How To: Four Steps to Character Building in Fiction Writing

I always get excited when I have a new story idea. How about you?  This month I'm going to talk about my character building procedure.  For me, building the hero and heroine from the nebulous idea to full-fledged on a sheet of paper, well golly gee whiz, there really is nothing more fascinating and fun than that.  Pardon me while I take a trip down memory lane for a moment.  When I first started writing, building my character involved filling out tedious questionnaires, pages and pages of them.  I actually had three in my file, each more elaborate and detailed than the last.   After several years, I stopped to wonder if I really needed to know what my hero ate for breakfast or what kind of makeup my heroine wore.  I bought books and more books on the subject of character building(and yes, I read them), but most are now gathering dust on my bookshelves.  Most, but not all.

This month, then, sit back and let me tell you the way I get my characters to walk off the page and into your hearts -- or at least that's what I hope I do!

First, I usually do have some vague idea what my story is going to be about.  Then I name my hero and heroine and find pictures.  Sometimes my characters are embedded in the story idea with a name already.  When they aren't, I turn to the The Ultimate Baby Names Book by Diane Stafford. (There are many online sources, too.) There is nothing like 50,000 baby names to spark a living breathing hero or heroine.  Then, I step over to and find a picture.  In years past, I used magazines and catalogs.  I changed this practice after I published since the pictures that inspired my writing were copyrighted and I wanted to translate my image to video and promo stuff for my website to my fans.  I have writing friends that use celebrities and that's okay, too.  Remember, this sparks your imagination and can inspire you from your bulletin board for the duration of fifteen chapters, so take some time to find just the right image.

Next, sigh,  yes I do ONE dreaded questionnaire.  Fortunately, it's only two pages long and consists of basic information like full name, family, education, occupation.  If I'm in the mood, I'll actually take the questions and write a biography instead of stumbling through that boring routine.  Can you tell I hate the questionnaires?

Then the fun starts.

I pick a birthdate.

Go with your gut and don't overthink it.  Because next, I pull Linda Goodman's Sun Signs.  This book is full of character detail.  I read the appliable pages and decide if that description fits what I had in mind and if not, I change the birthdate.  If so, I list 5-7 things from the description that I want to remember about my hero/heroine.

Gee, I'm getting excited just talking about this.  *grin*

What's next?  I'm glad you asked.  The Secret Language of Birthdays by Gary Goldschneider and Joost Eiffers.  Take a moment in your day today to wander over to Amazon and check out this book.  I look up the birthdays of both our hero and heroine and see if it 'fits'.  If it doesn't, I tweak the birthdays still in line with Linda Goodman.  Then I visit another great book by Gary Goldschneider - The Secret Language of Relationships.  I see if our couple match, what their strength is whether it be friends, work partners, lovers, etc. and yes, I tweak again based on what I find.  Why do I tweak?  Well, these books suggest character attributes and if that particular strength/weakness won't benefit the story I'm thinking of, then I change it.  Also, I'm just superstitious enough to not want to offend the stars.

Once I have all that aligned, I get down to business.

Pam McCutcheon's The Writer's Brainstorming Kit needs to be in your library.  It is a fantastic idea tool for both story and characters.  This great book comes with a deck of cards that match the fifty categories in the book - everything from balance to faith to dreams to magic to heartbreak.  Draw one card and go to that  page.  On the page is listed the role/pursuit, the character traits, the goal/motivation, the internal and external conflict, and the growth and realization.  Sometimes it doesn't fit what you've already developed.  Toss the card back and draw again.  Sometimes you already have something in mind and don't need to draw the card. You can go directly to that page.  That's fine, too.  Most times I find it uncanny the way the card draw fits what I've already developed.  This process lets you get started on the inside layers of your new friends - because by this point they are starting to have their own quirks and I'm loving them.  This section also lets me figure out what our H/H are up against, what they have to overcome, and usually has suggested why things are the way they are.  The rest I leave to the write process.

The next part isn't in any book and I'm sorry I can't remember where the idea came from or who to credit.  Essentially, it is this.  In order to make our friends three-dimensional with complexity and that friend factor you can relate to as a reader, you need to expose their internal feelings bit by bit by bit.  I take a sheet of paper and decide three secrets for each character, each bigger than the last.  For instance, for sometime in the future I have a book gelling about a Navy SEAL and a UN Doctor.  Said Navy SEAL ventures into hostile territory to rescue pretty UN doctor.  Ensues a wild chase across the jungle to escape the bad guy only to leave them at the ocean with no way out.  No problem for the Navy SEAL you say.  Big problem for UN Doctor - she can't swim.  Is terrified of water actually.  That's her second secret.  Would be nice if our Navy SEAL knew that BEFORE they hit the water, but then the tension would die, right?  Draw six squares on a sheet of paper.  Three for our hero and three for our heroine.  I usually plan to reveal the first secret in the first third of the story, the second in the middle, and the third is usually a big one and may be the reason our H/H can't have their happily ever after. Sometimes it doesn't work out that way in the storytelling, and that's okay too.  These can be whatever you want, but I always try to keep in mind the plot of my story and make these something deep that your character as a real person wouldn't reveal to just anyone.

I do have on other little thing I like to do.  It's totally optional.  I'm crafty and like to explore my story in another way.  It's basically an art project, a visual representation of my story and characters.  Scrapbook paper, pictures of my H/H,book title, catalogs, magazines, glue, scissors, tape, heck whatever I can find that helps me represent my story.  The finished project goes on the bulletin board to inspire me through the write process.

I can start writing now.  I've found over the years this is all I need to get going.  As I add details later, I note them on a character sheet.  This lets the rest develop naturally based on what's on the revealed as I tell their story.

Who said building characters had to be boring?

[Originally published on Happy Endings, April 21, 2010]

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