|Characters In Search of An Author
Chapter One and Introduction:
Why should I waste my time with all these character building forms, exercises and
readings? Why can’t I just dive in and write my story using whatever people I choose
naming them as I go along. You can, but the list of reasons why you shouldn’t is
almost as long as the table of methods, ways and means for building a
The short answer is consistency, believability, reliability, and keeping details
straight not to mention the extra weight the right name for your character can add to
the meaning of your story. Let’s look at each of these reasons more closely.
Consistency: The uniqueness of this character, her personality or type, her physical
description, where she lives, where she works, who are her friends and family right
down to the kind of car she drives or doesn’t drive and the reasons she doesn’t.
Without a profile, without some of the other devices for keeping your character notes
straight, you may trip yourself up. Many a time I have been writing up a storm only
to trip over questions like —What color were her eyes…How can she flip her pony
tail if on page ten I gave her a short spiked hair do? A quick check of the character
charts profile gave me my answer easily, sure enough, saved myself from having to
re-read to find the character trait that could have messed up my chances for
publication because of inconsistencies. There are other ways of a story being
inconsistent but that of character is the most glaring.
Believability: Would this character say, do, react or behave in this manner as s/he’s
been developed so far? If you’ve done the profile, using zodiac signs and other
character trait devices that you can see at a glance you are less likely to have your
person do something that would be totally out of character for him or her.
Reliability: Again, you as an author can’t force a character who is terrified of snakes
into a room full of snakes to pick up a quarter someone dropped in that room. That is
an extremely ridiculous example, but you get the drift. Your characters are not
checkers or chess pieces, you have breathed life into them – they are real. They will
only behave in a certain way given the personality you have developed for them – or
at least, should have developed for them. By developing fully, well-rounded
characters you give your reader a reason to love, hate, empathize with him or her.
Minimally, you should create some emotional reaction between character and
reader. A reader will snap a book shut which has no emotional bond or connection to
pull her into the story.
Think of your character building as CPR for your character’s life. Keeping the details
straight when you have two or more characters in your novel, with similar goals, or
even opposite goals can be a challenge. Charting background information on them i.
e., from the towns they live in complete with streets, stores, restaurants, places they
frequent, or even go to once or twice during the course of the novel—your details
need to be consistent throughout the story. Your time line of story history can easily
become polluted by the time you trek across two hundred pages or more. You can
take the hassle out of keeping these things straight if you jot them down as you go.
You need to know who was privy to what information or you could easily have your
sleuth solve a crime with clues he never had—your reader’s will remember that faux
pas. Keep tabs on those things as they appear by penciling them in on your original
profile sheet – in different colored inks – one for character, one for place names, one
for time-line or other information, helps in finding what you seek. I usually print out
a character sheet for each significant character in my novel and put them in a
protective sleeve so I can keep them near while I’m writing without chance they will
become tattered. Any new information is jotted in as I go, keeping it handy if I need it
again saves a bunch of back tracking. Slight of hand doesn’t work with your reader.
The old formula – “if you bring a gun out in chapter one – it better have shot someone
before the end of the story,” or your reader will lose faith in you. The same is true of
the opposite. If the clue never showed up, then it can’t be used to solve the crime or
conclude the book no matter what genre it is. Readers like surprises, twists in your
story but not things appearing out of the blue to answer the story
question at the very end.
If your character has green eyes in scene one, she better not have brown, or blue, or
hazel anywhere else in the book unless it’s deliberately done with colored contact
lenses as a planned disguise.
If your character hoists a magnum to shoot someone, she better know how to use it
and have both the physical and the emotional strength, to use it. Deliberately
shooting someone takes a certain chutzpah. Not every Characters In Search Of An
Author personality type would be able to kill someone any more than a first time
deer hunter can necessarily shoot the first deer she encounters. I would think a
human life would weigh much more heavily on a normal person’s conscience than an
animal, thus the emotional fortitude of someone that would shoot someone must be
shown before hand. Somewhere early in your story show your character using a
lesser strength that your reader can later transfer to, or recall, even subconsciously
that verifies your characters ability to do this. Your character will ring true later
when this skill or trait is needed. Do this even if you have to back track to add the
proof that your heroine would and could act in such a manner. Your reader will
reward you for it by becoming a stanch fan tied to your stories.
Trust me when I say, if you spend the time to develop your character fully before you
begin your novel, you will have solved ninety percent of your problems before you
start. The writing will be that much easier for it. Even your character’s name, as you
will see, can have a profound impact on your story.
