Monday, May 26, 2008

Character Building

posted by Loucinda McGary aka Aunty Cindy

No, this isn’t a post about moral fortitude, increased spiritual awareness, or over-coming bad habits. I’m going to blog about something we fiction writers do all the time – build characters.

Story and characters are like the old chicken and egg conundrum. Hard to say which comes first, but can’t have one without the other. And just like story lines, there are probably as many ways to create fictional characters as there are writers of them.

I know some writers who do extensive character interviews. They have long lists of questions that ask everything from favorite color and mother’s maiden name, to first kiss, and they complete these for every main character before they ever write a word of story. Some use astrology or ennegrams or archetypes to zero in on characters’ personality traits (my heroine Rylie Powell is a Sagittarius, just like me). Still others “borrow” qualities from movies or real life.

Quite a few writers have told me that they find photographs of people online or in books or magazines that look the way they think their characters look. Or they find the place the characters live, the clothes they wear, the furniture and cars they own. A couple of different writers I know keep these pictures in elaborate story binders, or scrapbooks. I’ve heard of others who do collages.

Names are a topic big enough for a separate blog post, but they are also an integral part of character building. I’ve heard of every kind of methodology for naming from using the phone book (done it) to making the name reflect the personality (Uriah Heap, anyone?) to naming them after a real person (yes, I have named more than one villain after my ex). There are lots of places online where you can look up thousands of first names, find their meanings and ethnic origins. I wanted one of my heroes to be half-Croatian and needed a fairly common Croatian first name. I decided on Zvonimir, Von for short. You can even see which names were the most popular in any given decade for the past hundred years. Plus, there are genealogy sites for first and last names, and even census records. I think I may have mentioned that I used Irish census data broken down by county to come up with last names for many of my characters in The Wild Sight.

One thing that seems universal among writers is that our characters “talk” to us. Yes, we really do “hear” them inside our heads. Sometimes they talk to each other, and sometimes directly to us. Fortunately, since the advent of bluetooth, people no longer stare at me when I talk to myself in public. “Talking” and “listening” to my characters is my chief method of character building. Pictures can sometimes help as a spring-board, but mostly I have to get to know my characters by “talking” to them.

Usually they arrive with their name already in place, or at least with some very definite ideas. For example, I wanted one of my heroines to have a short, masculine sounding nickname which the hero would refuse to call her, and I chose Sam/Samantha. Before I started writing The Wild Sight, I told one of my critique partners that my next hero would be Irish and he’d be named Nathaniel. Okay, so I was half right.

That’s the thing about character building, being the writer does not make you the boss. Characters, at least mine, tend to have a “mind of their own” and the writer just gets to take dictation. Once they start “talking” I never know what they might reveal or if I’ll ever use it in the actual story line. That’s how I found out my hero of Jewels of the Madonna lost his virginity at age fifteen to his sister’s college roommate! And how I learned that my heroine Rylie’s parents first met lighting candles in a Catholic church a few days before Christmas. Neither of these interesting tidbits ever made it into the books, but they gave me valuable insights into my characters.

For you writers out there, please share some of your character building techniques. For readers and writers, what are some traits that make a character seem "real" to you?


  1. Aunty Cindy great post

    I am not sure what brings me closer to characters in a book it is just a feeling I have as I start to read that I am going to get on with the person. When I read a book it is like I have a little TV screen in my head and I can watch the characters evole in the story and I think this has a lot to do with the way in which the book is written as I always say a book well written can take me to many places and I can have lots of adventures that I probably will never get to do in real life.
    As for traits that make them seem real the way they speak to me their manerisms their actions and the way they handle situations (all types).
    Have Fun

  2. Aunty Cindy,
    Thanks for this thought-provoking entry. When I read, a character interests me if he or she has a compelling motivation for acting, and it never hurts to have a couple of interesting flaws, maybe something to overcome. When I'm writing, I find I get to know my characters the way I get to know any real person. We introduce ourselves and start hanging out together, and gradually we become very well-acquainted.

  3. Aunty,
    Interesting post and a view inside your process. Since I'm a big-time pantser, my characters tend to reveal themselves to me as we go. And I love that we both used the Sam/Samantha name for the same reasons! Have a great Memorial Day on the blog.

  4. I'll have to go with Marie on this one. I've never delved deeply into a character's past before I write a story; the ideas come to me as I go along. This is one big reason why I find it so difficult to write a synopsis before I write a book. I change too many things along the way; situations present themselves and I work backwards to look for a person's motivations for their actions.
    Coming up with names and plot twists are things that I can't set out to do intentionally. I just have to leave my brain alone and eventually it will come up with something all by itself! Sounds just about as bad as hearing voices, but there it is!

