I don’t know that I’m an expert, but, having finished my first book and making great progress on my second, I have some insights on building strong characters. So, here goes.
Building strong characters is more important than almost anything else you do in writing.
You can be the best writer in the world, give us tons of action scenes, but without a strong character, the reader has no interest in what’s happening. We need a reason to CARE about what’s happening on the page.
Here’s some great advice from across the web:
- Make them real and get inside their heads – [source]
- Give them flaws, no one’s perfect. But, no one’s totally bad, so give your antagonist some redeeming qualities – [source]
- They should have needs, desires, ambitions, goals – [source]
- Add some contradictions — again, no one’s perfect [source]
- Conflict – internal and external [source]
How I build strong characters
Now, I’m not necessarily an expert, but here’s how I build my characters:
Give ’em a backstory
Thinking about the elements listed above for building strong characters, I start with the backstory and weave it in throughout the novel — rather than giving you everything about a character in one information dump. Over the course of the first novel, we learn a lot about Estella’s backstory that make us care about whether she gets rescued and the health of the baby she’s carrying.
In Book 2 (as yet unnamed), we learn more about her backstory for those who didn’t read Book 1 (Buried Ladies) and we learn a lot about what happened in the 2 years between books.
Tell us how they look
One thing I find critical to my writing is seeing things in my head. Sometimes I feel like a biographer or a painter, although I’m painting the pictures in my head with my words. For that reason, the room where I write is completely silent — to give my characters a chance to speak to me.
Readers need these visual images, too. So, I describe Isabella, who is a relatively minor character, down to the clothing she wears.
What are they thinking
For each character, I get inside their head. Some readers find this constant change in POV (point of view) disturbing, but my readers love it. In addition to action and dialogue, major characters keep a running commentary going on it their heads — what they’re thinking, what they’re planning, what the action means to them.
Mary Lou is a great example we meet early in ‘Buried Ladies’. She’s the quirky 911 operator who takes Joan’s call about Estella’s murder — of course, we find out later it’s more complicated than that. Readers loved her so much, I actually brought her back later in the book as I revised the manuscript.
Poor Mary Lou has a running dialogue going on inside her head, even as she answers serious 911 calls.
Tools for building strong characters
Search the internet and you’ll find a ton of worksheets for building characters. You’ll find a lot of similarities among these worksheets, so choose one that works for you.
In my first book, I kinda winged it, but for Book 2, I did a more serious effort in creating my characters. I really like my characters, but I wanted to work on building my trade craft, too.
Here’s my advice on using a worksheet:
- Not every character needs a full worksheet
- Even your main characters don’t need everything filled out on the worksheet
- Keep your worksheet handy as you write, but feel free to let your characters develop within the story. You can update the worksheet as you go.
Another tool I use is a timeline. My stories tend to be complex, as we move from one character’s POV to the next. My timeline is like a score card telling me where each character is at a particular point in time. I try to move the action (plot) forward equally among characters, so no character is lost in the plot.
Finally, I take pictures as I roam around doing errands, going to meetings, etc. People are included in the pictures I take. I use them to help build my characters.
I hope this advice helps. Let me know your thoughts and, as always, I’d love to help you with your writing in any way I can.
Some folks seek out readers with specific characteristics, some pay for expert readers, some join writing groups where they exchange reading for getting critiques. I use Beta readers who get a free review copy.
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