Character Development: Step 1: How well do you Research your characters' lives?
Character development is what I value most as a reader of fiction. If an author can manage to create the sort of characters who feel fully real, who I find myself worrying about while I'm walking through the grocery store aisles a week later, that to me is as close to perfection as it gets.~J. Courtney Sullivan
Authors have the unique opportunity to create best friends, book-boy(girl)friends, hated villains, and everything in between for readers they may never meet, but undoubtedly will greatly impact with their writing. How does an author create such characters and maintain the credibility of their writing? We have all read books with the brooding, sexy and dark Alpha male. We love him, but honestly, once you've read one, you've read them all. How many billionaires does it take to make a woman fall in love? Apparently... infinite amounts.
Fact: The human mind can not create an image that they have never seen before. What does this mean? Simple, humans are not capable of describing physical characteristics that they have never seen before.
Here are four easy steps to create characters that will make readers worry about them while walking through the grocery store aisles a week after reading about them.
Step One: Research--Good writing starts with research. When I get an idea for a character, I research four aspects of the character as they emerge in my mind.
- What does my character do for a living? I need to know what the job entails so I am able to accurately write about the job and allow the character to fluidly move around in their chosen profession. Every career has its own culture; its own way of doing things, speaking, moving...you get the picture. The more I know about their profession, the easier it is for me to create three-dimensional characteristics that make the characters "fully real" or authentic.
- What does my character look like? Creating the physical characteristics of my characters is one of my favorite parts of building character profiles. Remember the human mind is not capable of creating a physical feature they have not seen before; therefore, your characters will be a hodgepodge of all of the faces and bodies you have ever seen in your life. How crazy is that?! This is where a Pinterest board for your novel comes in handy. I have a board for every book and a board for every character. I may find the shade of gray eyes on one picture and the perfect set of full, masculine lips on another. I pin them both to the character board and note...his eye color or these are his lips. Building your character's physical features is a bit like creating Victor Frankenstein's monster; taking bits and pieces from different images to create the perfect physical specimen capable of accomplishing whatever your character needs to be able to accomplish in your novel. NOTE: Physical perfection can lead to inflated expectations and may not be as relatable to the readers. They want characters that they might meet at the office downtown. Most important trick to creating physical characteristics for your characters is this...be consistent and honest with character. Allow who and what that character is to be authentic and connected to their purpose in the story. There's that word again, authentic.
- What type of style does my character have? Style encompasses everything from the way the character dresses to the way their homes are decorated to the liquor they drink at the bar. Style is as important if not more important than physical characteristics because a character's style provides insight into their mental, emotional and spiritual state. If a character only wears blue jeans and tee shirts with boots but works as a successful, high-powered attorney...that style tells the reader that the character is a maverick and marches to the beat of their own drum. It may
also say they don't take themselves too seriously and they don't want to stand out among those who aren't as successful as they are. Again, Pinterest comes in handy. I have boards for clothing, furniture, cars, decor for homes, office and play areas. Some of that style will be determined by what they do for a living, some of it will be determined by what they look like, but most of it is determined by what their authentic purpose is in your novel. Are you seeing a theme emerging here?
- Where does my character live, work and play? The setting of your novel has a lot to do with building your character profile. Certain types of people are associated with certain geographic locations. Most readers expect a sophisticated, urbane character to live in a metropolitan area while they may associate rugged good looks with the wide-open spaces of places like Montana. Again, there are specific cultural identifiers associated with different geographical locations, business offices and places of recreation. The setting is not to be ignored when building your character profile because doing so will leave holes in the who, what, where and why of your authentic character.
Step Two: Interest--In order for your characters to be interesting to your readers, they must have their own set interests. Creating a character profile is kind of like living out your wildest dreams and not having to pay for the trip or having to be responsible for the consequences. Join me next week for step two of building authentic character profiles for your writing projects.