Are they real or fake?
Crafting a character is like giving birth, only without the pain and drugs. Well, I guess it could include drugs. Over my 20-year career I’ve seen hundreds of version of how to get to know your character. The one thing I’ve learned is there is no right way. Only you can determine what and how much you need to know in order to make your characters jump off the page.
I touched on this topic at a workshop I did for Florida Romance Writers this past weekend. My approach has changed over the years and I now use WriteWayPro© exclusively. It’s an organizational software program that has many helpful features. Among the most precious to me is the ability to upload a photograph. I’m a visual learner, so being able to create a character info sheet with a picture there really speaks to me. I get pictures from soap opera sites (they have cast members from birth to death, so good pickings), off facebook, off magazine sites – you name it, I’ll harvest it.
Once I have a photo, I do my general history. Height, weight, hair and eye color and I even give them a date of birth. Why? You wonder. If you’re doing a series you may need to have your character age, so giving them a birthday keeps you from going back into an earlier book for the answer. I’m also hung up on birth order. The oldest child in a family is often the most responsible one. The middle child is the peacemaker. And the baby craves attention and is more of a free spirit. The baby of the family is also more suborned since he/she is accustomed to getting his/her own way.
I’ll admit, I used to go through a whole series of questions but I’ve slacked off. Shame on me. Only about 80% of what you know about your character should come out of his/her mouth. Instead you want to convey their personality through action. Remember that baby in the family? If she flies off the handle over something insignificant, you’ve shown her flaw without telling me. Show don’t tell applies to characterization too.
So now I ask three questions I learned from NYT best-seller Leanne Banks:
What is the characters secret wish?
What is the character’s greatest fear?
What is the character’s super power?
Those three little questions will help you build conflict almost instantly. For the sake of this blog, let’s do one for a hero in a romance novel.
Name: John Doe 35 6”4, Black hair, Blue eyes, 195 pounds
DOB 7/29/97 – has tribal tattoo on left arm
Only child, parents deceased
Secret wish: To get married and have a family
Greatest fear: Intimacy, has been hurt in the past
Super power: Eidetic (photographic) memory – see, no tights and capes, just a trait unique to him that no other character has.
So from the wish, fear and power I know I have to pair him with a woman who loves intimacy but doesn’t think she’s ready to settle down yet. Voila – instant conflict. All I need to do is decide why she’s gun shy and then come up with a compromise position – if not one of your characters gives up everything for the other one and that’s just a bad idea. When I read that I think those people might stay together for a year or two before the resentment builds and they either get divorced or have some intensive therapy. And yes, I do know they aren’t real but I do get invested when I’m reading.
Most importantly, you have to come up with a system that gives you the knowledge you need to write a well-rounded character. Trust me, they don’t come to you as you’re writing. If you wait for that to happen, be prepared to do a lot of drafts.