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So You Want To Commit Novel: #4 Characters

Originally published July  2010 in a series by Phillis Irene Radford.

Ask any five writers how they develop a character and you will get five different answers, from each.  There is no dozen right ways to do this.  Every book is different.  Every character within the book is different.

Years ago I attended a workshop on character development.  The presenting author gave us a handout with 80 questions about the character.  Minute and detailed questions about philosophy of life, politics, family, hygiene, etc.  Everything but how many times a day they went to the bathroom.

I tried it and gave up at about question 10 because this was more than I could possibly know about my characters before they walked across the stage on page 1.  A couple of my students asked for the questionnaire.  They then spent the entire ten week novel writing class answering those questions and never wrote a word of story.  By the time they finished question #80, they had no need to write the book.

A more useful way of looking at this was given to me by a writer of historical romances with a strong background in theater.  She used this when preparing a roll, primarily Dulcinea in “Man of La Mancha.”

Male or Female.  Ethnic and economic background.  Age.  Level of education.  Family relationships.  Liberal or Conservative.

That’s it.  Seven things that will point your character toward a consistent behavior on stage.

I use these questions in high school workshops to engage the students in the writing process as a group.  From those questions I ask “what does this character want most out of life and what is keeping them from getting it?”  (Sound familiar from my blog about synopsis?”

At that point we have the beginning of a story.

Legendary writer Phyllis A Whitney describes a story as someone interesting doing something interesting.

That’s as good a place as any to start.  Finding something interesting about your character.  A quirk, a phobia, a fault, a nonconformist attitude.  Bizarre family relationships.  Something that makes this person someone your reader wants to share 400+ pages with.

Then I let the character reveal themselves by writing a few pages.  It can be the first scene, something from later in the book, or even a secret confession that will not make it into the text of the story.  I need to feel how they walk, hear what their voice sounds like, jump because their nerves are taut.

For Thistle, the exiled Pixie, I didn’t find her characteristic music until the third draft.  For Nimbulan in “The Dragon’s  Touchstone” his signature gesture for gathering magic smacked me in the face about the middle of the second draft.  For Jack in “The Loneliest Magician” I barely understood my own 15 year old son, how could I know what this magician’s apprentice wanted most out of life?  I found out days before submitting the final draft to my editor.

Some characters are like that.  Yeah they are.

The rest falls into place as I write the book.  Giving myself the luxury of multiple drafts reveals more about the character that is interesting to me and the reader than answering 80 questions about how they wash their face.

Phyllis Irene Radford blogs here regularly on Thursdays, the same day her cozy mystery “Lacing Up For Murder” by Irene Radford is serialized on the front page rotation.

For more about her and her fiction please visit her bookshelf here on BVC.


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