Without characters our stories would have no real impact on our readers. We write to engage and intrigue them and hopefully make our protagonist the character our reader cares about. If your experience is anything like mine, there is usually one, or possibly two characters, that make their presence known in no uncertain terms. They want the starring role in our narrative. These characters are usually more defined in our minds and are ‘easier’ to relate to, whether because of a personality trait or that they are more fun to write. When creating the protagonist and antagonist in our stories, we give each opposing views and/or values. This is the basis of the conflict that carries our readers along their journey. Each character, whether major or minor, needs to have flaws and redeeming features, motivations, expectations, loyalties and deterrents.
This leaves us with the problem of developing our supporting characters with as much attention to detail as the main antagonist and protagonist. When creating characters we must remember to ensure that each character acts and responds true to their given personality. Character profiles are a good way of ‘getting to know’ our characters, this can be achieve mainly by utilizing character’s names, personality traits, appearance and their motivations. A name is a vital part of creating a mental image of our character for readers. The right name can give them a quick visualization of our character’s age, ethnicity, gender, and even location, and if we are writing a period piece, even the era. For example if I say the girl was called Britney, you would probably picture a young girl because of the association with Britney Spears. However, if a female character were called Edith or Edna, you would imagine someone born several decades ago. So you see a name is not just a name.
A burly man would be called something like Butch but not Shirley, unless of course you are going to tell the story of his struggle throughout childhood to overcome the name. There are plenty of web sites available, which list the most common names for each decade and locations around the world. These are great resources for writers, who require particular names for period stories or want to stay true to a certain decade.
The use of a nickname will also give your character an identity, be it an unkind one given by a bully or one of respect or fear for the bully. You would expect Big Al to be just that, a large person, however, Little Mikey would be the exact opposite. Nicknames, or sobriquet’s can work very well in defining an ethnicity as well but care must be taken not to offend a person of color. Obviously there are certain words that were in common usage decades ago that are not politically correct now, so we need to be diligent in their use.
We should also consider giving our characters a conscience. Will the hero question his actions if they are extreme to his morals? Does the villain have a deep-seated angst? What motivates them? Some flawed characters can be difficult to write on occasion as they are far removed from our own personality (well I certainly hope so!) but with care we can accomplish a believable character.
How do you set about building a character?
Do you write out a full description of your characters?
Have you based a character on someone you know, a famous personality or mixed up several people’s traits to make a new one?
I attended a creative workshop a couple of Saturday’s ago held by my writer’s group, The Writers Foundation of Strathcona County. The topics were POV and plot lines. We had several warm up exercises and an explanation of the various POV types and the variety of plot structure methods. Then with a timed exercise of twenty minutes, we had to write a short story using those techniques but with a title and a genre picked from a bowl. My title was Clue of the Painted Hand in a children’s book style. Although the last couple of paragraphs were added later, I think I did pretty well to have characters, plot, and a beginning, middle and finally an end!
Clue of the Painted Hand
Daisy pulled at her mother’s hand as they entered the library. It was her favorite place. Books let her escape to other worlds and made her feel less lonely. An only child, Daisy looked like a mini replica of her mother – blonde, brown eyes and slim -the only difference was the flower shaped birthmark on her right cheek. The reason she was called Daisy.
As usual there were lots of people in the library browsing book shelves and she saw a small huddle of younger children were listening to story time. Daisy felt too old for the short picture book stories and felt proud her reading age was ten years old, more than her real age of seven. She surpassed most of her school class mates in reading.
She looked over to see her mother talking to a friend so made her way to the book shelves in her favorite section – mystery adventure. Daisy loved jigsaw puzzle when she was younger, solving the patterns to create a whole picture. Now it was the same with stories. She would figure out the answer to the clues in the narrative before the end, most of the time.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, Daisy ran her fingers across the book spines reading the titles. If one interested her, she took it out and read the explanation on the back. One by one she piled up books beside her. She could take out ten books and always finished them before the next Saturday. One book pulled another off the shelf and Daisy dropped them on the floor. As she lay down to grab one from under the shelf her fingers encountered another book shoved under the wooden base. After several tries she prised a dusty old book from under the shelf. It was an old book, its cover tattered and dusty. Daisy used her sleeve to wipe the dust off the cover. The title was immediately interesting – Clue of the Painted Hand. Oh this looks good, she thought. Turning the book over and opening it, she realized there was no library stamp of barcode. How long has it been there? Looking side to side, Daisy felt a real thrill – a book I can keep! A shiver of excitement and guilt went through her young body. No-one would know, she could put it in her coat pocket without anyone seeing. Her curiosity could wait no longer; opening the first page a map covered the first two pages. As she traced her finger over the markings and named streets, she recognized one – Hampton Avenue, where she lived. How could a book hidden under a shelf have a map of her town?
“Daisy, are you ready to go?”
