Know Thy Characters
(ed’s note: this is the second in a 12-part series offering coaching to aspiring writers)
If you want to write a book, you must know thy characters.
Know Thy Characters.
It’s an invisible writing rule that must not be broken or the Writing Fairy will come and cast a bad spell on you.
You must know your characters down to the teeniest, tiniest detail. You must be them. You must think for them. If you don’t know your characters, your readers won’t either, and you will have a literary ship wreck on your hands.
So let’s chat about what you need to know about your character, and how to get there without losing your sanity or slugging down too much tequila.
First, the basics. What does your main character look like? Try sketching him or her in your journal if her face doesn’t materialize in front of your eyes. Or, cut out photos from a magazine and put them together. Maybe the main/minor character is you. So, picture yourself – on your best day, or your worst. Take note of her age, weight, how she walks in high heels, and how she talks.
Name her. First and last. Should the name mean something personal to you? Eh. Maybe. Use Grandma’s first name. But maybe not. Do not give her the first and last name of someone you love or hate. Don’t. Especially if you hate someone. If you write about that person, with their real name, especially if she is a hideous, scary, axe wielding corporate witch, expect an expensive lawsuit to come rolling down the pike at you.
Figure out what she does for work, if she likes her job, or if she is getting ready to quit. Why does she want to quit? Maybe she knows she’s going to be fired. Why is she going to be fired? Maybe it’s a stepping stone job. Maybe she’s making a bunch of money at one of those high end, exhausting law firms filled with vultures, and will put all of the money she’s saved into a lavender farm in the country and start a new life.
What job your character has is important as our jobs say a truckload about us.
Also, where does she live? A tiny, cheap apartment? A cottage at the coast? A dull home in suburbia? Who does she live with and why?
Know Thy Character’s Family.
You need to figure out your character’s family and what her childhood was like. Our childhoods effect us well into adulthood in a multitude of ways. Were both her parents around? Did one abandon the family? Did one have an addiction? Too strict, too flighty? No one really knows you unless they know the nitty gritty about your childhood, right? So don’t leave your character’s childhood out unless you want a gaping hole in your story and in your character’s personality and development.
In my book What I Remember Most, my character, Grenadine Scotch Wild, lives happily with her wandering, hippie parents until she’s six. Then they disappear. She can hardly remember anything about that dark night in the woods except hearing them yell, “Run, Grenadine, run.” She runs and she’s later found wandering down a highway by a trucker. She goes into the foster care system. That loss, and what she can’t remember, shapes the rest of her life.
What about friends? Does your character have any? Are they healthy relationships or not? Does she have a best friend, or was there a falling out? Is she lonely, a loner who must drink coffee ALONE? Are their trust issues that started long ago or does she generally love being by herself because she doesn’t like people?
What are her internal issues? Low self esteem? A wild streak or impulsiveness? Is she scared, repressed, or angry? Is she reeling from a break up or a death? Is she lost emotionally? Does she suffer from depression or anxiety or agoraphobia or commitment? WHY? Why does she have the problems she does?
I’ve given my main characters all sorts of problems. Isabelle Bommarito in Henry’s Sisters, is on the edge emotionally, which is why she sits naked on her patio in the middle of downtown Portland on a rainy day and then burns her bra and her thong.
Another character, Stevie Barrett in Such A Pretty Face, weighed well over three hundred pounds before bariatric surgery. She ate her grief away. At the end of the book, she is done eating her grief. Your character must have emotional issues to solve or work on.
On the flip side, what’s humorous/original/admirable about her? Is she super smart? Does she finish the NY Times crossword puzzle? Maybe she is constantly volunteering in the Big Sister program. Does she sing like a drunk angel or dance like crazy on tables or create animals out of paper or paint fantastical paintings? Is she a peacemaker or crazy fun and gets arrested now and then? Does she like taking photos of flowers? What makes her special?
What problems does she have in her life? The problems she has could be problems that you have had in your life. You can borrow them. Or borrow the problems of someone you know or read about.
Where are the conflicts? Who does she have them with? A man? A mother? A sister? Maybe she’s a rock climber. It’s woman against nature and she has to conquer nature. But why is she a rock climber? What drives her to climb up and risk her life?
Know thy character’s struggles.
Your character must have external struggles, too. In My Very Best Friend, my character, Charlotte Macintosh, is trying to find her best friend, who she hasn’t heard from in months. Charlotte is quirky. A time travel romance writer, she had a stroller made for her four cats and has an obsession with physics. Charlotte flies to Scotland, where she was raised, falls in love, and becomes the person she would have been had she not endured her own tragedy in childhood. She finds her best friend – along with other complications.
Simply put: Your character must have inside and outside problems.
A question I’ve gotten before is this: Should your main character be likable? My answer, to anyone writing her first book especially, is yes. Readers need someone to hold onto. They need someone to root for and relate to. They need someone to escape with.
Now, many people will disagree with me on this. There are exceptions to what I just said. Lots of people did not like the main characters in Gone Girl or The Girl On The Train. But they loved the gripping, fast moving, unique plot lines. Those books were blockbusters, in print and in movies. I loved both books. Couldn’t put them down. But if you are going to make an unlikable character, you better have a gripping, fast moving, unique plot line. No kidding. So be careful of that.
Write on, friends, and good luck.
Here is a handy dandy check off list to use when you’re creating your character …
By Cathy Lamb
What does your character do for a living? Why that occupation? No, really. WHY?
Delve deep into her family history. What did you find? Is she close to her family or estranged?
Who are her friends? Does she have friends? Is she doesn’t have friends, does it bother her? Is she a group person or a loner?
Where does she live? What does her home look like? Does she like her home? If not, why?
Describe her childhood. Good? Bad? Both?
How does her childhood still impact her life?
Where is she now in her life? A good place? A lousy place?
Is she married? Divorced? Separated?
What does your character treasure? A family tea pot? Recipes from her mother? Cookbooks from friends and family
Does she like men? Hate men? Distrusting? What prevents her from being in a relationship if she’s not in one now? Does she like being in a relationship?
What does she want to do? What is motivating her? What’s keeping her back?
What are her stronger characteristics?
What does she hope for?
Where is she weak or flawed?
What mistakes has she made? What mistakes does she continue to make?
What does she do well? Poorly?
How does she dress? Does she like clothes?
How much money does she have? Is it important to her?
Does she have hobbies and activities? What are they?
What irritates her? What will make her temper explode?
Is she a leader or a follower?
What are the worst three things that have happened to her?
Does she have pets? Does she talk out loud to the pets? Does she think her pets are part human?
What are the three best things that have happened to her?
Is she aggressive? Shy? Depressed? Easily amused? Practical or a dreamer? Describe her personality.
What do other people think of her? Does she care what they think?
What has she overcome? What is she struggling to overcome?
Do you like her? Why or why not? Is it important to like her?
If you went to lunch, how would it go?
What advice would she give you about your life? What advice would you give her?
Where do you want her to end up? Where do you think she’ll end up?
What is she capable of doing? What is she not capable of doing?
Where will she be in ten years? Twenty?
What will she regret when she’s dying? What will she be proud of?
How is she as a parent, if she is a parent?
What are her quirks or odd habits?
What does she like to eat at two in the morning?
Does she like china? Does she throw plates when she’s mad? What does she think of the color pink? Does she like formal dinners or picnics better?
What makes her laugh? What makes her cry?
Does she have a secret? What is it and how has it affected her life?
Is her inner life in uproar? Why?
If confronted by an obnoxious person, what would she do?
If she was fired, how would she react?
If she was falling in love, how would she feel?
What does she look like?