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Breathe Life into Your Characters By Becky Martinez

My sister is always accusing me of being a nut about school and learning. She constantly tells me that I am just like Hermione in the Harry Potter Series because of my enjoyment of learning new things. I always think of the scenes in My Fair Lady where Rex Harrison as Professor Higgins is going through different books in his enormous and just looking things up. That appeals to me. Nothing would make me happier than a huge room filled with books where I could look up whatever hit me at the time. One of my favorite places to visit is a used bookstore owned by an old college friend because of the tracks and stacks of books.

But to me studying is a necessity if you are going to write a book, whether it is to research a location, to look for the plausibility of a plot point or to do one of my favorite things – to study different people. Yes, we need to research our plots or locations but we also need to be very aware of researching our characters.

This week I have been working on a book of writing tips and I came to the chapter on writing characters. My co-author Sue Viders sent me her list of good ways to work on characters and I compared it to my own. Sue and I have a great working relationship because she sees things in linear order, while I am a more free-spirited writer who jumps from place to place in my writing. She will take a character sheet and fill it out to get to know her character. I will take that piece of paper of character descriptions and turn it over to the blank page and write a scene that shows that character. What we have learned from working together is something that all writers need to figure out, whether they are starting out or working on a new book – what kind of a writer are you?

Study Your Writing Method

Sue and I learned our lesson through years of working together and with other writing students. We know that both of our writing methods can work for different writers because we’ve watched the different students succeed once they know the method that works best for them. The key is to discover which sort of writer you are. That is one of the first things to discover when you set out to write–at sort of writer are you? What works for you? We’ve defined the different types of writers (and so do many other writers) as the plotters and the pantsers. Sue is much more of the plotting and planning writer while I will write by the seat of my pants and as I said, we’ve both discovered that either way can work. It works to our advantage when we are writing fiction together because she can start bringing the character together in descriptive terms while I can then take that word picture of a character that she gives me and bring it to life. For beginning writers, the key is to discover which sort of writer you are and then look to put those characters or scenes on the written page. For the writer who has already determined that, the next step is to use that knowledge to your advantage. It doesn’t make sense to keep trying to build characters one way if you know you’re only going to change things later.

Use the Method that Works Best for YOU

Sue can take a plot point and then write the scene around it. I see the scene in my head, put it on paper and then make the scene a plot point. We do the same with our characters. But then once you’ve discovered your writing method you need to take it and put it into practice. The process needs to show up on the written page.

If you are going to write the description on your character sheet that a character talks fast or has long, shiny black hair, then those descriptions need to show up in the your story. You need to bring that character to vibrant life, not simply say it.  Yes, you can say she talks fast, but then the scenes need to show it. Perhaps people ask her to repeat herself because they didn’t quite understand what she was talking about.

Make Characters Come Alive

One of my favorite Saturday night indulgences has become TCM’s Film Noir series on Saturday night. When I’m home I make a practice of watching and if I’m going to be out, I record it or watch the replay on Sunday. The movies are usually great fun even if they’re not the latest in Hollywood magic and they’re almost all in black and white.

But the fun of it is in the characters. At a recent writers’ convention in Vancouver, we had a panel on writing noir suspense novels. One of the authors defined the genre as “bad characters making bad choices,” and that grabbed me immediately. That’s exactly what these characters were. Usually when confronted with the choice of right or wrong they make the wrong choice: sometimes it’s for love, sometimes it’s out of ignorance and sometimes it is because they are downright bad characters.

As I noted, the films are in black and white and usually, so are the characters. They are good or they are bad or they can’t quite seem to make up their minds which to be. Often the good guys are very good and the bad are downright delightfully bad. There are few nuances in the evil women or the good girls and while the bad men aren’t going to change, it’s usually the hero that gets caught in the struggle between good and bad.

But this week, I got caught up in a movie that was not in black and white, it was basically all gray! Different shades of gray and before it was half over I realized I couldn’t tell one character from the next. The guys were all in hats with grayish hair and the women were all blondes in black dresses. The film was all in shades of various gray colors– nothing stood out. I have no clue who was good or bad nor did I care by the end. Everyone was making bad choices and betraying the other. It hit me as I watched why none of these characters were coming to life for me. They were all the same dull gray personna. No one was tormented, no one was conflicted, no one was unique.

Make your Characters Real

Unlike those gray characters of noir the people we know, the people we want to read about in books should be real. They need to come alive so that you feel like you can meet them going down the street or watch them perform loving sacrifices or make real mistakes. We want our characters to come to life for us. That means giving them lives on the page, giving them grievances, goals and perhaps even a great or mediocre wardrobe. Our writing needs to breathe life into these characters. They need to become real people with a story—the story you want to tell as a writer.

But great characters don’t just pop out of the sky. It takes work to develop a fully fleshed out story person who comes alive on the written page. That is your job as the writer. Readers can’t see what you haven’t given them. They’ll all become those gray figures in hats.

Interview other Characters

One of the recommendations that I often give students is to interview your characters. As a journalist, I was always trained to be ready with a preliminary question for people when I meet them. Usually, when dealing with an interview subject it was to get them more comfortable before we really started talking on the record. But I always found I enjoyed that introductory talk because it not only helped make them less stiff, but I also learned a lot from the person. I almost always come up with a question or two just from that introductory chat.

I always recommend that writers interview their characters to get to know them. But recently I tried another way to get to know those characters. I not only interviewed them, I interviewed the people around them.

I found that by asking other characters I not only got to know the main characters better, but I also learned more about those secondary characters and made them come to life as well. Instead of asking the main character about their relationship with the people around them, you might try asking the hero’s sister about her fears about her brother’s future or her memories of the past with him. That can set up information you might find valuable in the story itself.

An interview with the neighbor might tell the other side of the story of their dislike for the hero or heroine. Even an interview with the villain might give more insight to the battle between the hero and villain. Now this information might not make it into the story, but then again it might. Your conversation with the hero’s sister might later become the heroine’s conversation where she learns why the hero is acting a certain way.

One of the writing lessons I’ve learned and taught over the years has been to know your characters because you can’t write about strangers as easily as you can about people you know.

And that is where those noir writers ran into trouble and turned their characters into interchangeable figures – they became so much alike they became as dull and gray as the old film. Bring your characters into full color – bring them to life!

My class on writing great characters begins next week. I hope you’ll join me for a fun journey in creating characters, getting to know them, and then testing them! Let’s make them come ALIVE!

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Latest Release:

Creating Memorable Characters: Let’s Write a Story (Volume 2)

Creating great heroes, heroines and villains doesn’t need to be a mystery if you take the time to build your characters using this step by step guide. Learn how to make your characters unique individuals who are both human and heroic, or thoughtful but troubled or cunning but courageous. Find out how you can use a simple procedure to come up with a character who will keep readers turning the pages.

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Becky Martinez is a former broadcast journalist who writes romance and romantic suspense for The Wild Rose Press. She also writes non-fiction books on...