As a writer I am always on the lookout for new ways to come up with new characters. As a multi-published writer who wants to keep coming up with new stories that means I am also constantly trying to find ways to make my characters all different. And then as a teacher I am also always searching for new ways to teach about creating characters. But I am also one of those writers and teachers who is a never-ending student. To me the learning process never ends and I find I can teach better if I keep learning new methods or new ideas for coming up with characters.
But sometimes we go back to the old basics one time too many and the result is characters who are just as stale as the method. We need to develop new ways to use those tried and true methods to help us come up with fresh characters. Let’s face it, we don’t want the characters in our new books sounding suspiciously like someone we featured in a book two years ago. Today I am going to look at some of those old methods and new ways to use them:
1. Interviewing characters
In the past I’ve used the method of interviewing my characters. That was one of the first methods I learned and it’s a valuable resource any time the plot gets muddy. Spending some time interviewing characters ahead of time can go a long way to presenting problems when you get to the end of the book. It helps to know the character thoroughly.
But why interview that character only at the beginning? How about trying to stop and ask that character a few questions about how he or she is feeling halfway through the book? Sit down for a few minutes and get his or her reaction to some of these events that are changing that character’s life or causing so much personal turmoil. It’s not something you need to necessarily use in the book, but it can give you new insight to the character.
2. Character profiles
I always use a character profile when I teach because it is one good way to make certain that the characters get fully developed. Sometimes it’s the little things in a book that can trip us up as writers. We think we know the character but all we have is a vague backstory of who they are and where they come from. But what about those little things – like the scar from an old wound in a battle that changed that character’s life? Or what about the character’s name? Where did it come from? Was there something important about it?
Well, again, profiles are great as a beginning exercise, but let’s not forget them halfway through the book when you’re so involved in the plot. It can pay to go back and re-examine those character profiles one more time to look for more specific little things. Perhaps you started with a trait of being feisty but now you find your character is being just too darn mean. This wasn’t what you had in mind at all and you’re wandering off in some new direction. That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s good to go back and remember what you first had in mind.
3. Spending time with characters
This is one of the things I have often advocated. It makes sense to spend time outside of the book with your characters just to get to know them better. This is different from a character interview. In this case I suggested going to dinner with a character and seeing what place they might chose to dine or would they rather stay home and cook? I’ve also taken characters shopping just to see what they would buy or where they might shop. Some of them would rather do it online these days.
But now I’m thinking it might also be good to not only spend time with those characters but to take them outside that comfort zone of the current book and throw them into something totally different just to see who they are and how they might react to a situation. We know where we want to go with them in the current book, but what about if you put them in a different world? What if that character was teleported into the future or taken back in time? How would they react to that different world? It’s yet one more good way of learning about your characters and who they are.
Yes, sometimes it can be useful to try new methods to learn more about your characters. One new way I am trying out to further develop my characters is to spend time brainstorming with other writers. It’s amazing what you discover you DON’T know about your characters when you sit in a room with others and try to explain who this person is and what they want. And this is better done in person because then you have to react quickly to questions and you start to discover just how much you still need to work on that character.
Try it with non-writers too. Sometimes we get caught up in just asking questions about goals or motivation or conflict. Non-writers usually don’t think in those terms. They are more focused on who the character is and what the person might be doing or trying to do.
But mostly the key is to be open to whatever your characters tell you. Listen to them, learn from them. And remember, like the people around you they are constantly developing. Let them do it.
If you have more questions about characters, I hope you’ll join me for my class on Making your Characters Come Alive that I’ll be teaching at Savvy this month.
Becky Martinez regularly teaches for Savvy Authors. As Rebecca Grace, she writes mystery, romance and romantic suspense. Her newest book, Blues at 11, is a humorous mystery and will be published soon by The Wild Rose Press. Her most recent book, Dead Man’s Rules, is a romantic suspense and available now from The Wild Rose Press.
When TV Reporter Cere Medina starts digging into the old mystery of Marco Gonzales and how he died in a small New Mexico town, she hits a dead end. For Sheriff Rafe Tafoya, her search means trouble. He knows some of the town’s secrets she might uncover, and he has personal reasons for keeping them hidden. And then murder rocks Rio Rojo, and Cere and the sheriff find themselves caught in a deadly game dictated by a dead man’s rules.