The feedback I receive from readers and reviewers that most warms my heart is praise of my characters. It’s my characters who speak to me first, who tell me what their story is [plot, GMC], how it would best be told [point of view, verb tense, genre], and when and where it takes place [setting].
For me, everything starts with characters, and what I tend most to write are character-driven stories (as opposed to plot-driven stories). By character-driven stories, I mean those stories that focus on the inner world of the character. What drives him, what scares him, what he most yearns for above all else, and what it is that makes him think he can’t have it—these become central to the plot and to shaping how the characters react to the action elements of the plot.
But how do you get into your character’s head in a way that lets you create compelling characters people will remember, care about and root for?
To answer that, consider the blank character sketch below. I almost never plot (hello, fellow pantsers! LOL), but I almost always write out a character sketch like this one:
Unique Physical Traits:
Where lives now:
Why holds that job:
Overall goal in story*:
What stands in his way of achieving this goal*:
What does he stand to lose, if not successful*:
Greatest flaw or fault:
Scars (internal or external):
What triggers fears:
Why hasn’t he achieved that dream:
Hardest thing to sacrifice:
Biggest sacrifice ever made:
Closest friend he ever had:
What happened to that person:
Closest current relationship:
Three words your character would use to describe himself:
What does he praise about himself:
What would others praise about him:
What would be the best situation your character could be in:
What would be the worst situation your character could be in:
Undeniably, plot and character are intertwined in any great story, but only the three starred questions on the character sketch explicitly relate to the action and forward motion of the plot. The rest tell you how the character thinks about the plot and how he’ll approach it and try to achieve it. Now, a more plot-driven writer might argue that what the character hates, or what secrets he has, or what sacrifice he’s made could all relate to the plot—and they’d be right. But, for our purposes here, those kinds of traits are fundamental to who this character is as a person. What their emotional make-up is. What’s going on inside their brain and heart that leads them to make one choice over another. To write memorable characters readers love, the author has to know the character’s emotional landscape inside and out. Some of what you come to learn about your character might never even make it into the story—but you as the author need to know it nonetheless.
You should consider your first pass through a sketch like this as a first draft. Complete it and tape it over your writing space. If you’re like me, you will learn more and more about your character as you write. As you learn new things that go deeper and deeper into your character, add them to the sketch.
For example, your first time through, you might respond to “Hate” with something like, “Hates the Evil Vampire Lord, who killed his whole human family and turned him into a vampire against his will.” Okay, great. That tells us a lot about the bad things that happened to your character in the past and what has injured him. But notice it doesn’t tell you how that made him feel. If you go deeper, you might add that he felt guilt for surviving when his family didn’t, grief at their loss, humiliation that he couldn’t stop the attack, and despair that he’ll never have a chance at family again. You might learn that what he really hates is himself, and that’s way, way deeper than hating the villain—because after all, villains are easy to hate.
For me, character sketches that I continue to flesh out are a great way to get into my characters’ heads, and are a great tool for helping to create three-dimensional, emotionally deep and contradictory characters who are relatable, sympathetic, likeable (even if they don’t like themselves), and able to rise to the occasion when the chips are down. Compelling characters are key to giving your readers a satisfying emotional payoff, so finding ways to create the most memorable characters you can will lead to writing gold.
If you already use character sketches, what do you feel they do for you in your writing? If not, what questions do you have about this approach? I’d also be curious to hear your take on character-driven versus plot-driven writing, and how that relates to your own stories.
Thanks so much for reading,
A multi-published author of paranormal, contemporary and erotic romance, Laura Kaye’s hot, heartfelt stories are all about the universal desire for a place to belong. Laura is the author of the bestselling contemporary romance and award-nominated HEARTS IN DARKNESS and the bestselling and award-winning paranormal romance FOREVER FREED (NJRW Golden Leaf Award for Best Paranormal of 2011), as well as an erotic romance novella, JUST GOTTA SAY. Her fourth book, contemporary fantasy romance NORTH OF NEED, is the first in the 4-book Hearts of the Anemoi series. Laura lives in Maryland with her husband, two daughters, and cute-but-bad dog, and appreciates her view of the Chesapeake Bay every day. Website | Blog | Facebook | Twitter | Newsletter SignUp
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Her tears called a powerful snow god to life, but only her love can grant the humanity he craves...
Desperate to escape agonizing memories of Christmas past, twenty-nine-year-old widow Megan Snow builds a snow family outside the mountain cabin she once shared with her husband, realizing too late that she's recreated the very thing she'll never have.
Called to life by Megan's tears, snow god Owen Winters appears unconscious on her doorstep in the midst of a raging blizzard. As she nurses him to health, Owen finds unexpected solace in her company and unimagined pleasure in the warmth of her body, and vows to win her heart for a chance at humanity.
Megan is drawn to Owen's mismatched eyes, otherworldly masculinity, and enthusiasm for the littlest things. But this Christmas miracle comes with an expiration--before the snow melts and the temperature rises, Megan must let go of her widow's grief and learn to trust love again, or she'll lose Owen forever.