Know Your Characters

blue_eyeToday, I saw a post in a writing group in which someone was stuck on whether his MC (main character) would move onto a new relationship following the disappearance and possible death of her lover. Obviously, one should consider the depth of the relationship in question, but why not look to the character to solve this problem? If you have a well-developed character who seems like a real person to you, problems like this aren’t problems at all.

For instance, take veterinarian Dr. Garland Sands from my latest M/M historical romance, A Little Sin. After his lover commits suicide, he is able to move on and find love again. However, if his lover had vanished, I don’t believe he would ever stop looking for him. He’s an idealist and an optimist. He’s a hopeful character. Not only would he be unable to give up hope of finding his lover again, he would probably go to the ends of the Earth searching for him.

A very different character in my epic fantasy novel, Under the Shadow, Mylinka, is separated from her childhood love. Although he has only disappeared, evidence suggests he was killed in a purging of mages. Mylinka is a pessimist. She’s a war orphan with some nightmarish experiences. It’s easy for her to believe the worst. She’s also a highly adaptable pragmatist, so she moves on to other relationships.

So you can see how two very different characters will react to the same circumstances in extremely different ways. If you’re stuck on whether or not a character would do something, just ask the character. If your character won’t talk, maybe you need to develop him more.

How? Fill out some character worksheets. There are tons out there! My favorite character questionnaire is in Will Dunne’s The Dramatic Writer’s Companion. It asks questions like ‘what is your character’s greatest achievement so far? What is his greatest failure?’ Rather than spending a lot of time on your character’s hairstyle, it delves deep into the character’s interior life. It’s my favorite writing book despite the fact that I don’t write screenplays. Another fun way to learn more about your characters is to take online personality tests as if you were them.

Once you’re really in touch with your characters, you won’t need to ask how they’ll act. You’ll just know. And if you’re still not sure, just ask them. I often have trouble getting mine to shut up. I’m trying to write a paranormal romance, and Garland from A Little Sin and Ward from Zen Alpha keep bugging me. They want me to write more about them. That’s the only drawback to creating characters that become real people—they don’t always do what you want.

A Drop of Blood to Bring Characters to Life

actorProbably my favorite part of writing is developing characters. It’s like meeting new friends. There’s an indescribable, magical element to it that is thrilling and unique. I enjoy writing about characters that are very different from me. I like the challenge and, well, it’s exciting! But when you’re working in deep POV (also called third person close or third person limited), it can be tough getting inside the head of a character who’s so different. Here’s how I do it:

I start by leaving myself a backdoor. Computer programmers will sometimes leave a “backdoor” in their code, a way to sneak in if they need to. I do this with my characters. I build a character with various physical and emotional attributes, a unique personality (Myers-Briggs can be helpful with this!), and a suitable back story. I try to make these true to the character and let him develop in a way that is different from me.

But then, I add a backdoor, sometimes two or three, but at least one. I add something that the character and I have in common. So, Bradley from my m/m contemporary romance, Zen Alpha, is a tall, beautiful, twenty-five year old redheaded openly gay man who lives in a suburb of Dallas, is a tech support specialist, has expensive tastes that are beyond his means, and is intent on having an alpha male boyfriend. Bradley Evans and I have nothing in common. Like, squat.

So, I gave him a narcissistic mother. Being the child of a narcissistic parent changes a person in fundamental ways. I know, because my own mother is a narcissist. I used this fact to shape and highlight certain aspects of his personality. It even explains why he is so fascinated with his emotionally abusive boyfriend, Jackson, and why he holds himself at a distance from his sexy neighbor, kind, authentic Ward.

His mother was my backdoor into his character. In essence, I gave him a piece of myself. It’s sort of like molding a clay golem, then bringing it to life with a drop of your blood. Sometimes giving a character a piece of yourself hurts, because you have to confront something of yourself in the manuscript. Sometimes that’s difficult.

However, once you crawl inside your character, you’re in! The rest kind of falls into place. You end up with an interesting, round character that is fun to write about. So, bring your character to life and enjoy slipping into deep POV.

If you’re interested in reading Zen Alpha, you can read it for free with Kindle Unlimited, or buy it on Amazon. If you would like to review it, contact me at: everwintergreen@gmail.com for a reviewer copy.

Happy writing!

There’s Only One Way…

No. There isn’t. There are as many ways of doing something as there are people on the planet. I hate writing instructors (or reviewers) who act as if there is only one way of writing or one kind of book. (I know, I know. You’re not supposed to get upset with reviewers. They are entitled to their opinions, and I believe that wholeheartedly. That doesn’t mean I can’t feel butt hurt when one doesn’t understand the difference between a character-driven story and a plot-driven story.)

But back to writing tips. Years ago, I was in a writing group where one writer berated another for saying she couldn’t control her characters. I knew exactly what the ‘I can’t control them’ writer meant. To some extent, that’s how I write. My characters come to me in an organic fashion. Writing often feels more like an archeological dig than a creative process. I feel like I’m discovering the characters, discovering the story. There’s something profoundly Jungian about it.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to step in more. I’ll have a flash of inspiration for a plot point or an attitude shift and insert them and watch the story reorder itself. Or I’ll give the protagonist a nudge in the ribs. I can’t even fathom the sort of rational mind who views the characters as chess pieces and feels in control of everything. I’m not arrogant enough to think that person is wrong. I realize they are different. It’s okay for people to be different. Why do so many of us have a problem with that?

I was thinking about Kite from Lover, Destroyer today. I pick on him a lot, but I feel deeply sorry for him. As soon as I thought that, I wondered what the Vulcan from that writing group would have said. “You created his backstory! You created him–how can you feel sorry for him? That’s insane?”

Well, yeah. But I didn’t intentionally create him. He came to me that way. Damaged, possessing a frightening power, manipulated into doing something that preys on his conscience for the rest of his life. Technically, I created him. But I swear, he was broken when I found him.

There are many ways to do the same thing. Mine just happens to be a bit insane. And I’m perfectly fine with that.

Truth in Fiction

My fantasy stories might not seem autobiographical, but I use elements of my own past and emotional landscape when crafting my characters. I know what it’s like to lose a parent (not to death, but to other things)–but what if that loss had been the result of a brutal murder? I take the pain I know and extrapolate. I mold and twist until I’ve wrought something unique from my own experience. I do this over and over, constantly.

I think it creates realistic character emotion and depth, and it’s extremely therapeutic. When I write, I do so with the knowledge that there’s a possibility no one will read that book, no one will connect with it, it will exist forever alone and unloved. But that’s okay, because it gave me the chance to fight my demons again, to win the battle, to put them back in their cages once more.