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:: Archived Articles ::

Act One: Scene One
The Characters

Published In The Kiss of Death, January/February 2008

The three of us were sitting around the table, two writers and one sane person, talking about nothing at all when the conversation turned to our characters.

“Not true,” I said, pointing out that it is possible for people to fall in love quickly. “Jaime and Scott only knew each other for eight days before they got married and their relationship was perfect.”

“Jaime and Scott aren’t like everyone else,” my writing friend said, knowing full well Jaime and Scott were the two lead characters in one of my books. “And their relationship wasn’t perfect. They may have finally ended up together, but they had tons of trouble with her Uncle and the CIA. People were trying to kill them. You call that perfect?”

It was about this time that the third person sitting with us, the sane person, broke in. She sounded confused.

“What?” we asked in unison.

“You talk about these people like they are real people, but they are only characters in a book.”

We, the two writers, were shocked, I think. A little confused ourselves. Our characters not real? It never even dawned on us this could be remotely true.

They are real people. To anyone who has ever written or read a book which grabbed them by the throats, characters – if developed right – are real, live, breathing people.

Remember Aragorn before the movies came out? After finishing Lord of the Rings, I remember making a pot of tea one day and thinking “What is he doing now that the story is over?” I was so sad two seconds later when I realized he was fictional. After all these months we had spent together, I had to go on knowing he was created in the mind of a brilliant writer and there was no way for me to visit with him again, to see what was happening in Minas Tirith now that he was king.

What makes a character like this? One that will stay in our minds and keep us company? Whether they are hero or heroine, villain or secondary. What can writers’ do to make their characters come alive?

Says Tami Cowden, author or The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes and Heroines: “To me, characters are most memorable when their motivations are clear and well defined. If readers or the audience understand why a character acts, they understand who that character is. They may not agree with the action, of course, but they "get" the character. And "getting" a character is the key to memorability.”

“A round character is a major character in a work of fiction who encounters conflict and is changed by it. Round characters tend to be . . . fully developed and described,” says Ginny Wiehardt in her article Your Guide to Fiction Writing at About.com. “If you think of the characters you most remember in fiction you've loved during your life, they will almost all be round characters. These are the characters who may have seemed as real to you as people you know in real life.”

Fully developed. Described.

What does a writer do to create these fully developed and described people who will live within the pages of our stories?

We get to know them. Whether we label our writing style as a “plotter” such as Christie Ridgeway, author of Must Love Mistletoe, First Comes Love and Then Comes Marriage; or we call ourselves a “panster” like Vicki Lewis Thompson, author of the Nerd Series: Nerd is Shining Armor, Nerds Like it Hot and My Nerdy Valentine. Knowing our characters is paramount to creating a memorable story.

Christie Ridgeway always knows something about her characters when she sits down to write a new book. Maybe not with detailed interviews, but at least she knows what drives them, what motivates them into their story. Vicki Lewis Thompson takes the opposite approach. She starts her story and sees where the characters will lead her. “I don’t know them until I am forced to see how they react.”

Both ways work. Neither is right nor wrong. What works for the writer is the way they should write. Some people like detailed bio-sheets before they begin, ones showing the character’s background in high school, their first kiss, how they take their coffee in the morning. Other writers like to see the characters develop as they appear on the page.

There are many tools which can be used to show our characters alive and on the page. Background sprinkled throughout the story in small amounts to tease and tantalize the reader. You don’t want an information dump which could slow down the pace of a well written book. You want to add a little here and a little there.

Dialogue is way to add background. It can to show origins or education. Another character’s point of view can give physical description as well as show how your character’s actions are perceived. The key is to know your characters as you know your older brother or best friend. You, the author, the creator of his or her world, you have to know what they will do and how they will react.

Says Ms. Cowden: “... for example, a character driven by honor doesn't act honorably in only his or her life and death decision. That character will always take the high road, in even the smallest of matters. Similarly, a character who sees life as a game to play finds ways to have fun in everything – even if it is taking out the trash. The writer can convey these attitudes throughout the story, giving the character opportunities to display his or her character in everyday actions, and setting the seeds for the major decisions to come in the story.”

You can have a ‘plot driven’ story or you can have a ‘character driven’ plot. Either way, how the characters are portrayed is going to reflect on how your story will be received. Characters are necessary even to a story which is plot driven. We have to care about them, we have to care about the outcome and their happily ever after, particularly if we are writing romance.

Your hero must act heroic. Your heroine must be likeable. Your villain, he or she has to be evil enough to stand up to their main characters while having the proper motivation for being evil. Just putting a bad guy into the story because you need a bad guy does not work. You must know your villain as well as you know your other characters. Why are they after the hero or heroine? What do they hope to gain and why?

Characters are the driving force behind our books. If we didn’t have characters, we wouldn’t have a story. Without a story for us to tell – well where would we as writers be? So pull out a character sheet and find out about that person you will be sending the next six months to a year with. Or, as you type your first page, ask the guy blinking up at you what he wants from the time you will spend together. Does he just want the girl? Or does he have a deeper motivation? Get to know these people so you can make them as alive to us as they are to you.

Then they will be memorable. Then we will be wondering what happens next in their life and maybe for a moment, we will forget that they were on paper and we will remember that for a brief time, they were apart of our – the readers – lives.

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