interesting and have more to lose/gain.
  10. Does your villain have charisma or something that attracts or charms other people? (Power, wealth, charm, fame, etc.)
  11. Have you humanized your villain? Readers will identify with him/her if s/he has some good qualities.
  12. Have you been consistent in how you refer to your characters?

Vicky E. Burkholder

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2 responses »

  1. I love this post, Vicky. It’s easy to create stereotypical characters, if we aren’t careful. You’ve provided a wonderful list of questions that can be used to make our characters more real, less cardboard.

    I like to work inside out when it comes to making my characters unique. First I want to know what makes them different inside. What secrets do they have? What wounds are they nursing? What are their deepest fears? Once I get to know them a little better it’s easier for me to decide what they should look like on the outside, what kind of clothes they’d wear, what kind of car they’d drive, and where they’d live.

  2. I agree with you, Reese. I have charts I fill out when I’m creating a character. But I’ve also (big admission here) sat down and “interviewed” my characters. I have a journalism background and use that to find out the down and dirty about them. 🙂

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