How to Build Character(s)

Memorable characters, like my husband’s aunt pictured here, demand your attention. How will their story unfold?

We all have goals, things we want to work on to become better writers and hopefully better people as well. Lately, for me, a key writing goal has been to build authentic, well-developed characters.  I struggle with this. Possibly because I’m an introvert who invests way too much effort trying not to ruffle feathers or let too much emotion or opinion come spilling out in the presence of anyone other than my spouse (lucky guy). I’d hate to give people the impression that I am not as emotionally stable as I might appear.

I also worry that pouring too much of a character’s inner workings onto the page will feel contrived or manipulative, that her struggles will be perceived as insincere, unearned.  Obviously I have to get past this. A fictional person on a page will never become the sympathetic, living, breathing hero of the story if readers have no clear view of her heart and mind.

birdbybirdI turned to Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD for wisdom. It takes time for us to know our characters, she says. We should ask ourselves “what happens in their faces and to their posture when they are thinking, or bored, or afraid. …Why should we care about them anyway?” Further on she writes, “Squint at these characters in your mind, and then start to paint them for us.” She explains that they should have flaws, but they should also be likeable, or at least interesting–and they become interesting if they possess clarity of vision in surviving the struggles they face.

And my favorite paragraph: “A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It’s a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly. You make up your characters, partly from experience, partly out of the thin air of the subconscious, and you need to feel committed to telling the exact truth about them, even though you are making them up.”

So I’ve been trying the method acting approach: using my own life experiences and feelings to inform my characters. Yes, they suffer through situations and events that I will never face, but the emotions and motivations they feel, those universal human truths, are the same. The process is a basic free association exercise. I sit down with pen and paper and choose a scene to work on. I decide what emotions my main character would be feeling in that scenario and just start writing, no editing allowed. The results are liberating. Even though much of the writing will need heavy revision or may even be scrapped altogether, the emotional truth that spills out is new for me, and holds real promise. I think. I hope. Time will tell.

How do you bring your characters to life? Tell us what works for you!

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May Arboretum 027Christine Hayes writes spooky stories for middle grade readers. Her debut novel, THE MOTHMAN’S CURSE, is due out spring 2015 with Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. She is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

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12 Comments

Filed under Advice - Helpful or Otherwise, Character Development, craft~writing

12 responses to “How to Build Character(s)

  1. This is great stuff, Christine! For me, characters are by far the most important element of a novel! Plot is great — obviously, we need some type of plot — but the characters are really what pulls me into a novel, more make me not continue it. I have a few memorable aunties myself! (As well as other people in my life who I can’t help but love even more because their character simply demands it! 😉

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    • Christine Hayes

      Thanks, Amy! Yes, if I don’t “click” with a character in the first few chapters, I usually stop reading. So glad you have such memorable and lovable people in your life!

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  2. Lindsey Lane

    Character is king. Or queen. For me, plot is what brings the character to the moment when the heart expands or contracts. If the scene isn’t taking them to that moment, I cut it. Nice post, Christine. Very thoughtful and I love Anne Lamott.

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    • Christine Hayes

      Well said, Lindsey! I envy your clarity in identifying those key character scenes (and your ability to cut things when they’re not working).

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  3. Christine, I sometimes struggle with creating characters as well–especially secondary ones–so I’m going to bookmark this post. And I think that the connection you made with introversion is really interesting–that may be my issue as well!

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    • Christine Hayes

      Hi Tara! It’s something I want to explore more, but I do believe that carefully controlled emotions in real life can contribute to an excess of restraint in creating relatable characters. Just my very non-scientific opinion, though. 🙂

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  4. I am very resistant to what you suggest — actively letting my own life out on the page — but it gets in there anyway via my subconscious. Somewhere in rereading the third or fourth draft, I realize, “Oh, wow, there’s my mommy issues again,” or “Hey, that totally happened to me and I had forgotten.” In writing my version of “The Taming of the Shrew” especially, I thought it would be very hard to write someone who had so much anger, and it was, but a lot of my truth seeped out between the lines as well.

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    • Christine Hayes

      Thanks for your comment, Maryanne. There’s definitely a fine line. I would hate to realize, post publication, that I’d inadvertently exposed some deep-seated resentments or family baggage. It’s probably inevitable that our characters reflect at least a touch of our own selves, though. I try to use the exercise sparingly, for sure. It’s still well outside my usual comfort zone!

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  5. Great stuff, Christine! I do character studies for the characters in my picture books. When I look at my lists, I can see myself and my truths among the lies. We have to have that truth among the lies to make an emotional connection. You said it well!

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  6. Great post, Christine. And the responses are enlightening to read as well. Developing characters is a long process for me. It’s not unlike when I’ve seen artists demonstrate their drawing process–sketch in an outline, make some changes, then go back over and make the lines more intentional, add some color, adjust the color, add some shading, all the while stepping back to look at what you’re creating and think about what’s working and not working along the way. It’s can be a frustrating process when you compare your drafts against characters in published books. Those characters can seem so alive and real, it’s like they must have come fully formed to the author. But we know they didn’t. Even when I have a good grasp on a character from the beginning, like in the novel I’m working on now, there’s still a lot of work to be done getting the character you know in your head to play nicely on the page.

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  7. This is so important. I read this the other day and have been thinking about it since. I’m at a point with my second draft where I can no longer stick with the plot as I plotted it, because it would mean telling lies about the characters. And that’s very frustrating, but it’s also a relief. It means that somewhere along the way, the characters stopped being my ideas and turned into their own people.

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  8. Great post, Christine! Loving the discussion down here as well.

    I think there could be a whole other discussion on the idea of “likable” characters.

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