Her mother’s voice startled Daisy and she quickly put the book in her pocket before picking up her selected library books. With the books scanned, they returned to the car. Daisy kept her excitement to herself but raced upstairs as soon as they arrived home. Now I can read the clues and find whatever treasure there is. It only took an hour to read the book. It told the story of an old Jack in the Box made by a master toymaker, who lived in the town many years before. His shop sign was a painted hand. This particular Jack in the Box had a musical mechanism and a doll instead of a jack, which popped up. Daisy read the clue, traced the map’s tracks and realized the location of the box was in the play ground behind her house.
She walked through the back garden, through the gate and counted steps just like the map said – one, two, three – until she reached twenty-five steps. Standing beside an overgrown old fountain, she pulled ivy and weeds away. The instructions said there was a secret detail to push in sequence. Daisy brushed away dirt and old leaves to find the stone carved like a bunch of daisies. She pressed the first petal it did not move, then another. Gradually, she discovered the petals that did move and marked them with a thumbprint. Now how do I press them in the right order? She sat down cross-legged and looked at the stone decoration. It was a posy of daisies, the stems long and disappearing into the weeds. Maybe I should pull these weeds out as well. Her thought propelled her into action. The flower stems were encased in a stone vase decoration with faint lettering on it. After rubbing the grime off with her sleeve, the words were clearer. A riddle! How exciting.
I’m at the peak
Then to the right
Follow me to the base
And reach to the left
A final center will release
Daisy read the riddle three times then pressed the loose petals, top, right, left, bottom and center. A grating sound alerted her to something moving. The vase shape pushed forward to reveal a void. Sitting in it was a dusty square box. With nervous excitement, Daisy pulled it out of its hiding place and wiped it clean. She knew her mother would be upset with all the dirt on her clothes but the treasure was worth it. Gently, she wound the handle on the side of the box until the lid burst open to reveal a beautiful blonde doll, head to one side holding a book and smiling. Music started to play and the doll’s head moved side to side just like if she was reading. This is so beautiful, she looks a little like me. Blowing gently she rid the doll and its book of a layer of dust. That’s when she saw the title of the book – Daisy the Adventurer. It is me! How can that be? Another mystery for me to solve but maybe I will need mother’s help. With great care, Daisy pushed the stone vase back into place, pulled the ivy and weeds back over the fountain and walked home cradling her treasure.
I hope you liked it.
Which plot method do you think I used? Story map, Story Flow Chart or Story Mountain?
It may seem like an easy to answer question but for most writer’s it is a multi faceted one. I have answered with:
Word or picture prompts
Overheard snippets of conversation
An idea popped into my head randomly
A personal interest
A topic of conversation
A couple of examples:
My children’s picture book, Rumble’s First Scare was a Halloween prompt, which I turned upside down. It is the monster’s point of view of Halloween and his first scare adventure with his Mum.
The Rython Kingdom began as a series of prompts that gelled together to form a story by pure chance.
It is not so clear cut as these to be honest but it helps a non-writer understand the creativity side of our brains a little easier.
I presented a workshop on how to formulate an idea into a novel at the WFSC writer’s conference in the spring. From that initial spark to compiling a story line/arc, creating a plot arc, introducing characters, and finding the correct conclusion for the genre. It was a fun experience.
I’m retired now, but my first career was as an elementary school teacher.
One year I had a boy placed in my class who didn’t like me and unfortunately, the feeling was mutual.
Believing the boy would be much happier with a different teacher, I suggested to administration that they place him in a different class. The Assistant Principal informed me that I’d be good for the boy and left him in my class.
As the year progressed, we grew to like each other very much.
In June, when all the other kids had left for summer holidays, the boy stayed at his desk and he said point blank, “I didn’t like you at the beginning of the year”.
(Don’t you love how kids get right to the point? I love their honesty.)
I thought a moment and decided to be honest with him too. I shared that he wasn’t my favorite student at the beginning of the year, either.
We both accepted the idea that we could change our minds. We had a newfound mutual respect and appreciation.
Over the years, I never forgot that boy. I decided I needed to write a story about a woman who didn’t want a particular child. I wanted to show the love, understanding and self-confidence that grew in both characters as they got to know and love each other.
How did you come up with the title?
The title for the trilogy is Bringing Jamie Home. I got this idea when the ten-year-old boy gets lost in Jamie’s Choice, the first book in the trilogy. The hero tells the heroine that they will find the child and bring him home. There! I had it—the title for the book.
At this time, I didn’t know that the one book would lead into a trilogy.
When I finished book one, I knew that one character appeared to be a “piece of work”, as one reviewer called him. I had to figure out why the character was so cynical. This lead to a mystery that had to be solved in the second and third books. All three books work with the idea of “Bringing Jamie Home”.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
As I mentioned above, I wanted to show the love, understanding and self-confidence that grew in both characters as they got to know and love each other.
