Thursday, September 17, 2009

Help Building Characters: And Keeping it All Straight

I get questions almost daily from people who visit my site. A lot of those questions come from other writers, and many are in some way about building characters and then keeping up with all of the information about each. Let's face it, well-built fleshed-out characters take a lot of work and thought. It's easy to come up with those cardboard cutouts, those true to form characters who are little more than a layer thick and always react in a stereotypical way. Easy is seldom the best way.

Here are some tips I've learned over the years to help you build your own memorable characters and then keep up with who has blue eyes and who hates cats. (I've added links to some books, sites, and programs throughout this article to give you extra help.)

When I get ready to write a new story, I like to start with some basic information about a character. Stuff that pops into my mind usually with a scene that he or she is staring in. That scene is enough to get me excited about the story. (In fact, I have a whole pile of them put aside. Word of warning. If those scenes or new ideas for stories pop into your mind when you are working on something else, probably at a point where you are having trouble with that old story, type up a few notes and file them away, then get back to work on your work in progress. Once it's done, you can pick a new one. If not, if you let the sparkle and shine of those new ones call you away, you'll end up with a pile of stories in various forms of completion, with few to none finished. Starting a story is the easy part. It's working through the whole thing and reaching the end that is the hard part. Even rewrites are easy compared to getting that rough draft out there and the end typed.)

Okay, let's see, where was I? Oh, I remember.

The new story that you are supposed to be starting. Back to that basic information. It's good to know some little things about your character right off. Who she or he is, where she is, how old she is, why she's doing or reacting the way she is. Then you need to know a lot more. A good way to do that is with a character chart. I have a free and very detailed one up on my site.

Now don't panic. I know there's a lot of questions and blanks there. Maybe more than you know or want to know about your character. That's okay. You don't have to fill it all out now. You don't even have to fill it all out later. You can copy and paste it into Word and then delete sections or give yourself more room. Fill in what you think is important and add more later if needed when you really get to know this new character. The chart will help you dig deeper into the character though, figure out what makes her tick and why and how she will act and react. It's just one tool to help you add layers to that character.

After I get a feel for my character, my next step is a name. I sometimes name them first, but once I know them, the name doesn't always seem to fit. To find names, I like to use The Writer's Digest Character Naming Sourcebook by award-winning romance author Sherrilyn Kenyon. It's a big book with lots of sections, all kinds of names, broken up by type and gender. As I glance through the pages it seems like one name will stand out and belong to the character. Almost as if the character says that's me, that's my name. There are some good sites on line you can use as well. Check out my page here. If you have baby naming books on hand, those are good too.

Even though by this point I have that name, an idea of what my character looks like, who he or she is, and even how she dresses, I often need a reminder. I'm working on a series right now, and there's no way I could keep it all straight in my head. Sometimes I can't even recall what I did ten minutes ago. Even if not working on a series, there are characters that have small parts, but that you would like to make stand out or be sure to get their look right. For this I use a game. A computer game. Yes, a real game. One my kids loved. I saw them playing it and thought wow, could I use that.

It's call SIMS. I use SIMS 3 now. If you have an older computer you might want to try SIMS 2. (Check the information on what your computer needs to have to run SIMS before you pick out one.) Some people like 3 better than 2 while others like 2 better. You can do most of the stuff with SIMS 2 that you can do with SIMS 3. Though 3 is much more fine tuned. I'm going to use SIMS 3 to explain things, since that's the one I have fresh in mind. With SIMS 3 you can build a character, give her or him a hair style and color that fits. Makeup and eye color, skin color, and even pick out body type and outfits. In the story I'm working on the hero's kid sister is kind of testing her freedom now that she's nineteen. She wears odd and sexy clothes and has an eye-catching hair style and makeup. Her hair is bright red with black tips and green highlights.

I was able to do that with her hair in SIMS 3 with ease. I was also able to pick out some odd outfits, give her a tattoo, and take some snapshots of her with yellow contacts in and black eye shadow and lipstick on, and other shots with her wearing black contacts and blue eye shadow and lipstick. You can take snapshots right there in the Build A Sim feature in 2 or 3 while building your character, and move those pictures to another program and keep up with them.

You can even build their homes and decorate each room and take pictures of that. Really helps you remember where the back door is in the hero's home, or what the heroine's bedroom looks like, even what color the blanket on her bed is. With 3 you can also pick out special things about your character, like a green thumb or loves to cook, or hates the outdoors, even good or evil, ect... If you don't want to use SIMS, you can simply find pictures of people on the internet and use them, or even tear pictures out of magazines, but I like to have all of my information on the computer. (Don't forget to do backups, often, and save in other places or ways. Computers don't live forever and things can go wrong. The same goes when it comes to saving your writing.)

Sooooo.... Once you have those charts filled out, those pictures, ect... How do you organize all of it?

My favorite way to keep up with notes and pictures about my work in progress, and even other works, is with Microsoft OneNote. I actually had this on my computer for awhile, but never used it. Then I kept hearing other writers talk about how helpful it was, so I gave it a try. It took me a few false starts to figure things out and get comfortable with it, but now I wouldn't want to try and put a story together without it. You can have OneNote open, and have tabs across the top for stuff like Characters, Outline, Plot Points, Setting, Extra Info, even the title of a few different stories, ect.. You can click on one of those, say Character, and add tabs down the side of it, one for each character. I do one tab for each main character, and then one titled Other for less important characters.

For each of those main characters, I have a lot of stuff on their page. Like Amber, the heroine in the story I'm working on now. On her page I have a few face shots from SIMS of her, and then a few full shots of her in different outfits, even different hair styles. I also have some pictures I did a copy and paste of from the internet of a 1974 Ford Mustang. Inside and out of it. Since that's her car and she's put a lot of work into it, so it's important to her and I know I'll have to describe stuff about it in the story. I also have her character chart, a bio, and other stuff on her page. It's all in that one neat spot.

If I need to get to info about the hero, a glance to the side and a click on his name tag, and I'm on his page. It's easy to copy and paste and move stuff to any page. It's also easy to add new pages, tabs, sections, ect... I just leave OneNote open while I have my Word program open writing, or even if I'm just doing research. Saves a lot of time and trouble. By the way, if you don't have Word or OneNote, you can buy them together with Microsoft Office Home and Student.

I hope this article and the links within it helps you get to know your characters better and keep up with that information in an easy way so you can write the best book you can.


robert d said...

A seminal post on developing characters. Should be required reading for all starting writers.

Thanks for sharing,


Jakki Eyre said...

Wow, now that character building list is some undertaking. Well done on putting that together. I'm currently working on a blog that tracks the development of my debut novel, Transfearence. It's also going to be an information portal for novice novel writers. Granted - my work is not a romance novel but it's great to share such valuable information. Due to this, I'm putting a link to your blog from mine. Hope you don't mind. If you want to read my stuff go to
Best wishes. Jakki, UK

Maria said...

Hi there,
I don´t know if you have received my email but I just wanted to let you know that I will link this blog on my next post about fictional character. I hope you don't mind but if you do, let me know and I will remove it straight away.