By Terry Spear
Just like a seed buried in the soil for any kind of plant~ ground cover, tree, flower, blade of grass, our characters start out as kernels of possibilities. The environment the plant grows in shapes the plant. Too dry, the plant has to adapt or die. Too windy and the tree must bend or break. Just like our characters, they often don’t choose what life throws in their path. But with our characters, they have to make choices that often puts them at more risk.
Some authors make detailed sketches of their characters before they launch them into their books. They have a neat concept of what their characters are all about before they write the opening scene.
But for me, being a pantser who writes as the scenes come to me, I could no more do that, than I can plot out a book. What I envision is a character with a mission, with some big motivation as to why it is imperative that they must accomplish this task, and it has to have some time limit, or there’s no urgency. They have an occupation that further defines them. And they must have a fun way to meet the hero early on. That’s it! Then the trouble begins. And how they deal with it reveals their character. We then go from a named character who the reader knows nothing about to a real person who they can fall in love with or hate to their heart’s content. Hopefully, it’s the villain they hate and the hero and heroine they fall in love with!
I just finished teaching an online writing workshop and one of my students mentioned that in her last several books, all her heroines sounded the same. So here’s the dilemma. We want to have unique characters in all our books. If some are in more than one of our books, we want to show the same characterization from book to book so that it doesn’t seem they have multiple personality disorder, although with a caveat. People act differently in different situations around different people. So we can have a cool dude who is rough and tough around the guys, but when it comes to the girls, he’s a marshmallow. Or maybe he’s at home on the range, but put him in a ship and it’s another story. Or maybe he’s a real daytime character, but make him work the nightshift and we see another side of him entirely. Or better yet, maybe he’s playing second fiddle to the main character, and this time…he’s got a chance to get the girl.
But what about having characters that are similar from story to story? Let’s say I write spunky heroines, which I do. That’s what my readers expect from me. If I had a moody, laid back chick who waited for others to do her bidding, would readers be disappointed? Probably. Still, I can write lots of spunky heroines and make them completely different from one another. How? Their life experiences, their motivations, their goals define them. And how they deal with conflict further illustrates what kind of character they are.
When I begin the story, I don’t know all the trouble my characters are going to get into, only that they will. I don’t know how they’ll react, but I consider lots of different avenues they can take. Often I don’t even know what troubles they’ve had in the past, but as I write, it comes to me. And as they venture into the unknown, they become real people…or wolves, as the case may be.
So what do you think is the best way to go? Character sheets, or wing it???