How much of the book is realistic?
When I describe the mountains and the snow storm in Jamie’s Choice, I’ve actually been on slippery roads and in snow storms in the mountains. I know how quickly the weather can change.
Are your characters based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
Where can readers find you on social media and do you have a blog?
I don’t have a blog, but I’d love people to visit me at my website: SherileReilly.com
Do you have plans or ideas for your next book? Is it a sequel or a stand alone?
The Bringing Jamie Home books are a trilogy. After them, I wrote a Victorian Paranormal Romance called The Curse of the Lord of Darkness. It’s a stand-alone book. I’m now working on a series which will also be Victorian Paranormal Romances. My books are currently available in print and as eBooks from Amazon.com.
Of the characters you have created or envisioned, which is your favorite & why?
My favorite characters are always in the story I’m working on. I’m deeply involved with the characters—just like when I’m reading a book.
Do you favor one type of genre or do you dabble in more than one?
I write Clean, Contemporary Romance and Victorian, Paranormal Romance.
Do you plan your stories, or are you a seat of the pants style writer?
I love planning my stories. I get ideas and I jot them down on paper. At this point I’m just gathering ideas. I have lots of pieces of info about the characters and the plot.
Next, I think about the order of the scenes. I like to see the story laid out in front of me, so I put the ideas on cards or post-it-notes and arrange them on a two by five foot board. From here, I’m able to see what the general layout of my story will be. Of course there are many changes to this outline, but I really like knowing where the story is going and if the characters are changing and growing.
What is your best marketing tip?
I don’t know about a marketing tip, but I think authors always have to keep learning the craft–listen to podcasts, read blogs and educate yourself. Join a writing group if there is one in your area. Write the best book that you can and then get it edited by a professional.
Do you find social media a great tool or a hindrance?
Social media is a very big topic and I’m learning what might work best for me.
What do you enjoy most about writing?
I love planning and putting in lots of conflict. Creating characters is exciting. In my Victorian stories I’m always learning more about that time in history. My Victorian stories are set in the United States and it’s interesting to learn about the social restrictions on women in that era.
What genre are you currently reading?
I read across a wide variety of genres. I recently finished a detective novel. Before that I read a Victorian mystery/romance. I can’t keep up with all the books I’d like to read.
Do you read for pleasure or research or both?
I read for both.
Who is your best supporter/mentor/encourager?
I’ve had tremendous support from my husband who drives me to locations so I get a feeling for the setting.
When she was alive, I also had tremendous support from my mother. She’d have been so pleased with the publication of the Bringing Jamie Home Trilogy.
My sister patiently listens to all my new ideas and offers suggestions.
My friends have helped me so much with my technology problems, blurbs, plots and many other facets of the whole writing process. I also belong to two writing groups that offer excellent workshops.
Best of all, my writer friends are fun and great to hang around with!
Where is your favorite writing space?
Lots of people think they’d like to write on a balcony with a beautiful view of the ocean and the sound of the waves. Rather than encouraging me to write, I’d find this a huge distraction. I’d want to be walking along the beach or visiting the local tourist sights.
I’m quite happy being in a room in the basement, surrounded by books and other writing materials that I need.
Do you belong to a writing group? If so which one?
I belong to the Alberta Romance Writers’ Association and also the Calgary Chapter of the Romance Writers of America. The groups are called ARWA and CaRWA. Both are terrific for teaching people about writing and industry. Of course, there’s a fantastic group of fellow writers.
If you could live anywhere in the world – where would it be?
I love living right where I am. I love the four seasons and the wonderful changes that each brings.
Do you nibble as you write? If so what’s your favorite snack food?
When I’m writing, I don’t nibble. If I brought food into the computer room, I’d constantly keep eating and get nothing done. However, I do nibble while I watch TV!
Author, artist, and retired teacher, Sherile Reilly has jet boated in New Zealand, climbed the Temple of a Thousand Columns at Chichen Itza, ballooned over the table lands of Northern Australia, and poised for a photographer among the columns of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece.
As a teacher, she read to children and as a world traveler, she collected stories and soon began to create her own, first for her students, and then for adults.
Not tied to any one genre, Sherile writes Contemporary Romance, Women’s Fiction and Paranormal Romance. Most recently, she published a trilogy, Bringing Jamie Home, and The Curse of the Lord of Darkness.
Today’s question is: Some writers create a bubble around themselves until they’re finished with their project – how true is that in your case?
For me, once I am writing/crafting a story the outside world disappears. I am within that world of my own creation and all external forces are forgotten. As I write the scenes play like a movie in my head, I experience the characters and their struggles.
How about you? Do you need to lock yourself away, go somewhere in particular or can immerse yourself in your story no matter where?
Last week’s question. What books do you keep for sentimental reasons?
I shared mine in the post and Pamela shared her love of Pinocchio.