Bringing a Character to Life
What draws you in to a good book? Some might think it is solely the plot. Guess again! The plot’s players play a critical role in how hooked or invested a reader is in your story.
I’m sure there are many different approaches that authors take to develop their characters. Perhaps some do extensive research into names, personalities, histories and so on. Perhaps others just make it up on the fly. To me, there really is no wrong method to character development—as long as the character is actually developed in some way. Too many stories are a let-down because the personalities written are uninteresting without depth.
A good character needs to evoke some kind of emotion—good, bad or purposefully indifferent. You can have a fantastic story idea, but if your characters lack complexity, relatability or some kind of magnetism, your story loses its punch.
So, how do I create my characters? Here are a few general rules of thumb that I follow.
Core Characters/Roles. When I first incept a story, honesty it is usually some kind of intuitive download of what wants to be written. I take notes on the story itself, and along with it, the key players and their roles. Who is the lead? Who are in front-burner versus background supporting roles? Who is involved as part of a surprise twist, if any. Once I have a handle on who are the main characters and their interactions, I then develop further each individually.
Names. Sometimes in my channeled brainstorms, the names just come to me. But I just don’t accept them as a guarantee. I look up the popularity of the name; if it belongs to someone well-known, I begin a search for similar looks and feels until I find a relatively “original” name combination. I also look up name origins and meanings. For example, in my Lost Heritage Trilogy series, it was important for me to have the nuance of the main character having a name derivative of the heritage she was exploring (i.e., Megan for Call of the Celts – I dropped the traditional “h” in the spelling, but its Celtic meaning is still brave warrior, which suited her). It often takes days for the right name to resonate for each character.
Personality Development. What is this character like? I explore every level—physically, socially, mentally and emotionally. I oftentimes put a part of myself into a character, but also add in traits of family, friends or acquaintances, along with using my imagination. However, I develop the personality has to be consistent with his or her role, the story itself and many other factors, including who this person is at the beginning of the story versus the end (and if in a series, from the beginning of the first book, to the ending of the last). This is actually fun to design, and even I surprise myself to see elements of personality develop along the way as I write. Not everything is created from the get-go! Oftentimes, the best developments come as surprises.
Backstories. Even if it is not revealed in the story itself, I envision each character’s past and what joys, traumas and situations made her or him this way today. What was their childhood like? Who was important in their life and are they still in it? What are they holding onto that is blocking them in life? To me, characters become real-life people, with pasts, presents and futures. To truly write them, I need to understand all of them.
Situational Reactions. As part of personality development, I consider how the characters would react in different situations. Are they immediately triggered; do they take a while to fester and explode; are they always chill, or does it depend on the situation itself? This becomes important as plot points unravel and unexpected situations occur. How do the reactions fit with the overall personality and mannerisms? This helps me to decide if there are any inconsistencies as the character develops, or if I missed something in the initial representation.
End Game. What ultimately happens to this person, and who does he or she become by the end? What are the story transitions to get the character from A to B? How do I convey the characters’ growth, or adversely, reveal the surprising truth that now makes sense when the reader connects the red flags. Did I plant enough red flags without being obvious?
As you can see, there is quite a bit of time spent on developing characters. To me, it’s perhaps even more important than the story you want to tell. So, as you write your books, and even if they are non-fiction pieces that capture people you actually know, think about the character nuances. Think about how best to present them so that the reader feels invested in them.
Personally, I like my main women characters to be empowering and inspiring in some way; I love my romantic leads to be both masculine and sensitive; and I thrive on exposing the potential human darkness in both my heroes and villains.
At the end of the day, if you don’t enjoy your own characters, no one else will. Write what magnetizes you.