Thursday, October 18, 2012

Getting into Your Characters

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 love_______________________________
I hate_______________________________
I am embarrassed by __________________
I want a man who______________________
My mother____________________________
My father_____________________________
My family_____________________________
My biggest flaw is______________________
Eating is_____________________________
Sex is_______________________________
Traveling is___________________________
Money is_____________________________
My house is___________________________
My life is_____________________________
Work is_______________________________
People are____________________________
The world is___________________________
Religion is____________________________
Government is_________________________
_______________________________makes me happy
_______________________________makes me sad
_______________________________makes me frightened
_______________________________makes me proud
_______________________________makes me lonely
_______________________________embarrasses me
_______________________________frightens me
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_______________________
Nobody ever____________________________________
People think I___________________________________
I wish _________________________________________
I never_________________________________________
I always________________________________________
If I could change one thing__________________________
I hope_________________________________________

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?


  1. Excellent post, Rebecca. I especially like the question list. I can see how helpful it would be in getting to know your characters. I will definitely use this!

  2. Heard that mystery writer Elizabeth George is so meticulous about knowing her characters that before beginning her stories, she writes pages about their histories and habits down to the brand of toothpaste they prefer. That kind of knowledge adds nuance to a character as you shape him or her.
    Names can immediately signal ethnic background, status, and sometimes character flaws or attributes. Brett Ashley in "The Sun Also Rises" sounds like the burnt-out case she is. Willie Stark in "All the Kings Men" is a ruthless southern governor. Stark means strong in German. In my last book, "My Favorite Midlife Crisis (Yet)," Fleur Caldwaller Talbot is from an old-line Maryland family--we have Talbot county in Maryland, and Kat Greenfield is a counter culture kind of gal. Names can carry lots of information.

    1. Thanks for the name insights. Hadn't even thought about Brett Ashley, actually.

  3. Another great post,Rebecca. I spend a lot to time deciding on my character's names. I'm writing a series with five brothers and I gave them all J names.[A probie mistake I will never do again]. I'm on book three and these guys have become like my own children. However, I have received comments from my critique partners that the J names are confusing and suggest I change them. Since I haven't published any of the books yet, I'm considering changing a couple names, but its so difficult. It like telling my 24 year old son that his name is now Tom. Have you ever changed a character name in the middle of a series before?

    1. I do think giving everyone a J name will confuse readers. I can't change a name in the middle of a series because the names have likely been published already. And yes,it would be difficult to start thinking of any of them as someone else. But you will get used to it. I have changed character names (just not in mid series.)

  4. This is one of the most demanding challenges of writing fiction. It can make or break a story. I tell my students that when they're writing a novel, they need to go back to their childhood and "play pretend". Put themselves into the body and soul of their character, walk in their shoes, feel what they feel. The closer the author identifies with his/her characters, the more likely the reader will be to identify with them.

    1. I think I've said before that all my heroines are a kinder, sweeter version of me. I gave Sara an occupation in HER BABY'S FATHER that I'd enjoy. Buys antiques and used furniture and "stages" house that are for sale to make them look nice.

  5. Excellent post, Rebecca! I tend to learn about my characters as I go along. I start with a basic sense of who they are, but they tell me more as I write. The list you posted is interesting, though. I'll try that with the book I'm starting and see what I learn.

  6. Great ideas here, Rebecca. Thanks so much for sharing your incredible font of knowledge.

  7. I like the list. One of the things that, as a reader, really ticks me off though, is when a writer creates a prototype character and uses him/her over and over again. I think that we all have read writers whose first books feature really intriguing characters. However, when they get to their third or fourth reincarnation, I feel like I've been cheated by the author and sold the same book with a few new names and a somewhat different plot twist. I marvel at your ability to keep things fresh.

    1. Yes, but often writers DO have a private formula. In some ways the guy I'm writing about now is similar to my last hero--w/ some significant differences. And of course, as I said, they all LOOK the same.

  8. I love the idea of having the character express his/her preferences as in the form above. It seems to me that a lot of authors would know their characters better and be able to impart more about them if they at least thought about how the characters would answer the various questions.

    Another great post!

  9. Great insight here, Rebecca. I have a truncated version of the author interview but I never use it because it's so long. I like your short version. My big thing is names. In naming a character, I get a real sense of their heritage, their history, and their personality. I can't write, no matter how compelling the idea and plot until I have the right name.

    In my current series, I have been confronted with a first. I have a secondary character (given a last name only during his first appearance in the first book) who will be the hero in the sixth book. I had the blurb published in a "coming soon" at the back of the third book. While working on the fourth book, the character informed me his first name was wrong. I argued. He reminded me that in this digital age, it's easy enough to fix. Rudek now has the name he says he was born to.

    I should know better than argue with the people who live in my head. ;-)

    1. I'm glad you like the character interview. I wouldn't want to use a longer one!

      Funny about Rudek's name. Glad he pressured you.

  10. Ooh, I love the interview idea! These are questions I'd never think to ask, yet they add so much to a character. Now if I could find something similar about a plot, when the time comes I'll name my next cat after you, male or female!!

    1. Yes, Diane Chamberlain came up with some great questions.

      The Story Forge cards should help with plot. I'm going to discuss them in a later blog post.

  11. I was happy to read about your blog post today, and look at all these great comments as well! My books are definitely character driven, but built around a plot too, of course, being mysteries. I'm a playwright too, so character is important to me. I do extensive name searches, deep background histories, layouts of homes, apartments, maps of the areas, I used to do scrapbooks, but now use Pinterest. I know who my characters are, where they live, what they wear, what they eat, what they do, how they smell, and what makes them tick. I find your questionnaire helpful. Re names, there is a name generator on Scrivener, and the Internet has a name generator based on country of origin, gender and date of birth.

  12. Love this list! Thanks for another great post!

  13. I'm a little behind posting a comment but I enjoyed reading your post. I've been working on my NaNo characters using some of what you listed here. Thanks for sharing how it works for you.