Characters make our books – they're the ones who make us laugh, cry, angry, sad. We root for the hero and heroine, yell mean things at the villain – or maybe even have a sneaking admiration for him – and develop a soft spot for minor characters and hope there’s a sequel to tell their story.
And the characters readers love can surprise you. I received a really good review of Resort to Murder, and there was no doubt that the reviewer loved one character in particular – Tuesday the Stray Dog. Go figure! In fact, Tuesday seems to have his own little fan base and I'll be putting his story up on my website a little later.
Like many characters, Tuesday was based on a real dog. He was a stray, unlike Fizz, pictured here, who looks a lot like the original Tuesday but has been a pampered pet all her life.
Most writers base characters' behavior, voices, habits, mannerisms, etc., on people they have met, worked with, sat on a bus next to, spent time in the airport lounge with, sat in class with, or seen on television or at the movies. Remember that all your friends and relatives will be trying to identify themselves in your work, so disguise your characters well!
You can also use magazines to help build your characters – read interviews with celebs and other people who have been written up.
Often characters spring fully-grown into your mind, so clear you can just about reach out and touch them – or at least call them on the mind-phone. That's great at the beginning of the story, but often the familiarity with the characters starts to fade as we continue along, and other characters join in. How to avoid this?
Get to know your characters.
Build them from the ground up, but do it subtly – let them reveal themselves to you just as a new acquaintance would. You meet someone and they seem really sophisticated and distant. But a couple of meetings later, you realize they have a wicked sense of humor. Maybe that self-assurance isn't more than skin deep. Maybe that cool exterior hides a seething mass of anxieties and neuroses.
That's when you'd also slowly realize that they have a past, a time before you knew them, which has shaped how they are today.
There's an ongoing argument in psychology about nature v nurture – are we born as we are (nature), or did we grow up this way because of our childhood experiences (nurture)?
Most psychologists today tend towards the nurture and nature combination – we are born with certain characteristics, but the way we are treated and the events in our childhoods decide which characteristics come to the front and shape who we are.
For example, a child born with a tendency towards anxiety may well grow to a relaxed, laid back adult if he is reared in a calm, loving atmosphere where his anxieties are soothed and he learns how to control them, and perhaps even more important, that he is in control of his life. The same child reared in a different environment may grow up anxious and insecure, a candidate for compulsive behavior disorder and numerous other mental health problems, or possibly even grow into a volatile, hostile, domineering and violent character who simply loses his cool if the world around him doesn't fall into line. Because he cannot handle the anxieties that flow in on him and make him feel out of control, he constantly seeks to be in total control, and anything out of the ordinary throws him for a loop.So, what tendencies does your character have? And how did his life so far shape him? When you're really having difficulty with a character, you may need to think right back to his childhood – where did he come from? What was his family like? His schooling? Even the time in history that we are born in affects who we may become – hence the phrase 'War babies' to describe an entire generation who were a puzzle to their parents.
That can sound quite daunting, but it's not really.
Write down everything you want your character to be – is he an Alpha male? One of those people who have to win at any cost? A company executive at 30, and a heart attack patient at 35? Or is he a laid back character, one of those kids whose teachers always said 'Could do better if he worked harder?' and 'Not working to his potential', Think of the ramifications for your story if your character is either one of these, because these characters will behave quite differently in whatever situations you put them in.
Remember that characters often have minds of their own – trying to force them into behaviors they don’t want to do is a great way to spark Writer's Block. Of course, it's not really your character but your subconscious mind that is objecting to the route your plot is taking. At least, I think so…...
Sometimes having a good chat with your characters can clear the air and clarify what you need to do. It makes them real to you, and that's what we are looking for – real characters. Remember the fun you had with an imaginary friend, or a favourite stuffed animal, when you were a kid? Well, try to bring back that feeling with your characters. Talk to them. Listen to them. Interview them. Just make sure you do this in private. Talking to yourself is acceptable in a writer, but answering yourself back can still make your nearest and dearest wonder. And when you start sending your characters birthday and Christmas presents, you're really in trouble…..
There are a number of books on the market for writers about personality types and there are lots of sites on the Internet if you want to delve deeper. Beware, many of them let you take a personality test, and you can spend a lot of time browsing here! Instead of putting your own personality traits in to the questionnaires, you can insert the answers you think your character would give, and get a Personality Type designation for him or her that will help you develop the character.
- What methods do you use to build your characters?