Wednesday, March 17, 2010


How well do you know your characters before you begin to write? Do you write bios for them, letters from them, fill out a fact sheet about where they were born, what their favorite foods and colors and movies are? Or do you just sit down and start writing and let your knowledge of them evolve?

My husband wanted to look through our 1962 Blue Devil yearbook to refresh his memory about singing in the school choir. Yes, we went to school together; he was a couple of years ahead of me. No, we didn't date or really even know each other until many years later. Maybe I'll tell that story another day. :)

We went to a small country school. In '62 I was in the eighth grade with 41 others. Most of them I'd known since the first grade. As I browsed the last pages of my yearbook to read their end-of-the-year words to me, I was stunned at what they had to say and honestly, how little they had to say.

1) To a sweet and cute girl. I hope we stay friends forever.
2) You are a very sweet and courteous girl.
3) I think you are very pretty and very smart.
4) May we remain friends always!
5) You are a very sweet and cute girl.
6) Good luck always!
7) Best of everything to a nice, pretty girl. You have talents after talents.
8) I've enjoyed going to school with a sweet girl like you.
9) You are sweet, cute, lovable & precious.
10) I hope we will always be friends forever.
11) You are very talented, pretty, sweet and kind.
12) May God bless and keep a deserving girl like you.
13) You're a nice and cute girl.
14) You're very sweet and cute and may you always be popular with all the boys and girls.
15) Best of luck to a nice and kind girl.

Yes, I was a nice, sweet, kind girl because I was too incredibly shy to be otherwise. That, and my mother would have beaten me silly if I'd been mean and hateful. That aside, it sounds like most of my classmates didn't know me at all. Here are two more entries:

17) Fun knowing you. I'm sorry you didn't go out for cheerleader.
18) You are a sweet girl and a wonderful dancer.

See the difference? These two people knew something about my life. They made their comments personal. Read the following quotes from writers who understand characterization:

The characters you create in a novel become as real in your mind as movie stars. ~Norman Mailer

The first thing that makes a reader read a book is the characterization. ~John Gardner

If you are inclined to leave your character solitary for any considerable length of time, better question yourself. Fiction is association, not withdrawal. ~A.B. Guthrie, Jr.

If Jess was a character in your book, would sweet, kind, courteous, cute, deserving, talented paint much of a picture? Not for me. But if Jess considered going out for cheerleader and changed her mind for some reason, and she was a dancer . . . well, that's a more interesting picture.

Let's hear your comments. Tell me how you create characters who are more than sweet and cute.


Iapetus999 said...

I don't do too much in the first draft. I kind of let it happen organically. Then during revision I figure out what works and what doesn't.

I read something today that made me think: you should love writing every character. If it's a chore, then you're doing it wrong. :)

Nancy said...

I have now started the habit of interviewing my characters on a blog. Makes them a little more 'fleshy'. If I can find a picture I believe represents them, it makes it even easier. See some of them here

Rebecca Lynn said...

I use the Snowflake Pro software to flesh out the details, and then start writing. They reveal themselves through the narrative, but I do know quite a bit about them before I start.

Great post, Jessy.

LKHarris-Kolp said...

Jess- I always appreciate all the helpful hints you share with us.

Check out my blog and you will find the "Beautiful Blogger" award I have given to you!


Linda Yezak said...

I'm having trouble with one of my characters being flatter than an 'dillo on I-10. I'll have him write a journal entry and free-flow him for awhile. Next I'll get his love interest to describe him and his personality both when they were kids (they went to school together) and again as adults. Then I'll arrange an off-topic dialogue between them to see how they interact.

It is so much easier for me to do this after I've written roughly a quarter of the novel. Before I start writing, I don't know any of the characters very well or how they interact with each other and their environment. But as I go along and learn what role each character plays, I can develop them better.

I like Nancy's idea too. That's a good way to get the readers interested in the novel, too.

prashant said...

I believe represents them, it makes it even easier. See some of them here
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