As I’ve said earlier, you should develop your plot and characters at the same time. Usually, my stories begin with “a cool idea.” Something that turns me on and makes me want to develop a plot and characters to go with the idea.
What if a man had lived for 500 years, and he needed to hide his longevity (MORE THAN A MAN)? What if a woman met the ghost of a man she’d loved and lost (CHAINED)? What if a doctor had a fake fertility clinic where he tried to increase the intelligence of children but created a race of telepaths instead (SUDDEN INSIGHT and SUDDEN ATTRACTION)?
From an idea like that, I develop a plot. And as I plot my story, I’m always thinking about the characters. I have an idea of who they are before I start writing. In HER BABY’S FATHER, for example, I knew my heroine was a woman from a middle-class background who falls in love with a man from a wealthy family. He’s murdered, and she’s left pregnant with his child. As the book opens, she’s in labor on the way to the hospital, when she’s killed in a car crash. Instead of taking her to heaven, angels send her back in time to the day she met her lover—and she has a chance to change history and save his life.
That’s the dramatic idea that sparked the plot, but to flesh out the story, I needed to know a lot about the heroine.
I had some ideas about her when I started writing the book. I wanted her to be self-sufficient and have a job that showcased her artistic talents. I wanted her to live in a small town where I could contain the action of the story. And I wanted a secret in her background that the hero’s family would use against her.
But there was so much more I needed to know. What’s her job? What are her goals and aspirations? Is she brave and determined enough to save the man she loves? How does she react when she’s in danger? How does she handle shifting reality when the things that happened before come out differently?
I came up with those details before I started writing. But, as always, I really got to know her when I was writing the first few chapters of the book.
When I write characters, I’m usually more interested in their interior traits than their physical appearance. But I've obviously got to describe them to the reader, and I will admit that all the guys in my books look like my husband if they don’t, I’m lying about it. (Well, they’re taller and slimmer.)
I can’t get very far in the process of thinking about a major character, without giving him or her a name. The names of your characters should be very conscious choices. Percy, Josephine, Ted, Norman, Dirk Pitt, Mannix, Elizabeth, Liz, Betty. They all convey a shorthand impression of the person. And don’t forget to read a name aloud if you’re considering it. Try not to select a tongue twister.
The names of the hero and heroine are very important—and also the villain. With minor characters, not so much. In fact I need to keep a list of minor characters’ names so I won’t switch them in the middle of the manuscript.
You can go either with names that are unusual or popular. Jayne Krentz is famous for giving her characters names that sound a little different—which works for her. I often use names that are popular. A good source for those is the Social Security Data Base of Baby Names:
It gives you the ten most popular names from last year, but you can reset the table to give you a hundred names, or even more. And if you write historicals, you can reset to give you popular names from previous years.
Of course, there are tons of baby-name books. One that I’ve been using for years is The Baby Boomer Book of Names, by Roger Price, et al. What I particularly like about it is the section that gives names by country of origin. When I’m looking for a foreign last name that’s easy to pronounce, I may use an ethnic male first name as a last name for a character.
For example, Garner is actually a male first name of French origin. Eldridge is an Old English male first name, as is Hale. Warner is a male first name of German origin. You can also find ethnic names on various Web sites.
After you’ve come up with a name, there are several left-brain (logical) techniques for getting to know your characters. One is the character interview, which can go far toward helping you create characters who are three-dimensional.
This one comes from Diane Chamberlain, author of many novels including The Good Father. Play the part of your character and fill in the blanks:
I am embarrassed by __________________
I want a man who______________________
My biggest flaw is______________________
My house is___________________________
My life is_____________________________
The world is___________________________
_______________________________makes me happy
_______________________________makes me sad
_______________________________makes me frightened
_______________________________makes me proud
_______________________________makes me lonely
I don’t want anybody to know that____________________
I am afraid of___________________________________
I like to wear____________________________________
I hate to wear___________________________________
The worst man for me is___________________________
Since I was a child I______________________________
If I could do one thing I would_______________________
People think I___________________________________
I wish _________________________________________
If I could change one thing__________________________
If you go through this list with your character, you will come up with all sorts of insights you didn’t know before.
There’s a whole lot more to discuss on the subject of character development. Next time I’ll share more techniques that can help you come up with rounded characters, including using the Myers-Briggs personality types.
What methods do you use for creating characters who are three-dimensional?