Writing–The Mystery of Characters Part I

sheriff characterWhat is a character? An imaginary person we writers think up. How did I create Meghan Gallagher? She started out as a nineteen-year-old very unlikeable spoiled brat, which is what I wanted her to be, but soon learned no one wants to read about a spoiled brat, even though she was going to change drastically. A former Christian Writers Guild (CWG) mentor helped me make her more likeable, and it worked. Meghan could still exhibit immaturity and impulsiveness, but without the entitlement snobby attitudes that go with it.

How did I form her two suitors, Scott and Duncan? Well, they had to be similar, yet very different. Duncan the cowboy especially, had to be opposite of Meghan, yet in reality, had more in common with her than Scott, the doctor. I’ll deal with them in Part II, and some of my supporting characters in Part III.

You can find online character sketch forms anywhere. In my CWG classes, we were given short character sketch or bio forms, to help us “flesh out” each of our characters. Because the characters are what we care about, we want to find out about their lives, we want to see how they handle what life throws at them.

I’ll be talking about characters today…how to make them real, how to bring them to life on the page. Sometimes I use just one resource. Today, I’ll be using several. You’ve seen them all here before. Dance of Character and Plot, by DiAnn Mills, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, and Donald Maas’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.

I believe every story starts out with a character. Did you hear what happened to…? Exactly. What happened to? That “to” is someone. Let’s look at Meghan today. She’s the protagonist of “Meghan’s Choice.”

The idea for my novel came from an old history lesson I’d learned about my hometown in 1871 Kansas. The Gunfight of Hyde Park killed more people than the OK Corral battle. It was I could work this into a story people would want to read.

But the important thing I had to ponder of was putting together a cast of characters readers could care about, so by the time they got to the climax of the story, the beginning of the gunfights, people would be highly curious so see how this would turn out.

Meghan Gallagher would be my main character who experiences a wild railroad town, but she comes from an almost rich home in St. Louis. My thoughts: what would take her there? Why would she go? That’s plotting, but it’s still part of who Meghan is.

I started with what she looked like. I gave her a family history, preferences, and strengths and weaknesses. This is what you’ll want to do for your characters.

First of all, Meghan had to come from a well-to-do family, but have an obstacle. The second thing I wanted was to do something different. In most historical stories I’ve read I saw a trend of two things: 1) the father or father-figure was in desperate a financial strait, so they were forcing the girl into a marriage of convenience; 2) the father or father-figure is dead, forcing the girl to seek other means of support. Often that took the heroine to another place.

I wanted to stick my finger down my throat after reading about eighty of these. I thought, isn’t there any other way? There had to be. So I tried to think of a scenario whereby a loving father is concerned about his daughter’s immaturity, and does something radical for that time period.

That’s plotting, but it’s still part of Meghan Gallagher. In 1871, all fathers want their daughters to be happily married producing grandchildren. Meghan’s father wants that for Meghan as well, but he realizes she’s not ready for marriage.

But what does that make Meghan? A shallow character with no depth? With the help of a former CWG writing mentor who professionally edited my novel, I changed Meghan from a spoiled girl into a determined young woman.

old man characterHow did I do that? I made her educated, good with children (and likes them), adventurous, but not fearless. I imagined what she looked like. I gave her blonde hair. In her family history, I had her mother die when she was twelve. She became dependent on her father to the point that instead of growing up, she was relied on him than ever as well as the housekeeper.

Some people go into great depths to create their characters, filling out pages and pages of history and backstory. It can be done very simply. Pretend you’re interviewing your character. It’s actually a very good way to find out more about them. Ask them questions you want to know.

One caution: you don’t necessarily have to put everything you know about that character into your manuscript.

Here are a few other tips from Donald Maas: 1) add larger-than-life qualities to your characters; 2) give them a defining quality; 3) give them inner conflicts; 4) what are their motives, and 5) what surprises can you think of for your character?

DiAnn Mills suggests there are three essential needs people have: relationships, significance, and security. How will you build in character change? That’s the power of story. How a character handles, adapts, and changes through the story. She states “Out of character comes plot, which means the writer determines those qualities that motivate a character to act. She has a problem to solve or a goal to achieve, and the story begins.” In “Meghan’s Choice,” Meghan’s problem is that she can’t handle money and has not grown up emotionally. That’s her problem, and how she solves it is to impulsively take the first job she finds, a long way from home and in a wild, uncomfortable place.

Maybe you’ve heard of a character arc. The place where the character starts out, then events begin to work their pressure and change into the character, and how and where the character ends up. That’s the nutshell version.

How about you? Even if you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer, you had to start with some sort of premise or goal for your story. How do you develop your characters?

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