Writing Characters Who Come Alive

3-pack3-021514-tmMost character charts for writers will include things like hair color, eye color, place of birth, occupation, and education. While these things are nice to know, they don’t tell you very much about the character other than surface facts. Here’s a list of some other things you need to think about to make a believable character.

Personality: Is your character an introvert or an extrovert? Is she ruled by her emotions or her intellect? Is he the life of the party or laid back? Personality is the cornerstone of who a person or character is. There are twelve basic personality types you can choose from. Click this link  for a description of each type.

Despair Or Hope Directions On A SignpostWorld View: What is your character’s belief system? This goes beyond their religious affiliation, but that’s a part of it. I’ll give you an example. Sally is an evangelical Christian who goes to church every time the doors are open.

You already have an idea of Sally’s belief system, but you need to dig deeper. Sally believes the Bible is the final authority, but even evangelicals differ. For instance, does Sally believe you should tell the truth even if a person’s life is in danger? Does Sally believe Christians should be actively involved social causes or does she believe we should be more concerned with spiritual matters? Does Sally think it’s alright to have an occasional glass of wine? How does she feel about protecting the environment? If someone is steeped in sin, will Sally befriend and try to help that person or will she distance herself and judge the person? There are many factors that go into our world views. It’s important to understand these when forming a character’s world view.

Character Flaws: What are your character’s flaws? Nobody is perfect. There are many flaws to choose from. But when choosing your character’s flaws, consider his personality and world view. For instance, an extrovert whose emotional may have a bad temper. Or she may make rash decisions. If she has a world view that’s judgmental, she may justify how she treats people. On the other hand, if she believes she’s supposed to help everyone, she may feel guilty when she loses her temper.

Redeeming Qualities: Every protagonist should have at least one redeeming quality, something that keeps the reading liking the person no matter how bad the character acts.

For instance, in my novel, Forks In the Road, JJ grows up to be an outlaw. There’s nothing good about that except he also has a protective friendship with his younger brother. He has put his brother before himself consistently throughout the novel, even risked his life for his brother at times.

This redeeming quality and the fact that he’s polite, even toward his victims, and has gone through a difficult past makes him likable even though we don’t like many of the things he does.

Motivation: Every character has to have a motivation or goal that keeps him moving forward in the story no matter what obstacles come in his way. And there should be obstacles, many of them, to keep the protagonist from reaching his goal. Without motivation, your main characters will seem flat like he’s drifting through the story. Motivation is key to a great character.

Mannerisms: We all have them. Does your character like to tease? Does she giggle when she’s nervous? Does he cross his arms when he’s upset? If you have a certain mannerism that signifies a character, it will make that character come alive. One warning here is don’t overuse that mannerism. A little goes a long way. Before long the reader will see the character doing the mannerism without you mentioning it.

Priority Rubber Stamp Shows Urgent Rush DeliveryPriorities: What is most important to your character? Don’t just list the surface stuff here.

Let’s go back to Sally. God is the most important thing in her life. Her family is second, and her career is third. What if Sally’s husband left her for another woman and isn’t paying child support? Now her career becomes more important because she needs the money to support her children.

But what if her career requires her to work so much she can’t spend any time with her children? Then what happens if she has to always work on Sundays and can’t take her children to church? What if the only babysitter she can find doesn’t believe in God?

You can see where this is going. Priorities are never easy. They sometimes blend, sometimes conflict with each other, and sometimes mess with motivations and world view. Life isn’t easy and neither are the choices we make. Don’t make life easy for your characters.

Backstory: We all have a past that colors what we believe about our world. Sometimes this past will cause us to have a distorted view of the world. What is your character’s backstory? What dark moment in the past causes him to believe a lie? What would it take to change his viewpoint?

You don’t want to reveal this backstory right away, but it’s important that you, the author, know what it is and why your character behaves the way he does. Then when you reveal it later on, it will make sense to the reader.

If you consider each of these factors when creating your characters, your characters will come to life and dictate to you where the story is going and what choices they will make. You will have a character driven story that keeps the reader on the edge of his seat.

Planning, Outlining, and Organizing Your Novel – Or Not!

There are as many ways to plan out a novel as there are writers. Each writer goes about it a different way. There are those who have a story board and outline every single event, and have character charts and motivation/goal lists for every character. Then there are those who just start writing not even stopping to research. Whatever facts they need, they look up later. These are the true Seat of the Pants Writers. Most of us fit somewhere in between.

Many times, those who call themselves Seat of the Pants Writers benefit from some planning, maybe not the plot, but something. Listed below are some methods you can use to plan your novel.

Snowflake Method: The Snowflake Method is a method developed by Randy Ingermanson found at this link. Basically you plan a little more thoroughly each time you go through the planning stage until you have a full novel.

Summary Outline: Some people like to write a brief summary of their outline and characters before they get started. This link  shows a summary outline from Writer’s Digest.

Storyboard: Storyboard is the method of writing a summary of scenes on index cards, post-it note, Microsoft OneNote, or an Excel table (Click here to learn how to make a storyboard using Excel.) Here’s a link that gives a description on how to use Storyboarding. Even if you don’t use this method to plan your novel, it’s a good idea to storyboard your novel during the editing phase to keep track of scenes, subplots, and point of view.

Plotting Your Novel: Many like to plot their novel before they begin writing. Here are some links to methods for doing that.

6 Steps to the Perfect Plot 

How to Create a Plot in 8 Easy Steps

Character Charts or Personalities: Some writers who never outline their plots, find their inspiration from getting to know their characters. To do this, some use character charts. Others use personality surveys to develop their characters’ personalities or personality disorders. Here’s some links that show character charts and personality evaluation sites.

The Epiguide Fiction Writer’s Character Chart

Eclectics Fiction Writer’s Character Chart

16 Personality Types

Personality Disorders List

Research: Some writers find inspiration in researching a time period, setting, career, or some other facet of their novels. Click here to find out how to organize your internet research on Microsoft OneNote.

Editing: Some writers begin writing, but as they write, the story is revealed to them in pieces. Many times, they’ll get stuck and will have to go back a edit or rewrite what they already have to see where to go from that point.

Creative Flow: Some writers do all their planning subconsciously. They will tell you that the story comes to them as they write. The very act of writing reveals the story. This is true for them because subconsciously their minds have been working out the story. When they sit to write, the story they’ve been working on in the recesses of their minds flows.

I tend to fall closer to the Seat of the Pants method, but I still use a combination of getting to know my characters, research, and editing when I’m starting a new novel.

The best way to know what works for you is to experiment. If outlining stifles your creativity, don’t do it. But plan to do a lot of editing after the novel is finished. If not planning everything ahead of time causes writer’s block, then by all means, plan until your heart’s content. There’s no right way or wrong way. Do what works best for you.