Friday, December 17, 2010

Character Building Blocks

By Loni Emmert

Originally posted at
on April 5, 2010

While going over a manuscript this past month, my writing partner and I have had some serious discussions regarding characters and what drives them to do what they do. As writers, we all know that our characters can develop their own quirks and do things that we, the authors, certainly did not intend for them to do. But that’s why we grow to love them, because at some point they become an actual person to us and, optimistically, to our readers.

However, in the early days of their creation we need to fill the empty, plastic mold with the silly putty that will begin to shape them. It’s easy to describe hair and eye color, height, weight, scars or tattoos and any other physical attributes that we can imagine. What is not always easy is to delve deep into their psyche and find those childhood traumas or life-altering adult decisions that are the building blocks of our characters’ personality — quirks and all.

For example, perhaps your character refuses to learn how to drive a car. Give him a background story that includes a harrowing car accident that renders him with an overwhelming fear of driving. If your character has trouble forming friendships, explain it with an adolescence of disinterested parents that never bothered to hug the child, making her an adult that is uncomfortable with emotional bonding.

Childhood isn’t the only place where wounds can occur. Adult decisions can have a lasting impact, either good or bad, on one’s behavior. A marriage to a bad partner or a spiteful divorce can render a person with a fear of relationships. An unplanned pregnancy, an abortion, or a miscarriage can etch profound grooves into the bravest of souls. Filing bankruptcy, betraying a friend, watching a loved one pass on, or having a physically challenged child contribute to the experiences that form the creases in the putty that turn us into who we become.

It is the same with our characters. An author needs to engage readers with the events — past, present and those yet to come — that our beloved characters must live through.

If your character is having trouble conceiving a child, provide the reader with an understanding of her ordeal and why it is so important to her to have a child. If your character cannot hold a job, display the personality quirks that keep him unemployed. Perhaps those DUIs in her early 20s are the reason your character refuses to have that glass of wine at dinner. Even a murderer needs a plausible motivating factor to keep a reader connected to the story. The reader needs to experience the highs and lows along with our protagonist — and needs to appreciate what makes him or her tick.

Do not be afraid to probe the depths of your character’s mind and explore why you want them to behave as they do. The more back story and tribulations, damage and distress that you can pile up on a character makes them more believable and more lovable.

After all, we all know and admire people who have overcome incredible obstacles, but it can be hard to empathize with someone who has a picture-perfect life. Deep down we know that no one’s life is perfect, and it’s nice to have a sneak peek into a person’s core, to be one of the very few that are allowed in to really see why someone is the way they are.

Being an observer of the mind is a remarkable thing and, as a writer, it is your job to allow the reader in for a closer look. You never know, you may discover why your character does those strange things that you weren’t counting on.

Loni Emmert is the co-author of Button Hollow Chronicles #1: The Leaf Peeper Murders and the author of Lights! Camera! Murder! A member of Sisters in Crime since 2006, she is currently working on her first thriller.


Msmstry said...

Loni, excellent tips! I've always thought the character's backstory was equally important as the one being told. You've given some good ways to show that backstory. If the author doesn't know her characters well, they come off flat to the reader.

Polly said...

I lose interest in a book that's not character driven. It doesn't matter what the genre is, either. Yes, I like a plot, of course, but if I can't relate to the character and his/her struggles, I usually find the book lacking. Good post, Loni.