View Full Version : Central Characters

Terry Odell
September 6th, 2011, 09:03 AM
I hope everyone had an enjoyable Labor Day Weekend, if you're one who lives here in the states where we celebrate it. If not, I hope you had a nice weekend, and welcome back to "All About Characters." Today we're going to talk about heroes and heroines—the central characters of any romance novel.

Gayle Wilson said, "The purpose of the central characters is to be a window to the world for the reader."

Your books will be full of characters, although if you're writing a romance, the focus will be on two of them: the hero and the heroine. These must carry the story. They have to have depth, and your readers have to fall in love with them. They have to grow so they're not the same character at the end of the book that they were at the beginning.

I think this is part of the reason I don't like in-depth character worksheets. Not only are they a pain to fill out, but for those of us who don't do a lot of planning, can even stifle our writing because once we know it, the spark is gone.

Now, I'm NOT saying that everything on those character worksheets isn't important. After all, your character's life up to page 1 of your book has shaped the person he or she is. But you don't need to know all that before you write the book. Sometimes, it's good to simply start writing. You'll have way too much 'telling' and too much back story. But YOU need to know it, to get a feel for your character in context, not on a chart.

Quoting Gayle Wilson again, she said she writes 6 or 7 chapters getting to know her characters.

The physical stuff is easy, and I'm not going to go into much of that here, other than to say I don't like detailed descriptions because readers like to envision their own "dream characters" into the roles we create. Some will say, "I don't care that the author said she was a brunette; I saw her as a redhead and that's how I thought of her."

Another caveat: Don't, don't, don't compare your character to a celebrity. Trust me, not everyone is up on the latest looks, and besides that, you're dating your work. That hot movie star of today might be gone from the scene tomorrow, and now you're stuck. Besides, as one of my early writing mentors told me, "It's cheating to use someone else's descriptions." (She used it because I compared a scene to the barn raising in "Witness", but the theory is the same.)

And don't stop your story to describe your characters. Be honest. How many of you think of yourselves in terms of your height, eye and hair color when you're driving to the grocery store? If you're in a character's POV, stay there. Find a more creative way to describe them. My suggestion is through the eyes of another character, or through some situation where it WOULD be logical to think of those things.

Some examples from FINDING SARAH:

1<sup>st</sup> paragraph:
Sarah Tucker's hands shook with anger as she fumbled the keys into the lock of That Special Something. Bad enough the bus driver stopped beside a puddle the size of Crater Lake, which she cleared despite the restrictions of her skirt and pumps, thank you very much. But when that headbanger in the heavy metal-blasting SUV had sped by, any satisfaction at her nimble footwork disappeared in a dousing of muddy water.

We know she's wearing a skirt and pumps because they've restricted her movement, and she'd be thinking about it. But note—I don't say what color they are, because that's irrelevant to her thoughts.

Or to describe her hair:

"Are you sure? You look like you haven't slept in a month. And your hair. Why did you cut it?" [Chris asked]

"Well, thanks for making my morning." Sarah fluffed her cropped do-it-yourself haircut. "It's easier this way."

So, we know it's short, and probably not high fashion. Color? She wouldn't be thinking of it, so it's not on the page. Yet.

Later, when the detective shows up at her shop after the robbery, we see a little more of Sarah (and because we're in her POV, we can see a little of Randy as well. When it's his turn as POV character, we'll see more of Sarah through his eyes.)

"Ms. Tucker? It's Detective Randy Detweiler, Pine Hills Police."

She unlocked the door to a tall, lanky man dressed in black denim pants and a gray sweater, gripping several bulky plastic bags. At five-four, Sarah didn't consider herself exceptionally short, but she had to tilt her head to meet his eyes.

But what's more important than physical description are character traits. Yes, it's easy to think of what your characters look like, and it's often a way to get things rolling. But I find dealing with their Goals and Motivations is a better way to get to know them. And once you know what they want and why, it's easy to start layering in Conflicts.

What does your character want? What will he or she give up to get it? What happens if you take it away? (That's part of the fun we have being authors—tormenting our characters)

What are your character's secrets? Fears?

What was your character's family history? How did that shape him or her?

Again, I want to stress that you aren't compelled to know this when the story begins. Or even halfway through. Often, your characters will surprise you. Let them. You might find that you've already foreshadowed this character trait. Your subconscious is a powerful thing. Trust it.

In WHEN DANGER CALLS, I created my characters out of their goals and motivations. Frankie, the heroine was a single mother whose purpose in life was keeping people happy. As a single mother of a five-year-old daughter, and with an aging mother of her own, keeping the family running was a strong enough goal so that she gave up her job and moved back to her small town to keep an eye on things when her mother needed help.

With that, I knew my hero was going to have to interact with a child. Clearly, if he was a kid-loving man, there would be no conflict. So, working backward, it was clear to me he had to be a kid-avoiding man. Why? A child had died in his arms when he was on a covert ops mission, and he blamed himself. Just seeing a child brought back those memories. To add a bit more torment, he was also accused of being a traitor—his colleagues thought he was the cause of two missions gone south. Then, simply because shoveling it on thicker is what we do, I had him injured on that mission, and he's still recuperating.

All of those incidents will shape his character. So will the fact that his mother died when he was eight, and that they had a special bond. But I didn't know that when I started.

Those things are far more important than the fact that he's six-two, has brown hair, brown eyes, and has an older brother and younger sister. As a matter of fact, I often change my character's birth order, as well as number and gender of siblings simply because it works better as the story progresses. Had I filled out one of those charts, I might not be quite as willing to make those switches.

My version of a character "chart" is to create a new document, and when I come up with one of those things that need remembering (thus avoiding the blue eyes changing to brown), I'll copy the bit from the manuscript into the document. I'll have sketchy notes.

If you're writing series, this can be VERY helpful. Sadly, my publisher doesn't buy series, so I kept saying, "When I get the 3 book deal, I'll start my "Bible". However, I now have 4 Blackthorne Books and am working on a 3<sup>rd</sup> Pine Hills book, and had I known some of those things would be needed later on, my life would have been a lot easier!

If you're interested, I've shared my background notes for WHERE DANGER HIDES, which is my second Blackthorne, Inc. novel. Since Dalton, the hero, was a secondary character in WHEN DANGER CALLS, I did know a little (very little) about him. If you want to see my notes, they're here: http://www.terryodell.com/editable_files/WDH_bts.html

OK – the floor is open for discussion. I'll respond to comments as I can, and will have another post for you on Thursday.

**Note: I use my own works as reference here to avoid copyright issues, not because they're the perfect examples of my points.