The Quick and Dirty Guide to Character Creation
by Diana Pharaoh Francis
A quick and useful guide to writing characters!
Deadline looming and your characters have turned into bland pudding? Got a great idea but every word feels stale and stiff? Don’t work harder, work quick and dirty!
This book is designed for the busy writer. It is stuffed with all the tools you need to quickly get those characters back on track. You can dip in and grab a useful tip or two, or you can read the whole enchilada in an hour or less.
That means you can get back to writing great characters and amazing stories as quickly as humanly possible!
I’ve written more than twenty novels. Trust me, I’ve been where you are. And I know you absolutely need this book.
So jump in! Let’s fill your writerly toolbox with practical, actionable, easy-to-use tools so you can get back to making words…the quick and dirty way!
“A living story, a vibrant one, resonates with readers through vividly presented characters. Best-selling author, Diana Pharaoh Francis shares in her The Quick and Dirty Guide to Creating Characters how she builds believable people in a pithy, wise and funny read that could change the course of your writing life.”
– James Van Pelt, Author of The Experience Arcade and Other Stories. Nebula and Campbell award finalist and winner of the Colorado Book Award.
Diana Pharaoh Francis is the USA Today and Amazon Bestselling writer of fantastical, adventurous, and often romantic fiction. She holds a Ph.D. in Victorian literature and literary theory. She’s owned by a corgi, a mini blue heeler, and a blue-eyed corgi mix. She spends much of her time gardening, airbrush painting, herding children, and avoiding housework. She likes rocks, geocaching, horses, knotting up yarn, and has a thing for 1800s England, especially the Victorians. For more about her books and to sign up for her newsletter, visit www.dianapfrancis.com
Read a Sample
How to Use This Book
Here’s a no-duh for you: a lot of moving pieces go into the development of a robust, engaging fictional character.
If you’re reading this little booklet of mine, then you already know that and are looking for ways you can round out your characters. I’m going to talk about a variety of techniques for character development and effective ways to implement them. None of what’s included here are particularly new concepts, but I’m hoping to deliver them in a way that’s useful to all levels of writers.
Here is why I think this book is unique and useful. I have dozens and dozens of writing books. I have read almost none of them cover to cover. You might ask, why is that? There are multiple reasons, but the most basic one is that they are long and every lengthy chapter is packed to the gills with information.
That ought to be a good thing. You’re getting a lot of bang for your buck. However, I find that I can’t assimilate all that information all at once, and that I end up scanning the table of contents, and then dipping in and out, but never fully grasping the material.
The fact is I want to get in, get what I need, and get out. I want to write. I don’t want to spend all my time thinking about how. I just want to dig into my story.
But sometimes I need a little direction or advice.
Writing books tend to be built like a machine: everything works together to make a whole, each part building on the previous, until you get to a smooth running functional apparatus.
It’s a great strategy.
It doesn’t work for me.
It doesn’t help that I have a ton of stuff going on in my life. I know, boo hoo. Welcome to the real world, Di. It’s a fact for all of us. Additionally, I have so many ideas that I don’t want to waste time on reading about what other people do, I want to spend most of my time on my characters, my worlds, and my stories. Sound familiar?
I’ve taught for many years, and I’ve noticed that there are skills where a few pointers can have a lot of impact. In this little book, I want to deliver my experience and knowledge to you in a condensed and efficient way so that you get it, get out, and get writing.
I’m breaking some elements into small composite pieces that will help you quickly diagnose issues in your own writing, as well as allow you to see how these elements come together to make the character engine run.
I want you to be able to dip in, snatch up a useful technique, and be able to apply it right away. If it doesn’t work or you want to try another, you can dip in again. If, on the other hand, you want to read it cover to cover, it shouldn’t take long.
Many of these techniques you may already use, but some will be new and give you alternate approaches to character development. They may help you get out of a stall or help you to level up. If you want to report back on its usefulness, stop by my website and drop me an email. www.dianapfrancis.com.
