Don’t I Know You?: Writing Characters who Come to Life by Jane Myers Perrine

What do Scarlett O’Hara and Atticus Finch have in common?  Many things so I’ll give you a few seconds to consider that, to make a list.  . . .

I imagine you’ve come up with a few, but I have an agenda with the question.  For this blog, what they have in common is that they are memorable characters that, years after their creation,  are still vibrantly alive.

Scarlett O’Hara has few redeeming characteristics.  She was stubborn, headstrong, self-centered, and yet we remember her as an amazing heroine, a survivor with a combination of good and bad traits, like most of us.   On the other hand, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird was a good man who loved his children and worked for justice.  It’s hard to like a really good person because they aren’t as interesting as a flawed human being, even a villain, but his humility and his quixotic quest made us cheer for him and we adore him for being the father he was.

A well-written character stays with us , is one we remember,  who is almost a real person,  who may even remind us someone we know.   Readers love them.  As writers, how do we create a memorable character?

Start by choosing the traits that shape them, that make them unique and  authentic.  But there’s more to putting together a list of characteristics.  The author must then use those traits to build a whole, rounded person, then explain how each trait makes them who they are and shows how they interact with others.  How does the trait motivate them?   For example, someone once told me her heroine was a former nun, ex-FBI agent,  black-belt in karate who now runs a halfway house.   Really interesting traits.  Then came the hard part:  to  used each to motivate the heroine and build the plot.  If that characteristic doesn’t, why have them?

Let’s take one of those traits.  Let’s figure out how the heroine’s being a former nun could influence who she is ten years later.   Write down your thoughts.  I’ll wait.  .  .

Here’s what I came up with.   Please note that some of these completely contradict others.  The writer has to decide which work best for the novel.   Doesn’t matter if are lists are the same.  The idea is to figure out how you’d build that character

  1. She is spiritual and likes to meditate.
  2. She no longer prays because she  lost her faith.
  3. She likes to help other people and that’s how she met the hero when he was shot in the woods while she was meditating.
  4. Due to the discipline of being a nun, she lives a disciplined life in a small, immaculate home.
  5. She rejects discipline  and leaves her dirty clothes on the floor and eats whenever she’s hungry.
  6. She dresses in somber clothing because she’s comfortable, feels it’s a link to her past.
  7. She loves bright shirts and wears her hair in beaded braids.

Assignment:  Makes lists for how her law enforcement background or martial arts skills influence her life now.  What influence did her background have on her decision to run a half-way house?

That occupational choice must have formed her life and character in some fairly major way or  be an interesting side light.  If not, it shouldn’t be part of her story or the book.    And readers remember stuff like this.   Five pages from the end, a reader will think, “I liked this book but why in the world was the heroine an ex-FBI agent when this never came up in the entire novel?”

A writing friend suggested the main character could be a cadaver dog trainer.  What would that mean?  She likes dogs.  To some, she’d seem a little odd, creepy.   She could be a loner, just her and her dogs and cadavers.  She’d have to be disciplined to train the dogs and dedicated to  them.  Does her dedication to training dogs shut others out?  Does she trust her animals more than people?    If this occupation has no impact on who she is and where the plot goes, then she could just as well be a former Olympian, ex-teacher and boxer who runs a modeling agency.  Each traits must lead some place.    In the best novels, those choices influence the characters actions, motivations, conflicts, goals—everything!—over and over.

The choice of names is a fairly obvious decision.  Scarlett describes a vibrant woman and Atticus sounds upright and noble.

Decide on physical characteristics.   If the heroine has curly blond hair she’s a much different person than a woman with a purple Mohawk.  Obviously.

If you’ve read Lee Child’s novels, you know the hero Jack Reacher is huge.  His size is as important as his being a former MP and made him a very good MP.  Now he wanders around and gets into trouble.  He’d have been dead half-way through the first novel if he weren’t so big.

Other characters have physical traits which define a good part of who they are:  Ironside in a wheelchair and Auggie on Covert Affairs who’s blind. Tats and scars often give us a hints to secrets or goals, political POV or—even—perversions and prejudices.

Add to the possible choices nicknames, family structure and dynamics, repeated actions, phrases and word choices and on and on.

But, again, the question is, “How do I create memorable characters?”    Here are a few steps I use.

1)  Dissect whatever you read, analyze every television program or movie, find out what works for other writers.   Take a novel and highlight words or phrases or whatever that appeal to you.  During a movie, I’d often turn to my husband and says,  “Did that character have enough motivation to do that?”  He always said, “Shut up, Jane.”  It’s not always easy living with a writer.

2)  Observe.  Listen to the people around you, watch them.  In a mall, I heard a woman says, “He’s the sometimesingest man I’ve ever known.”  Wonderful word!    Readers tell me they love the character of Miss Birdie, the woman who runs the church, in my Butternut Creek books.    People say they know her.  Others say, “That’s me.”  She came from years of observing.  She’s a combination of five different women and a couple of men from the church I’ve attended all my life.  Observe and learn!

I can make suggestions and give you hints.  However, there’s one thing I cannot tell you how to do:  bring your characters to life.    You can give a character interesting traits, a distinct accent and point of view, a big nose or tiny feet, but you must go further.  You must breathe life into each.  This is what makes you a writer.   Writing is an act of creation in all senses of that word.  Making the character come to life is what you, as the author, have to do.



Award-winning writer Jane Myers Perrine has worked as a Spanish teacher, minister, cook, rifle instructor, program director in a state hospital, and been an active volunteer but she always wanted to write.   Finally, she found time and has published books with Avalon Books, Steeple Hill Love Inspired, and FaithWords, a division of Hachette Book Group.  Her short pieces have appeared in the Houston Chronicle and Woman’s World magazine.   

Jane’s Butternut Creek series is about a young minister serving in the beautiful Hill Country of Texas and is filled with affection and humor.  The Welcome Committee of Butternut Creek is the first book in the series.   Published in April, 2012, it has been nominated for the RITA award, the most prestigious honor for writers of women’s fiction.  The Matchmakers of Butternut Creek was published November 20, 2012.  The third book, The Wedding Planners of Butternut Creek will be available November 5, 2013.

Jane lives north of Austin where her life is controlled by two incredibly spoiled tuxedo cats.   When not writing, she spends her time swimming or cheering for University of Louisville and Kansas State football and basketball. 

Find out more information about Jane by visiting her blog.


Matchmakers cover 2




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