Characterization is paramount to writing a bestseller. Strong characters can carry weak plots. But unlikeable characters won’t compensate for weak plots. As with everything else in writing, developing strong characters your readers will relate to is a process.
Develop Your Characters in 2 Easy Steps
1) Imagine an intriguing character with a story to tell.
2)Throw them into a situation, and let them show you the way.
I know what you’re thinking. Two steps is not much of a process. The process happens organically in the first draft. I do some serious thinking about my characters before I write my first words, but inevitably, as I mentioned in last week’s post, my feelings about my characters change during my first draft as those characters grow. I throw my characters into a situation and then set them free and let them show me the way. They usually end up surprising me by the end.
I just began the second draft of my work in progress. I chuckle to myself when I come across lines of dialogue or internal thoughts that are now all wrong for any given character. After traveling a rocky path with them for thirty plus chapters, their motivations are much clearer to me now, their personalities more concrete.
Nobody is Perfect
Readers are searching for something of themselves in your characters. Nobody is perfect. They won’t be able to relate to characters without flaws. Typically their flaws are directly related to their motivations. For example . . . a character who has found a man she truly loves but has a difficult time trusting men because her step-father abused her as a child. Establish that motivation on page one and spend the rest of the pages helping her overcome her inability to trust. This leads us to the subject of character arcs which we’ll discuss at a later date.
Let Yourself Be Free
Oftentimes my characters are extensions of me with similar likes and dislikes. Other times they are polar opposites of me. Reinvent yourself through your characters. Letting your imagination sore is the fun party about fiction. Writing fiction offers an opportunity to escape the real world, if only for a few hours a day. While I love my current hometown of Richmond, Virginia, I miss certain aspects of life in the Lowcountry where I grew up. Hence the reason I set most of my novels in the Lowcountry. I get to visit there every day in my head.
Walk in Their Shoes
It takes me approximately three months to write a novel, give or take a few weeks depending on the various distractions in my real life. That’s a lot of time to spend, day in and day out, with your characters. Because I immerse myself in my work, my characters are never far from my mind. They exercise with me. Go shopping with me. Dine out in restaurants with me.
I encourage you to walk in your characters’ shoes as you move through your day. Find out if they’re gluten intolerant or vegetarians while you’re shopping for groceries. If they prefer yoga or interval training. Tennis or Golf. Diet cokes or Sweet Tea. I’ve attached a list of simple questions below that may help you become better acquainted with your characters. This may sound silly to you. And that’s okay. Everyone has their own process. For me, knowing these seemingly insignificant details gives me a better understanding of my characters, which is useful when I’m faced with making big-picture decisions for them.
In terms of physical appearance, I usually have an idea of what my character looks like. Short or tall. Auburn or blonde. Being a visual person, I search the Internet for a photograph that closely resembles the image I have in mind for my character. This helps me when describing details—a dimpled cheek, flecks of yellow in her hazel eyes. Ask your character what physical feature they dislike the most about themselves. Crooked teeth, perhaps. Or the muffin top waist they can’t seem to get rid of.
I spent a lot of time developing my Sweeney sisters’ characters. You can get an idea of my thought process by reading the web pages I provided for my readers’ entertainment. Click HERE for an introduction to the sisters. A character sheet for each of the sisters is linked to that page.
Download this list of questions and start interviewing your characters today!