  5. Hey Helen!
    I love the little TV in your head concept! I see scenes the same way a lot of the time (reading and writing). And when a story can transport me, then I really love it!

    Thanx for reading and commenting,

  6. Morning Christina,
    You were certainly up EARLY, esp. for a holiday! URG! I am so NOT a morning person...

    Character motivation is something we writers have to be very aware of in all our stories. If we don't show that our characters are properly motivated by something, then we're going to lose the reader. ACK!

    And yes, it's sad but true that I love hanging out with some of my characters far more than a lot of "real" people. :-) Who cares if they're fictional? I LIKE them!


  7. Marie,
    You have a Sam/Samantha too? GREAT MINDS! HA! Seriously though, I tried other names (Max/Maxine) but they just weren't "right." Know what I mean?


  8. Cheryl,

    I feel your pain on trying to write the synopsis BEFORE the book! Oh boy, is it painful. :-P

    The Wild Sight is actually the first book I tried to plot out in advance. I FORCED myself to write an eleven page outline before I started writing the book. ARGH! TORTURE! And even after eleven pages, I still didn't have much more than a muddled ending, plus I couldn't stand it any more, threw up my hands and just started writing chapter one.

    Maybe someday I'll become a plotter, but I'm afraid it won't be any time soon.

    Thanx for coming by everyone. Have a great Monday/Holiday!

  9. Insightful post, Cindy. I don't think we talk enough about how our characters come to life. Sometimes the whole notion is shrouded in a kind of mystique because the process varies so much from writer to writer and even book to book.

    My characters almost always start with a line of dialogue -- words they're saying to someone else. I hear not only the specific words, but the tone of the speaker and they give me insight into the character and the plot.

  10. Great post, Aunty, and timely! I'm just now doing revisions on my first book and trying to justify the existence of two of my major secondary characters. In my head, their motivations and reasons for existing work perfectly, but uh, I guess I didn't get all that brilliance down on paper. And apparently my editor can't read my mind. Bummer.

    I always thought I was a plotter, but in this book, things happened, new characters showed up and did things I hadn't planned. It was all very weird but somehow it worked for the book. Now I've got to go back in and build up their motivations and personalities a little more. Not easy, since I'm not really sure who they are!

    I think that made me sound a little schizo. I'm hoping you can relate. LOL!

  11. Great post Aunty Cindy! Like my fellow Bandita, Kate, I'm revising a character at the moment (the hero in my current wip) to deepen his motivations and strengthen his character.

    I try to work out the goal, motivation and conflicts for my hero and heroine before I start writing and then let them do their thing. I usually know some key elements of their story, but they always surprise me about halfway through with something out of left field! Something which means I have to go back and rework what I've already written - always for the better.

    Cheryl - this is why I'm like you and hate writing the synopsis before I've finished the first draft (actually I hate writing them fullstop!).

    BTW we're having an interesting discussion on heroines over at the Writers at Play blog with fellow Bandita Anna Campbell.

  12. Cindy, fabulous topic!

    My characters usually show up as issues. Their conflict - usually internal - is the core of who they are and they build from there. For instance, a perfectionist heroine isn't going to dress in leather, have spiked hair and use a lot of sexual slang (at least, she hasn't shown up that way in my mind LOL). Their core issues and who they are always comes to me first - like the center of a wheel, all of their other traits, personality quirks and how they look/dress/are named all flow from there like spokes on that wheel.

  13. Cindy, what an interesting post. I must admit I'm NOT in the camp of people who interview and do charts and all that stuff. But there's no right and wrong way to do this stuff. I definitely get the characters first - they start talking to me and won't shut up (yes, I'm off my rocker!). They generally present themselves with a problem and it's how that character comes into conflict with that problem that gives me my plot.

  14. Hello, Aunty Cindy! It's officially a Romance Bandits invasion now. *g*

    As to characters, when I was a less-experienced writer I tried character questionnaires, enneagrams, etc. to find out about my characters. Turns out all of that was in vain! I never really knew them until I started writing the book.

    Now, I would have a good idea who they were, but no amount of asking them what was in their pockets did me any good in the end. Until I put them in a situation and saw how they would get out of it, I didn't really know them.

    These days, I just go with it. I content myself with the little bits they tell me until I get a clear picture of what makes them who they are.