In Careers for Your Characters, Raymond Obstfeld and Franz Neumann say, “To
create realistic, well-developed characters, you have to write with authority.
Careers…enables you to describe their professional lives with the accuracy and
details of an insider. It covers such things as professional jargon and buzz words,
Educational requirements, salaries, benefits, perks, and expenses. Each profession’s
average daily schedule is shown and how job reality differs from public perception of
the job. Obstfeld and Neumann list publications and web sites for further research
into your chosen profession.
Patricia Cornwell’s novels use the career of forensic pathologist. Cornwell is
intimately familiar with the profession and it shows in her work. Others such as
James Patterson, Dean Koontz, and John Grisham rely heavily on careers that they
were involved in before they became writers. I’m not saying you have to be in any
one type of profession to write about it with authority; you only need to research
thoroughly to add authenticity to your work. It’s not necessarily write what you
know; more specifically write what you wish to know. Back it up with solid research
and you will know it intimately. You can transfer that knowledge to your characters
life and actions making them credible and reliable people.
Creating Character Emotions, by Ann Hood gives the author an in depth look at
showing instead of telling character actions and reactions. “Sweaty palms, butterflies
in the stomach. Pacing back and forth, show your character being nervous,” she says
using “…fresh images, words and gestures to evoke feelings in your fiction,” will set
you apart from the novice. How do you show hate-love-fear-grief-guilt-hope-jealousy
and other major emotions Hood provides some insight and answers of how you
should put feelings into words? Take a quick check in your own vault of experiences.
Think back to a time when you felt any of these emotions. Record what your physical
manifestation of the emotion was at the time. This will give you a very accurate
means for showing instead of telling. What did you do? What were you feeling how
did those feelings translate to physical. In other words, what were the physical
expressions of your emotional state? Did your mouth become dry? Did you have an
acrid taste in your mouth, a weakness perhaps that threatened to buckle your knees
because you were so angry? Were you ever so scared your chest felt squeezed in a
giant vice? How does happy feel? What does it taste like? Use all your senses to show
in stead of telling your reader what it is you wish to convey.
“Fiction’s traditional virtues—depth, empathy, intimacy…good writing must always
be vivid, particular and surprising,” says Rand Richards Cooper. “To render character
emotions is probably the most important information you can use as a fiction writer,”
Hood says. Emotions affect every other element of fiction from dialogue and action to
character development. Emotions lead us to more believable plot twists and turns,
enhance dramatic tension, help illustrate themes and in short, they inform every
aspect of our fiction.
When a reader asks you “How did you know?” When you captured the essence of the
emotion for them so exactly in one of your characters because you rendered the
emotion so well, so effectively and honestly that your reader believed you had read
their mind, or been where they had been, you can feel you have told the truth
through your character, made him/her believable and worth the reader’s time and
The Writer’s Path by Todd Walton and Mindy Toomay will lead you through
exercises in exploring fiction building that are worth your time. “Stories result from
the action of characters. Put an interesting character in a dynamic situation, and you
have the makings of a good story,” says Walton and Toomay. The raw material for
your stories comes from your characters personal histories. Developing their back-
story will show you their motivation and agenda if you pay attention as we have said
By providing you with the bibliography, the forms I use when I begin a new novel,
and information I’ve learned along the way I hope you will be able to skip the
learning curve and jump into developing characters as large as life and novels that
speak those truths that need to be told, if only to entertain and enlighten and hold
your reader in your story’s embrace.
Part I Exercise
1. Consistency and believability how do you develop this? One
way is to give your character a career. What career would you
choose? My character in Small Town Secrets, Chaneeta Morgan,
is a cook who owns a café, is a volunteer firefighter and is the
Town Chairwoman of her small town.
2. Emotions: Your own will tell you volumes and help you to shape
your characters into believable people. How does your system
react to Joy? What physical manifestations say joy or whatever
emotion you want your character to display?
3. Think of three actions for your character for escaping a
dangerous condition. Write at least one solution each for the
a. His/her car is stalled in a zone posted as a flash flood
area; it’s raining cats & dogs.
b. Avoiding a person who is out to get him/her and either
beat her up/give him a summons to appear in court or
steal his Green Bay Packer Jacket.
c. Getting out of a burning building when s/he can’t reach
the door and the windows are way at the top of the walls
of a warehouse.