Every year or two, I circle back to my Achilles heel as a writer. I can build worlds with the best of them, and my intertwined plots are legendary. But I’ve always had more difficulty with characterization.
I’m working through beta reads on book two of the Tharassas Cycle, and have been dinged by a couple readers for being inconsistent with a couple characters and drawing one too shallowly to support what comes later in the trilogy.
And so I thought it would be fun to go back to my previous posts on the subject and see what I had to say about it then.
*hops into the time machine*
It’s time to study my character writing craft. I am wrapping up a couple big projects in December, and I have started to do some character work – reading books, thinking about how to add more traits and color, and creating character sheets to keep track of all their facts, figures and idiosyncrasies (and to prompt me to come up with new ones).
OK, so I tried a few apps to do this, and ultimately settled on a simple Word doc. I have a series bible, and at the end, I have a section on my major characters – looks, mannerisms, habits, backstory, key motivations, and interconnections with the others in the story.
First off, I came up with the idea of finding a TV or film character to think of when writing my character. I’ve used this trick before – Xander Kinnson in the Oberon Cycle is partly based on Brian Kinney from Queer as Folk.
Second, I found a great book on characterization – Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget, by Stant Litore. It’s full of practical exercises that have helped to crack open my brain and make me think differently about how I create and think about my characters.
Both methods really helped me – in this current project, I based a character relationship on Lorelei and Emily from The Gilmore Girls, which really helped me nail it (although I may have gone overboard on the personal insults) and the exercises in the book helped me move farther into the main three characters. I’ll be using it again for my next project.
Now, each morning when I sit down to write, I review my character notes, and think of what they are feeling and trying to gain in the scene(s) I am working on. I’m currently working with a finished book, so I go through each chapter once, slowly, adding more character reactions and emotions. I also try to make sure that my characters have agency – that they aren’t just pulled along by outside events. Then I run through the chapter again, working to smooth out the rough edges. I’m catching things I didn’t see before, like a snarky snippet from Aik – a guardsman who should be much more earnest. That reaction was much more in character for Raven, my rogue thief.
I’ve gone a lot deeper into my characters with this one than in most of my previous work. My editor said that I really had the characters down by book three – I am writing compelling characters now, and getting deep into their heads.
Before I start a new book, I do a few things to learn more about each of my primary characters before diving into the actual novel writing:
- Where Did You Come From?
- What Drives You?
- What Are You Afraid Of?
- How Are You All Tangled Up With the Others?
- What Little Things Make You Into You?
- What TV/Movie Character Are You?
The Bottom Line: When you truly understand your characters, you can begin to write them as the magnificent, unique beasts that they are, and start to make them come alive for your readers. It’s all about immersion.
Which brings us up to today. Characterization is still by far the hardest part of writing for me, but I’ve made huge steps forward since I started writing professionally in 2014. I take the time now to get to know my characters, and to think like them when I’m writing them.
But I’m still getting dinged for their consistency.
Part of this is that I’m still not always sure who a character is (especially the ones who begin as side characters) until farther along in the work. And part of it is my own sometimes hamfisted attempt to reach for humor or throw some excitement into a character relationship. And in the case of the current WIP, the long time I’ve been working on it. I forget things, and my ideas for the story and the characters change and evolve over time.
Thank God for beta readers, who can call me on the carpet when I get it wrong.
Learning how to craft amazing characters will be a lifelong pursuit for me, something I learn and internalize a little bit at a time. But looking back, I am proud how much I’ve accomplished in this area so far. And I hope my readers, once they get their hands on this new trilogy, will be inclined to agree.
To my writer friends, how do you write amazing characters and keep them consistent throughout your stories?