No matter what kind of fiction we write, or how exciting our plot lines, character is everything. Regardless of what genre you’re writing, the characters you are writing about are the substance of your book.
It is because of who your characters are that certain actions take place and actually become your plot. It is because of who your characters are that they speak in a certain way, reside in a specific place, interact with other characters who in turn shape your story and your characters’ world.
Think of your book as if it were a living, breathing being - after all, it is, isn’t it? If the action of your book is the spine, and your theme or purpose is the heart, what is the life blood? What makes the story work, the heart beat? The characters.
All too often we become, as writers, focused on “getting the story down.” We focus on the theme, the wisdom, the point of the book, and we walk our characters through the mechanics we’ve set up for them without exploring the reasons they are walking.
And you finish your book and you find that in all ways it is competent, it is what you meant to write about, the language may be beautiful, the plot structure superb and yet there feels like there is something missing. That it doesn’t quite work.
What could be missing is character depth, the point at which your characters are rich enough, full enough, three dimensional enough that you know what they’d order when they walk into a diner, what they’d wear to bed, what they think about when they first wake up in the morning.
If you want your characters to come alive, to be memorable, to walk off the page and maybe even tell you what they are doing on that page, you need to know them. You need to make each of them count.
Here are some simple ways to make your characters count.
1. Gender. Each sex has distinctive styles of speech and speech patterns, and innate way of relating to the world. Naturally sex affects many aspects of your character, but in terms of basic conversation it’s particularly evident, or it should be. Women tend to ask more questions than men, and use more words that are considered qualifiers (kinda, almost, sort of) in their speech.
2. Careers and status. Your character’s walk of life is very important. A used car salesman will relate to the world differently than a poet. A used car salesman who wants to be a poet will also relate to the world differently. An unsuccessful used car salesman poet will relate differently to the world than a highly successful salesman up for a promotion who likes to write poetry in his/her spare time.
3. What about his/her parents? What did they do? Where were they from?
4. Where was your character raised? And where does your character live now? That used car salesman poet from the deep South whose mother worked in a cotton mill is different from the one in Los Angeles whose father was a famous actor.
5. What is your character’s name? Not just the nickname he’s using now, but his full heritage. First, last, middle, and what his teacher called him in grade school. Do your research - there’s plenty of web help on first and last names - names by region or ethnicity, historical names.
6. Describing your character. This applies to both physical traits and emotional ones, visible and invisible.
7. Descriptive words. Free associate. Write down a list of words that describe something about your character.
8. How your character feels at the beginning of your story - or of his appearance in your story. The characters feelings will of course change, as they must for the drama of your story to occur - but how does he feel when you first begin?
Some characters - your p.i., your romantic swashbuckling hero, your biographical subject - will remain in a more fixed emotional state than others. But regardless of how much your character does or wants to change - or not - you need a sense of how that person is feeling at the beginning of his role in your story.
A caveat — just because you need to know this information about your character, your reader may not.
Genie Davis is a published novelist and produced screen and television writer. Her noir flavored romantic suspense The Model Man (Kensington) received the Road to Romance Reviewer’s Choice Award. A second humor infused romantic suspense, Five O’Clock Shadow (Kensington) has been released both in the U.S. and in multi-country foreign markets. Her erotic romance novella Rodeo Man was released under the name Nikki Alton in The Cowboy anthology by Kensington/Aphrodisia. It received a Passionate Plume award. Her first novel, the literary work Dreamtown, was published by a small press, The Fiction Works.
In film, her work spans a variety of genres from supernatural thriller to romantic drama, family, teen, and comedy with an emphasis on independent film. A member of the Writer’s Guild of America, she’s written on staff for ABC-TV’s Port Charles; written, produced, and directed reality programming and documentaries for TLC, Lifetime, PBS, and HGTV, as well as numerous television commercials and corporate videos.
She’s also written dozens of articles on travel, love, writing, sex, child-rearing and more for ezines, blogs and websites.
Character Counts, presented by Genie Davis, runs from May 2, 2011 through May 30, 2011