By Kay Springsteen
What makes a good story into a great book? For me, as a reader, it’s when I connect with the characters. Even a weaker plot won’t deter me from finishing a story if that story contains characters I care about. I’ve even been known to keep reading just to make sure a character I love to hate got what was deserved in the end.
I mean who doesn’t remember Boo Radley, or Jay Gatsby? Who didn’t want to try their hand at reforming Heathcliff? For romance, some writers with memorable characters stand out: Barbara Delinsky, Judith McNaught, Jude Deveraux . . . and I don’t think I’ll ever see a big, stubborn, red-headed Scot without thinking of Diana Gabaldon’s Jamie Fraser.
How can a writer give readers the most memorable characters possible? In my experience, it all comes down to thorough character development and staying true to the characters we develop. Initial character development is done a number of ways and there is no right way, no specific formula for guaranteed success.
Some authors will interview their characters before they type the first word of the story, building back story in order to create the persona of the character, whether or not the entire back story is used in the novel. A hero’s favorite color may never be written about, but that favorite color may come into play in the form of the color of a car, or the clothing your hero puts on. A character’s flaws need not be listed because in the best characterization, they’re going to show. You might at some point have to explain that he’s patient with children because he’s the oldest of 10 and often fell into baby sitting duties (or maybe that makes him not so patient with children because his younger siblings raised hell while he was in charge). But whether you outright explain the reasons, knowing your hero is the oldest in a large family will help you develop his character. Oldest children often have one or more specific psychological character traits. They often show a stronger sense of responsibility for those around them. They often are perceived as smarter or as putting more resources and effort into education. On the other hand, younger children tend to be more adventurous. Where middle children often act as peacekeepers in a family, youngest children tend to be the “cute ones,” or the family clowns. In a typical family, these traits are interchanged, but as a rule of thumb in writing, you can start with these generalities.
A few years ago, author Jill Shalvis wrote a trilogy about three brothers (Instant Attraction, Instant Gratification, and Instant Temptation). I have no idea if she consciously studied birth order but when she fit the personalities on these brothers, she gave the youngest a sense of adventure (a champion snow boarder). The middle brother is “the glue,” the one who keeps the family together by keeping the peace. The oldest brother has been away from home a lot but his travels have always been with an eye to building on their family business. Ms. Shalvis remains true to the brothers’ personalities through three books, which is pretty phenomenal. Some authors have a hard time holding onto a character’s personality through one book.
If you don’t want to start at birth order, consider starting with back story. What has happened to your hero and heroine in their past that will have molded them into their current personalities? Was the heroine a survivor of a tragedy that took the lives of people she knew and loved (e.g., Nora Roberts, Angels Fall)? Is your hero tortured by perceived infidelity on the part of a parent, so he’s unforgiving when the woman he loves makes a dreadful mistake (e.g., Tori Carrington, Reckless Pleasures)? When the writer knows the back story, s/he knows how her character is going to react to a plot twist, and unless it is critical to the story, needs not address the reasons for the character’s reactions beyond a sentence or two.
Some writers will “pants it,” with characters and plot. This is actually a harder way of writing but it can also yield gold if the author develops the characters as they go through their trials, and perhaps in going through them and garnering a reaction to each twist, learns more about the character. So long as, once individual traits are discovered along with the reasons for these personality developments, the writer holds true to the discovery and doesn’t make the character do something out of the ordinary for him/her, it’s perfectly fine to learn about the characters as you go.
I’m a plotter. I don’t create an extensive outline, and I allow for detours (in my current WIP, my hero decided he wanted a motorcycle, so I went with it). My stories are usually a 50-50 combination of plot-driven and character-driven, so knowing my characters is essential. Sometimes it’s the plot that pops for me first, sometimes it’s the characters. In Heartsight, it was the characters. I wanted a blind hero so I built his back story. After I figured out how he’d been raised and why (other than the obvious reason) his blindness was so devastating, I then added the other characters and the situation (a lost girl in a hurricane). In Lifeline Echoes, the process was completely different. The scenario came before the characters. Once I knew where I planned to put them and where I would be taking them, I had to figure out how they’d come to be there and why. Once I put that all together, I had a basis for the story.
For my character development, I use a combination of people watching (on the street, in the store, on the news, my family), psychology (I used to work for several psychologists), reading about personality traits, personal experience, and a favorite of mine, setting a theme song for each character. Sometimes, the music just rounds out the personality in a way all the knowledge of birth order or back story can’t.
The way each writer goes about character development will differ from other writers, sometimes in major ways. But the best characters are the ones created by writers who maintain a controlled consistency with their characters as they develop. If they change a character’s basic reactions, they give the character a reason for the change. In the movie Hanover Street (1979, Harrison Ford, Lesley-Anne Downe, and Christopher Plummer), the story takes place primarily in WWII England. David Halloran is a brash, cock-sure bomber pilot who doesn’t bat an eye at taking changes when they go on bombing runs, much to the displeased discomfort of his bombardier and best friend, who only wants to drop the bombs and get the heck out of harm’s way. But when Halloran falls in love, he has something to live for beyond flying the next mission and dropping the next bombs. As he falls more deeply in love, he realizes he has more at stake, and he begins to feel a growing sense of uneasiness to the point where he “hears something wrong” with one of the engines and opts out of a bombing run so it can be checked out. The personality change from brash daredevil to cautious made sense. Personalities must remain consistent throughout your stories…unless they are given a plausible motivation for change.
For me, the most memorable characters are the ones who make sense. The ones I love the most are the ones who grow in reasonable fashions.
For readers: Who are some authors whose characters you have fallen in love with?
For writers: How do you develop your characters?