    AC, I had to laugh at your "precocious" hero. Fifteen! And with a college girl - oh, my!

  15. Hi to all my Banditas!
    Big THANX for the shout outs!

    Ah, my wonderful CP Jo! Another writer who admits to "hearing voices." ;-) Yup, I definitely hear different tonal qualities, diction, and other quirks when my characters "talk." I try hard to convey that in the writing, as I know you do too. Sometimes I'm more successful than other times, so I suppose it IS a mysterious process.

  16. The Lovely and Vivacious Kate Carlisle SCHIZO?!?! Why I NEVER! :-) It's all those pesky characters' faults! Not us writers. And I thought Author Mindreading 101 was a required course in editor training.

    I'm really looking forward to your first bibliophile mystery, and I'm SURE it will be brilliant!

  17. VA and Tawny, appreciate you dropping by! I'll have to hie myself over the Writers At Play and check out the discussion.

    VA, I hear ya on the pain of writing synopses whether before, during, or after the first draft. Doesn't seem to matter when, it's always painful.

    Ms Organization PLUS Tawny, YOU are a writer I picture with scrapbooks full of clothes, furniture, floorplans, the WORKS! And those details about your characters always make them come wonderfully to life!

  18. Darling FoAnna,
    Thank goodness there's no right and wrong way! And if being off my rocker will earn me a DOUBLE RITA nomination like a certain someone, I'll gladly tip that puppy over! :-)

  19. Hey Caren/Posh T!
    HURRAY! It's now official, with 6 Banditas, we get eggroll. :-)

    To me, one of the best parts of writing has always been when my characters surprise me, and the story just takes off on its own.

    As for my "precocious" 15 yr old hero... Well, he was Irish, what more can I say?

    Thanx again everyone! Hope those who celebrated had a GREAT holiday!


  20. Aw, Aunty Cindy, Kate's not just schizophrenic; she's PROCRASTINATING and using any excuse at hand to avoid her revisions, including -- GASP, GASP -- cleaning house!!

    Egads, shoot me now!

    But seriously, no matter how well-plotted our books are, I think when the creative portion of the brain takes over, all bets are off. I used to think writers were flat-out nuts when they talked about their characters "speaking" to them. Now mine won't shut up with their "I wouldn't do that" or "I wouldn't say that."

    Pssst, I think Tawny's procrastinating too. Me? I'm waiting for the next hunk of response from my CP.

  21. Ms Organization PLUS Tawny, YOU are a writer I picture with scrapbooks full of clothes, furniture, floorplans, the WORKS! And those details about your characters always make them come wonderfully to life!

    LOL - I'm almost ashamed to admit I don't do any of that, then. Its sort of like knowing your sister. One the details are solid, the character is just... well, there :-) I've never used pictures or anything because I have this wierd thing - those pictures are real people somewhere and I can't make real people do things like I can my characters LOL

  22. Great post. I love the the ideas of charts and profiles, but it's the execution that kills it for me. Instead I try to focus on one interesting trait about him/her and then let the character intrinsically develop from that. In the novel I'm working on now for example, I have four female characters, and I wanted them each to be very different so I gave them each a label and they blossomed from there as I got to know the women "within", their secrets, passions, fears and goals.

  23. Uh oh, looks like Kate and Tawny are busted! Are you gonna make 'em serve detention, Jo-Mama? I'd suggest sending them to my place if they wanna clean, but that's "cruel and unusual punishment" which is unconstitutional. HA!

    And FIE on that CP of yours for being so slow... er, um, I mean, I'm sure your CP has very good reasons for being slow. ;-)

  24. Welcome Malena! Looking forward to your blog posts in a few days.

    I'm a wash out at doing all those charts and grids too. But I'm REALLY surprised that Tawny doesn't do them! (GASP!)

    But Tawny, those pictures aren't nearly as real as our characters, are they?!?!

    Thanx again everyone, for spending a bit of your day here with us.


  25. Hey Cindy--

    Sorry this response is a little late...this is a great post about characters!

    I love when characters have flaws that are obvious and generally UNfixable. No one is perfect, so it's great to relate to a character that isn't as well. Whether it's a physical imperfection or something on the inside, I think finding a small quirk or condition that is unique makes characters "real" to me!!

  26. Hey Danielle,
    Better late than never and thanx a bunch for the compliment on my post.

    Yes, I really like for characters to have flaws. I'm waaaay too imperfect to ever be able to identify with someone who seems perfect.