Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Creating Realistic Characters

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by Guest Host, Jayne Self 

I remember the first time I heard an author speak about her main character as if she was a real person. It kinda freaked me out. I mean, is that how weird I would sound by the time I finished my book? 
Creating realistic characters is foundational for any fiction writer because character drives your story forward. It doesn't matter if you're writing fantasy, an action thriller or the next great literary classic of the 21st century, how you depict your characters will make or break your story.

In the past writers of genre fiction could get away with stereotypic heroes and two-dimensional villains. But no more. So how can to we breathe life into our beloved characters?

There are a number of helpful tools available. Some authors like character surveys. These elaborate questionnaires ask things like: how tall is your character? What's your character's favorite colour? What is his political affiliation? His faith stance? This method can be uninspiring or informative, depending on how much imagination you invest in your characters.

Other authors prefer to write a complete back story--either in point form or narrative. Elizabeth George writes mini-novels on each character before she ever begins her projects. No doubt that's the secret to her highly intriguing and complex characters.

Still others like to "discover" their character as they write. When you are anxious to begin your story, this may sound the least time consuming of the three methods, however without considered thought, your characters run the risk of becoming cardboard or uncontrollable. Imagine if, in chapter 26, you discovered your heroine was kidnapped as a child, or, heaven-forbid, accidentally knocked grandma down the stairs, crippling her? Suddenly you have a whole new set of underlying issues that would have impacted your character's behavior from scene one. You are going to have to scrap everything you've written and start all over again.

I recently watched a twenty minute talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the freakishly successful (her words) Eat, Pray, Love. You can view it at:  http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html 
In her talk Elizabeth toys with the idea of genius. Is genius something within ourselves or is it an outside force that visits us on occasion? Apparently the second idea, that genius visits us, dates back to Roman times.

A highly successful author like Gilbert may have more credibility than I when discussing genius, but I think realistic characters are created in part by hard work--using one of the methods I mentioned above--and in part by divine inspiration--be that a visiting genius or the good Lord above.

I knew Dean Constable (the protagonist in my mystery Caught Dead) was a fully crafted character the day he offended me. I was browsing a character questionnaire I found in the back of a book about writing unique characters when I came across the question: What has your character hidden at the back of his closet? I've never spent much time rooting through men's closets so I was a little stymied by the question. What would my honest, upstanding, American, cop turned reverend treasure enough to save and dislike enough to hide.

His gun.

That may seem obvious to most everyone else on the planet but to me, an anti-gun toting Canadian pacifist, I was horrified. How could Dean do such a thing?

Dean's hidden gun may never appear in any Dean Constable Mystery, but the very fact that I know he has it, has changed the way I view and write about Dean. It's given him a wedge of unpredictability, an edge that has transformed him from meek and mild mannered pastor to--well you'll just have to read Caught Dead to find out.

If you haven't already started Caught Dead: A Dean Constable Mystery, you can read it as an online serial [at] www.presbyterianrecord.ca New chapters are posted every Monday.

Happy writing. Happy reading.

Jayne E. Self


Jayne Self is a member of The Word Guild (A Canadian association of Writers and Editors who are Christian) and Crime Writers of Canada. Her first mystery, Caught Dead: A Dean constable Mystery, is available as an online serial at www.presbyterianrecord.ca. You can learn more about Jayne at www.jayneself.com.

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