Getting Those Characters All Characterized

Okay, so one of the hardest tasks an author faces is writing great characters. People are multi-faceted, with deeply rooted histories. They need to act according to those histories, as well as use their strengths and weaknesses when making decisions. And if there’s something a reader can smell a mile away, it’s a character who makes inconsistent decisions.

So how do we craft characters that are unforgettable? Multi-faceted? Worth spending hundreds of pages with?

It’s no small task, and though I’m a pantser at heart, even I sit down and think about my characters for a bit before I start writing. Now, I’m not one of those people who creates character bibles or anything, but for those of you who do, they can be useful things.

I was recently reading a book — one of my new faves! LOVE UNDER CONSTRUCTION by Danyelle Ferguson. It’s a great, light-hearted contemporary romance. But I thought the characters were so well-developed.

And I thought about my own work-in-progress, and I realized I might need to go back to the ole characterization drawing board.

So I did.

Step 1: Establish backstory and history

You don’t need to write a ton, and most of what you know about your character’s backstory won’t make it into the book, but you should have a good idea about their history.

Think about your MC’s:

  • childhood
  • family situations
  • defining moment in their lives
  • relationships with parents/siblings
  • past relationships — why they did and didn’t work 
  • GMC: goals, motivation, conflict 

Step 2: Ask a lot of questions

I took a class once at a conference, and the instructor listed so many questions I wanted to die. Okay, maybe just pass out. But there were a lot of questions, right down to what kind of car this character would drive and why.

I suppose those are great details to know about your characters. I’ve never delved that deeply before, but as I set to work on fleshing out my characters, I realized that those questions — what’s his dream job? Where does he see himself in five years? What’s the worst thing that could happen to him? How does he view the society he’s in? What’s his favorite breakfast? — range from important driving forces to mundane.

And often, the great characters are the ones that we love because of the mundane stuff. Suddenly, what kind of car my hero drives is important. And I couldn’t wait to figure it out.

Step 3: Do a bit of free writing

I’ve done this exercise a time or two in my authoring years. If I’m having a tough time figuring out what makes a character tick, I free write two scenes — one where the character is really angry, and one where the character is really happy.

We react differently in those two situations, and I always want to know what my MC is going to say, do, feel, and think in a tense, argumentative situation. I also want to know what she’s going to say, do, feel, and think in a situation of complete bliss.

This helps me understand the characters on a deeper level. It helps me write those scenes where they’re frustrated or upset, where they’re relieved or joyous.

This certainly isn’t a comprehensive list, but it might give you a good place to start if you’re lacking characterization.

How do you go about building your characters?

Liz Isaacson is the pen name for Elana Johnson as she writes inspirational romance, usually set in Texas, or Montana, or anywhere else horses and cowboys exist. Her Western inspirational romance series, the Three Rivers Ranch Romance series, is an Amazon #1 bestseller.

She lives in Utah, where she teaches elementary school, taxis her daughter to dance several times a week, and serves on her community’s library board. Liz is represented by Marisa Corvisiero of the Corvisiero Agency, a PAN member of RWA, and an avid romance reader. Find her on Facebooktwitter, and her blog.

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