Our guest Terri Osburn, author of Meant to Be, has a wealth of questions to help you turn flat characters into characters that keep your readers turning pages.
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.
like the chart
Thanks, Denise. I got that from a friend years ago, and that’s just a snippet of it. It’s three pages in total, but the rest is just more background info and then the last questions I include here. You can make it in a Word table, Word alone, or even in Excel if you prefer that software.
EXCELLENT post and advice on character development. I also do charts for major support characters. It helps keep them in “voice,” even though they’re not a POV character.
And, I’m a *gasp* panster, plod, panster, plod, panster, plod… (<=== Duh! It took me four spins of punster, why-did-I-type-that, punster, why-did-I-type-that-again…before I deduced they have auto-correct activated in comments on WITS. Hand me my coffee.)
I often ask characters about their fondest childhood memory. And, their worst/most embarrassing. I have to know how/why they came to live where they live, why they chose their job. Do they like where they live & what they do? What phobias (if any) do they have and was it a result of an event? What is one thing they would change about themselves if they could? This often isn't the character flaw that's resolved in the character arc. Many character flaws are perceived by the MC to be a strength; until events force that notion from their noggin.
Off now to whip my WIP into shape for Golden Heart. Thanks for the great advice and link.
HAVE to visit WITS. Congratulations on your 1st and upcoming sequel. Well-deserved, I'm sure.
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This is my second attempt to comment. WordPress hates me so I hope I can make this work today.
LOVE the idea of asking if she likes where she lives and what she does. Perfect way to find her goals, especially if the answer is no. Then you have to ask what would make her happy, and figure out whether she’s right or not. They so often think they want one thing, when they really want (or need) something else. 🙂
Great blog, as usual, Terri!
I often use a character’s detail list, although some of my categories are different for my historical.
P.S. I LOVED Meant to Be and have Up to the Challenge on preorder.
I cannot wait!
Hiya, Di! Most definitely different questions for a historical, but not too far off. You’d almost have to ask even more questions to create a character who is unique and stands out among all the Dukes and Earls floating about these days.
Oh Terri, as a pantser with a hero who is a little…bendable (we will NOT use the term cardboard!)
the reminder of the ‘dig deep’ ones (fears, etc.) really helped me. Thanks so much – and I can’t wait to read your book!
Laura, I’m a writer who struggles to find external plots. I can create internal angst all the live long day, but external action? So tough! That’s another reason I need these questions. They help me figure out what outside forces would work best to make the characters lives all the more complicated.
And I hope you enjoy the book. 🙂 Next one if 4 weeks from tomorrow. Panic should be hitting in 3… 2… 1…
Love it! So nice to learn I’m doing something right for a change…LOL. Like you, I write out very detailed dossiers for each character so I can understand his or her motivations and how he/she might respond to various situations. Sometimes I write a character doing or saying something that makes perfect sense to me (because of what I know about them), but then a beta reader will ask “why,” and then I realize I forgot to plant the seed of info somewhere in the book. It’s a delicate balance to include only the relevant info once you’ve created such a full character.
Thanks for the post.
Thanks. I found I ran into this when I got to book 2 and needed to make sure a reader could pick it up and not be lost. THAT was tough. And if I write a scene (especially an opening) and then delete it for something else, my brain still thinks I’ve shared the info with the readers. But I haven’t. Unless they can see my deleted scenes folder, which sadly/fortunately is not included in the book. 🙂
This is a timely post for me! I’m writing a novel based on true events but today must start writing in the voice of a highly fictionalized character. I’ve got out my pen and paper—I’ve found journaling in a character’s voice and hand to be a great way to get my heart beating in sync with hers—and you’ve added focus to my efforts. Thanks, Terri!
You’re welcome, Kathryn. Good luck getting the character just right. I find the idea of writing a fictionalized version of true events so interesting. Knowing what to change and what to keep accurate. Must be a delicate balance!
Great post, Terri, thanks!
I’m very much a pantser but I start with character sketch sheets. I’ll admit that I don’t always get all the details down but at least the questions are then bouncing around in my head as I’m thinking about the characters. I have a white board in my office and for each book I write down the key characters with bullet points about each – how they’re related to the mc, if there’s a certain quirk about them, age, physical characteristics, anything that will help keep me in check as I’m diving head first down a rabbit hole.
Thanks, Orly. I’m considering a white board. After some minor home renovations in the next couple weeks, I’m setting up a new writing area. I always have my large storyboard on the wall, but I think a white board might come in handy, too. And a cork board since I usually tape pictures directly to the wall. I say the more tools the better!
Terrri, a great reminder. My character sheets aren’t as neat as yours — usually hand written–but they do keep me on the straight and narrow. With historicals some of the questions are a lttle different but I think the whole idea here is to get us write a well rounded character in all his or her glory right along with the flaws. 🙂 Thanks.
Great advice Terri and the sheet is a great start. I think your questions are little oriented towards a young person (tattoos and college details) which suited your premise here but I wonder what sheets for middle-aged and old people would/should look like. I have a vested interest in this because I’ll admit that I am not rigorous when it comes to character profiling. I do it, but lose heart easily because often early in the book-writing stage the characters are still forming and I’m not sure what to ask about them! These are great pointers and I think a follow-on from this giving questions for older generations (what did they do in their youth? Do they have grown up kids? etc.) would be great! Just a thought.
Even if you don’t like the idea, this post really got me thinking and I’ll get around to making my own…one day…
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