Keep Characters True To Themselves

by Sharla Rae

Hey, who’s telling this story? I can make my characters do or say anything I want them to.

Many beginning writers subscribe to this theory.

I hate to break anyone’s bubble but that’s hogwash.

When introducing characters, the author breathes life into them with a physical description, personality, goals and motivations. They look, act and think in a particular manner. Just like real people. If the character doesn’t stay true to themselves, their actions will make no sense and readers are pulled out of the story.

Imagine:

  • The drunken, hardnosed character Rooster Cogburn, (John Wayne in True Grit) suddenly goes soft on Mattie Ross, Kim Darby’s character?
  • Mary Poppins takes a belt to her charges?
  • 007 gives up his cool and goes mushy over his many sexual encounters.

Would you believe it? No. Because in each case the writer showed the reader who these people are – on the surface and deep down.

Two of the most common out-of-character traps involve age appropriate problems and inconsistent behavior. Ask these questions:

  • Do my characters act their age? A mature woman or man of 30 to 35 years of age will not act, think or speak like a teen or young person fresh out of college. Recently I read a published book where a 32 year old female executive talked like a teeny-bopper when she got together with her thirty-something girlfriends of the same age. It totally threw me. Women of all ages talk a little trash with girlfriends but the nature of their conversations, even the language is different between age groups.
  • Do my characters act and react in a manner consistent with their personality? Someone afraid of heights doesn’t climb a ladder. A grouchy loner doesn’t suddenly play slap-stick jokes on people. A prissy little girl won’t want to play baseball with the neighbor boys.

If a character does something that would never come naturally to them, they must have a good reason/motivation for the change of behavior. Example: The character who is afraid of heights might climb a ladder if a rabid dog is on her heels. An honest cop might rob a bank if villains are holding his family hostage.

My favorite tools to keep my characters in line are Character profile sheets, Horoscope personality profiles and Research. The number one rule in using these tools is: Always connect the dots between them.

Character profile worksheets serve as fast and easy reminders to writers. They include a list of physical descriptions, best friends, dress, enemies, ambitions/goals, sense of humor, temper, basic nature, personal quirks, habits, talents, hobbies, family backgrounds, profession, educational background etc. .

A common weakness in these profile sheets is that they shed little light on personality. That’s why I dig deeper. I search horoscope signs for personalities that best match my characters. Whether you believe in horoscope readings or not, the personalities listed under sun signs provide a great basic outline of a particular personality.

Horoscope personalities are especially helpful in determining how a character will react to a particular situation. Example: How would a hero with a Cancer personality react if he lost all his money or fell into a fortune? Money is no joke to the taciturn crab.

There are many horoscope books but I love Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs. This treasure lists the general characteristics of each sign and more. For instance, Goodman describes the Taurus child, Taurus adult male and female, Taurus boss and employee — the total personality package. She also explains how these personalities interact with each other.

What about a character’s romantic relationships? Linda Goodman’s Love Signs is amazing. Each sun sign is listed and then coupled with all the other signs to point out what the good and bad matches may look like, why they work or why they won’t. Example: Aries with an Aries, Aries with a Capricorn, Aries with a Taurus etc. Goodman further breaks it down into the female and male of each sign. Example: Aries female with Capricorn male or Capricorn female with an Aries male etc. .

Note: While Linda Goodman has passed, her books are still available. I recently looked at another Linda Goodman book on Amazon called Linda Goodman’s Relationship Signs. The contents suggest it contains a relationship chart worksheet. Sounds very interesting!

Do your research.

Horoscopes don’t cover nitty-gritty idiosyncrasies. What if you’re writing about a thief, a slave, an ad executive etc.? Research types of characters by reading autobiographies and biographies of real people who share a similar background with your character. Writing about a serial killer? Read serial killer profiles. Writing about a Hollywood star? Read up on their lives, their business and what it’s like to walk in their shoes. Then connect the dots. Determine for instance how your Aries female will handle her stardom.

Okay, say you’ve chosen your sun sign and done your research, but the personality thing still doesn’t quite jive with what you had in mind. We all know people who don’t fit the mold and characters are no different. So, can we color outside the lines or are these personalities set in stone?

Color outside the lines but don’t let the crayon slide off the tablet.   

Here’s a real-life example: My friend is a Gemini but she was born on May 24th making her very close to Taurus. Most of the time she is more Taurus than Gemini, but she does share traits of each.

It’s okay to combine personalities if it suits your purpose. It actually makes for a more interesting character, perhaps one with more layers. Just make sure to outline the personality carefully and keep the character true to him or herself.

What about character arc/growth? While characters learn from experience and goals may change as the plot evolves, their basic personality won’t change. The manner in which they handle situations or problems should always reflect who they are – even when they’re pressured into something that isn’t natural to them. Connect the dots.

Like all tools, profile worksheets, horoscope personalities and research aren’t failsafe, but they are great guides for new writers and even for the seasoned writer who is writing a complicated character.

Helpful Links:

Very good character profile sheet by Laura Hayden: http://www.suspense.net/profile.htm

Character profile sheet by Ylanne Sorrows: http://www.roleplaygateway.com/character-development-profile-template-t32760.html

Character profile sheet from Writers’ Café: http://www.writerscafe.org/groups/Create-a-story-based-on-a-character-profile./3491/forum/12132/

So, how do you keep your characters true to themselves?

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11 Responses to Keep Characters True To Themselves

  1. Maggie says:

    Great post! Thanks for the links.🙂

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  3. Bianca Swan says:

    Very good reminders. The links will definitely be useful.

  4. Judy says:

    This brings back memories of a conversation I had with a non-writing friend. I was anxious about writing the story “right.” She stared at me and said, “It’s your story, so it will be right.” “No, no, no. I have to make sure the characters are true to themselves!” “They’re your characters, so you can make them do whatever you want.” “No, if you try to make them do something, they really make your life miserable.” That ended the conversation, and I know they still think I’m crazy.

    • Thanks for commenting Judy and I do get it – about non-writers. It’s like others saying I’m going to write a book some day as if doing so were as easy buttering their toast.🙂 Sharla Rae

  5. Jeremy Duley says:

    Thanks for the links…..and the good advice. As a new writer, I needed it.

  6. Sometimes it takes me a while to figure it out, but once I know who they are, my characters tend to grab hold of the story and start steering. I find one good way to keep true to my characters is to write shorts about them, or have ‘conversations’ with them. So much of the process happens up in my head, by the time I’m writing any given character, I usually have a good idea on which way they’ll leap.

    • Thanks for the comment Eric. Chacters do guide the story and sometimes take the author down roads we’re surprised to find ourselves traveling on. That’s part of what makes being a writer such an adventure. Stope in again at WITS! Sharla Rae

  7. Really enjoyed your blog. I’ve use Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs and the relationship book as well for years with wonderful results. Sara James in TimeQuest is Sara the Sagi and Caytlyn in TimeRider is Caytlyn the Cancer. It’s just serendipity that the first letters are the same in the name and the sun sign. Really🙂 /But if I want even more inspiration I go to Laurie Schnebly0Campbell’s book Creating Believable Characters with Enneagrams. If I still think a character needs more, I go to David Freeman’s Character Diamond that he teaches in Hollywood. All great helps as was your blog. Thank you so much for sharing.
    Susan Yarina

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  9. Yvette says:

    Great post! I have Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs book in my library, I’ll get it out and put it to even better use than just understanding myself and my family now!! A book I’ve been using for this sort of thing lately is on the Myers- Briggs ‘personality types’ by Renee Baron “What type am I?”

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