by Terri Osburn
I’ve been judging a lot of contest entries lately, which led me to the topic for this blog. After reading the entire entry, I had to basically point out the good and the bad in each one. After several entries, I realized almost all of my feedback went back to the characters.
Because the characters make the story.
Every writer has to start somewhere when developing their characters. Maybe you want to create a story about the jock and the bookworm. No problem. It’s a popular trope. (Think Duke and the Wallflower or Vampire and the new girl.) But you can’t stop with these simple descriptors. These characters have to be unique individuals, not cardboard cut outs that move around the setting and say fun things. Find the person inside the character. Dig deep into who they are.
There’s no one way to do this, but I highly recommend some sort of character detail sheets, or even a string of facts and traits written in a notebook.
Start with basic questions:
- Where did she grow up?
- Where did she go to school?
- Who was her best friend?
- Does she have siblings?
- Was she good in school?
- Did she go to college?
- Were both parents around?
- What kind of relationship did she have with her parents?
- Are they still around today?
Some of this may seem pointless, and very little will be shared with the reader, but it all makes up the person walking across your page.
Take the question “Were both parents around?” Seems like a yes or no, but then you learn her dad was in the military and died right before she was born, so she never knew him. Then her mom couldn’t finish college because she had to go to work and raise the heroine alone. Why does that matter? Well, if that jock is considering joining the military, that heroine could have all sorts of issues.
Or if he’s in any dangerous line of work. Or wants to get married too soon. Or wants a house full of munchkins, and expects her to stay home to raise them with no support unit around.
With one question, you’ve found a conflict. Or many conflicts. To know where these answers lead, you need to figure out who the hero is. Put him through the same drill.
Nearly every time I do this with new characters, I learn things about them I never imagined. Sometimes big things. I learned a heroine had lost a child a few years before the story started. I learned a hero felt inferior to his older brother.
Both were important facts I needed to know to bring those characters to life on the page, and I firmly believe these details are what made the characters real.
So once you know who they are, you’re ready to write, right? Not quite. There are more questions yet to be answered.
There are the usual ones:
- What is her greatest fear?
- What would she never do?
- What does she want?
- What is she willing to do to get it?
It’s so important to ask these questions before you start, but sometimes you don’t have the answers right away. I’m sure there are pantsers reading this (if they haven’t clicked away already) thinking knowing all this going in would ruin everything. But even if you write the story by the seat of your pants, you have to eventually prod the answers to these questions out of your characters.
You need them to be real people, with real wants and fears and goals. And you MUST make the reader care enough to want to see her get/face/achieve them. Only by making them unique and special will the reader care. That doesn’t always mean the reader has to like her (or him.) But they need to become invested enough in that person to want to keep reading.
If you plug in stereotypes with no unique traits or history, or make them caricatures of a classic character we all know, you’re going to lose the reader. The reader will get to chapter two and think, “I’ve read this so many times, what else do I have on this Kindle?” Or worse, think “I could care less what happens to these people,” then close the book and instantly forget about them.
In order to find the heart beat that makes the character come alive, you have to know her. To know her, you have to ask questions.
The more you pry, the more you learn, and the more real the character becomes. Whether it takes days or weeks, get to know their quirks, their hang ups, their romantic history, and even their philosophy on life.
With every answer, your story gets better. Your job as the writer gets easier. (Relatively speaking, of course.) And your readership will grow.
One last note. In the end, trust your characters. They know their story better than you do. There are times they’ll surprise you. Let them. Those surprises will almost always pay off in the end.
For more on character development, I highly recommend a blog C. S. Lakin did on Larry Brooks site. You can find it here.
Here is Terri’s Character Details Sheet:
Would you like to share additional questions you ask your characters?
About Terri Osburn:
Born in the Ohio Valley, Terri relocated below the Mason Dixon line in the early 1990s after experiencing three blizzards in eighteen months. Seeking warmer climes, she landed in Nashville, did a stint in Arkansas, and eventually moved to the East Coast, where she settled near the ocean.
In 2012, she was named a finalist in the Romance Writers of America® Golden Heart® contest for unpublished manuscripts. An agent and contract soon followed. Her debut release, the first in her Anchor Island Series, MEANT TO BE, was released in May 2013, with book 2, UP TO THE CHALLENGE, to follow October 22, 2013.
Visit her website at www.terriosburn.com.