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On Writing – Characters

Characters. You can’t have a story – in any medium – without them. Characters are what bring us back time and again to a show or movie or novel series that otherwise might only be mediocre. We fall in love with people, not story-lines or plot twists. You can have the most brilliant idea ever and be one of the best writers ever, but if you don’t have characters for readers/viewers to connect with, ain’t no one gonna be interested.

There’s tons of books and exercises and info out there about how to create vibrant, 3D characters that will draw in the reader/viewer. I haven’t actually read any books specifically on characters, there was always a chapter or two in the general writing books I read that I felt covered things for me. No offense to anyone – I’m sure a lot of them are awesome – and it’s not like I really know what I’m talking about except I kinda do. I go through this with each writing project, whether it’s a short, a spec script, or a novel.

And this is where I tell you that you do what works for you, just like with outlines and fleshing out a story. For every writer, there is a different way of coming up with and detailing their characters and you come to what works for you through trial and error.

Use whatever language or shorthand works for you. Use pop culture references if it cements them in your mind. Use literary references. Use sticky notes. Whatever. I have a friend who uses a notebook and hand writes everything down. That would drive me insane. I have another friend who actually does the 200 questionnaire thing (two friends, come to think on it) and that would drive me insane, too. The point is, whatever makes the character sink into your brain is what you should do. Experiment. Try different things and see which makes the character come alive for you. Let’s face it, you’re the very first reader and if the characters don’t speak to you, why are you even writing about them in the first place?

Unlike with structure or plot, there is no wrong way to create your characters. Characters come from the heart, not format and not a book. 

So what’s a newbie to do? Well, reading those books is a good start if you truly don’t know how to go about it. There are questionnaires that go through the character’s history, family, childhood, friends, lovers, ex’s, etc. Others have you interview the characters. Still others have you do a detailed interrelationship map. Some of them make you do all of that and more. For myself, I generally write about a page on each main character and the more important they are, the more detailed I get. Secondary characters get about half a page and minor characters might get a paragraph, just so I know in my mind who they are and have them written down somewhere when in case I forget their names. (Yes. That will happen.)

This is my original character sketch for Cecily, the main character from my Arbiter series:

Cecily Madden – 30, comes from a solid, middle-class family. Oldest child of four, two sisters, and one baby brother. Parents are still happily married. A pretty easy-going personality, Cecily is nosy by nature and had a natural calling to be a reporter. Good at research and thorough to an almost OCD level, she’s a like a dog with a bone when she gets into something and just can’t let go. This is good for work, but not so much in her personal relationships.

Cecily grew up in San Jose and went to college at UCLA. She majored in journalism and minored in Justice. Interned at the LA Times during school and got a job at the SF Post upon graduating. She had a couple of boyfriends through high school and then college, a few one-night stands, but nothing serious until meeting Matt Stanford when she was 27.

She knows how to defend herself, took the standard self-defense classes in college and does a little kickboxing as part of her gym routine, but she’s no Buffy. Her life routine is working 50 hours a week, being with Matt when she’s not at work, and sleep. Doesn’t have a lot of time for her family, they mostly keep in touch via email and skype, and lost most of her friends years ago, though she has plenty of work acquaintances.

When Matt breaks up with her just after her 30th birthday (he didn’t want to stress her just before such a big milestone) she actually thought he was going to propose. She buries her pain with work and avoidance, concentrating on a dangerous story about some political bigwig. This literally blows up in her face and she’s nearly killed in a car explosion, ends up in a coma for a week only to wake up with the power to know when people are lying if they touch her.  

Now keep in mind that I wrote such a short description because it was only going to be a novella story series. I knew I would get to know Cecily better as the series went on and more things would come up that I could add to the description. I didn’t really get into the idea of a novel until halfway through story #3.

The good thing about such a short description, of course, is that it allows for flexibility. Like, say, when I finally got around to writing the novel and she was in the coma for three months, not a week, and she was actually 33 because the novel started later than her character sketch ended.

And remember, they are your characters so nothing is written in stone… not these days anyhow. ;o) If you’re halfway through your project and get struck with the sudden insight that your character had a bad brush with a near rape and that’s partly where the trust issues and defensiveness come from, you can – and should – add that to the description. Or maybe a long-lost cousin shows up unexpectedly on his/her doorstep and your brain goes, “WTF? Where did you come from?” Because it happens, trust me. Add the cousin in there! Give him/her a description of their own if they’re at all important because if they are, they’ll impact the plot at some point, too.

In my mind, the one thing you absolutely must know about your character is their heart. Be it black as night or as sweet as a kitten’s, who they are at heart will drive their motivation, their reactions, and their relationships. Are they a good person at heart or could they easily take over Hell because they have no heart? And if they have no heart, is that a temporary condition waiting for the right catalyst to grow a new one, or a permanent, willful dethroning?

I think that’s enough to get you started. Feel free to comment if you want me to expound some more. :o)

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About Nancy M. Griffis

Author and screenwriter who loves scifi/action/adventure/urban fantasy genres. I have two published novels, Mind Games and Eternal Investigations, as well as a short story published for charity called "Home Fires Burning." All are available through amazon.com and barnesandnobles.com.

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Nancy at the Tim Burton exhibit in L.A.

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