What Do You Really Have to Know About Characters Before You Start Writing
You’ve seen character sheets, no doubt, and if not, web search ‘character sheets for novel writing,’ and you’ll find thousands. You can buy them or find free ones. Some are short and to the point, others are lengthy with a lot of details. Nancy Kress has a terrific one in her book, Dynamic Characters.
Here’s a secret: I don’t use them.
Why not, you ask? They aren’t helpful to me.
And again with the why not? Because writing down their greatest fear or flaw or where they went to school or what’s their greatest loss or anything else is just too generic for me and the story I’m telling. Here are the things I want to know when I start writing. I’ll fill in a whole lot of other things as I go, but these are the basics I want to know before actually wiggling my fingers over the keyboard.
3. job—how does she make money and survive? (This includes what can she afford). How does she like it?
4. where does she live and how is the place decorated?
5. family? friends? what are those relationships like?
6. how does she handle good and bad feelings? (i.e. what kind of attitude does she have?)
7. how does she handle obstacles?
8. magical powers (I write magic books) and how they work and what their limits or costs are (if you write non-magical books, look at her specialized skills and knowledge).
9. idiosyncrasies/habits—verbal and physical
10. general personality: happy? morose? glass half full? pessimist? hopeful? easily annoyed?
Idiosyncrasies and habits are incredibly personal and what they are and how they’ve developed really give you insight into your character. I have a character who never uses contractions. I have another character who gambles. I have another who speaks almost in all fragments. I have another who doesn’t cook and doesn’t have hardly any food in her house. I have a character who breaks the rules just to break them. I have a character who is claustrophobic.
I study people, looking for distinctive mannerisms, idiosyncrasies, and habits. You should too. Watch how people do things. Pay attention to their habits. Some people need the kitchen to be sparkling clean when they go to bed. Others don’t want to talk to anyone before their first cup of coffee. Some can’t stand to jog over the same route every day. Some hate the squeak of Styrofoam rubbing against itself. Some never eat leftovers. Some insist on throwing anything away the moment it reaches its expiration date.
I know people who: freeze cookies and won’t eat them any until they make a new batch to freeze; wear the same clothes for four or five days (except the underwear, thank fuck); take their shoes off when they get in the car it doesn’t get dirty. Then there’s the compulsive liar who never tells the truth and believes every lie is true, and the guy who can’t stand being alone and has to get on his cell phone whenever he’s alone in his car.
The little things people do help you to define and understand your characters. By giving them even just one specific habit, mannerism, quirk, or idiosyncrasy, you shape who they are so that they are individual. And of course these things will result in other defining behaviors.
The point that I’m trying to make with this list is just this: traditional writing advice dictates what you need to know, and while some of those things are useful, many aren’t, because they aren’t specific to your story.
Case in Point
One piece of advice is to know a character’s greatest fear. The problem for me is that characters are made up of a lot of fears. Which is the greatest at any given moment depends on context.
For example, if I’m bungee jumping (which, incidentally, would mean I’m possessed by demons because I will never willingly jump from a high point with a rubber band to keep me safe), my greatest fear is the bungee breaking and me dying painfully when my body pulverizes itself on the jagged rocks below. Yes, it’s dramatic. I’m a writer. I imagine horrible things for a living.
If I’m worried about my kid coming home late, my greatest fear is that he’s been in an accident, that he’s died, that he’s maimed… On the other hand, if I’m about to go on TV in front of a hundred million people, my greatest fear might be a zit. Or, if I’m finishing my dissertation, I’ll be terrified a fire will destroy it, and I’ll have to start all over. If I’m getting divorced, my greatest fear might be my family deciding I’m a failure or maybe it would be living alone forever.
Context matters. We all have “greatest” fears that change according to our situation.
You don’t need to know all the things about your characters to get started. All you really need is enough information to make the characters predictable in what they will do when they run into conflict. This list of things gives me that. Maybe it will do the same for you, or maybe you will come up with your own list.