Have you ever read (or even worse, written) a book that still left you feeling unsatisfied? Ever wondered why some romances have an excellent ‘sigh’ factor, but others have you betting the couple won’t make it past a year? The key to a satisfying romance is vivid characters.
Many writers—both new and seasoned—struggle to create character-driven books that deliver the powerful romance that readers crave. After all, it’s easy to get caught up in Mary Jane’s struggle to raise the money to save the ranch and Detective Jones’ quest to identify the serial killer. We forget that while the twists and turns of an external plot may keep the reader turning the pages, they might fail to deliver the satisfying emotional punch readers expect.
So often writers mistakenly believe that an interesting or complex background and childhood equals a three-dimensional character. We’re led to believe that unless we know every tiny detail of our characters’ tortured childhoods, then the reader will think them cardboard. When in fact what makes interesting and memorable characters is the way they act on the page, not who they were before the story began.
There are plenty of ways to go about creating those characters – I mean who here hasn’t heard of a character interview or questionnaire. The ones I’ve seen and tried to use have like 180 questions ranging from what is your character’s sexual history to what is their favorite ice cream. When I was first learning my writing process I worked on these things for hours and presumably they work for some people, but I just found them to be really frustrating and frankly not very applicable. I write historicals, my characters don’t eat ice cream. And knowing about my hero’s 3rd grade teaching isn’t going to help me make readers fall in love with him unless that 3rd grade experience was substantial in making him who he is in the book.
I can’t really say there is one key to creating great characters because I think there are several, but keep in mind that all that really matters is who your character is within the pages of your book. Let’s be real, unless you’re writing a biography these people aren’t real. Yes, they might feel real, but they aren’t, they’re just bits and pieces that we make up. So with that thought in mind I implore you to work on your characters with an open mind. Don’t get so settled on your heroine’s backstory because that’s what really happened, cause it didn’t, she’s not real. What matters is who she is on the page and in so much as it affects the story, how she became that person, that’s where your backstory comes in. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Okay so let’s get into some of the tools. Now I should give you a caveat, this is how I go about creating characters and while I can stand up here all day and tell you it’s the right way to do it, there are probably half of you in here that this won’t work at all. And that’s okay, chances are you’ll learn something and if not just smile and nod and I’ll never be the wiser. Alright so onto those tools. When I start work on a new book idea, I start with the characters and because I’m a heroine-driven writer, I start with her.
The first thing I do is pick a name. There’s nothing magical about this process for me, sometimes the name pops into my head and sometimes I sit and look at a baby naming book until something strikes me. Once I’m satisfied with a name something interesting starts to happen, she begins to start to form into a person, or at least a shape that sort of resembles a person. So next up I jump to the archetype book, the one I use is The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines by Tami Cowden, et. al. Now there are plenty of character and pop psychology books out there that you can use. This just happens to be one that I think is brilliant. I was in the workshop in Chicago many moons ago when they first presented this material and I couldn’t take notes fast enough. It just really resonates with me. Now one thing I’ve learned from using this book again and again in my own writing is that I tend to gravitate towards the same archetypes over and over. So I start with those, read through them until something grabs me.
Once I’ve got my archetype down the feel of the character, her personality begins to take shape so it’s time to start digging in to see what issues she might have to be dealing with, emotionally speaking. That’s when I pull out the Myers Brigg book that I use (What Type Am I? by Renee Baron.) What I like about this book in particular is that it’s not very complicated, much of it is done in bulleted lists. And there’s a great chart at the beginning of the book that gives a quick & dirty summary of each type so you can read through them and know which ones to read more of. Another thing I like about this book is that there’s a section of things that type might need to work on, this is a great jumping off place for internal conflict issues. All of this work helps me bring my characters big emotional issue into focus for me. Cause remember they’re not real so we’re just making this stuff up, if you want a heroine who has trust issues, give her trust issues, make up a background that fits with that.
But for starting off points you can also use the Enneagram, which I have a book (The Enneagram Made Easy by Renee Baron) I use on occasion if the Myers Brigg isn’t working for me, it’s actually by the same author so it’s in the same easy to read format. And these are just the tools that I use, I know there are plenty of others out there. What you want is to just use these to brainstorm directions you can take your character. Because the thing to remember about characters in a book is that everything has to be properly motivated and their behavior needs to be consistent. We know that there are people all around us that don’t behave consistently, they have medications for this. Well, and clearly it’s not always a medical issue, people do crazy things because we have knee-jerk reactions to emotional stimuli. Characters can’t really do that or they come across as being false or melodramatic. So you have to be careful. That’s one of the reasons I use these pop psychology tools b/c they were designed for real people, but they have a way of outlining the usual behaviors which is where the consistency comes into play.
I know other writers use all kinds of other tools. There are books on birth order that are very interesting, you can use books on the astrological signs or use tarot cards. There are tons of other resources out there that might work for you, just the ones I listed are the ones that I think work particularly well.