Saturday, April 22, 2023

 For our April topic, we are discussing how authors breathe life into their characters. Every author has their own methods. What works for one doesn't or won't work for another. This is my take.


Love ‘em or hate ‘em, a writer’s characters can make or break a story. An author may base them on someone or several someone’s they know, or they may be complete figments of that author’s imagination.

Whichever way an author approaches character building, there are some tried and true methods. I’ve been fortunate that most of my characters have come to me almost fully formed. I can see them. I know their names, but I must get to know them after that.

I have always been methodical, and the method that works for me is the character-building questionnaire. Some may call it a developmental worksheet or character arc plan. Beyond hair and eye colour, what is the character's physical type? You may have a tall male character, but how is he tall? Is he proportionate, or does he have a short torso and long legs? The same applies to a female character. Do they find their height awkward and stoop or otherwise try to disguise it, or are they proud of it and stand with shoulders back and head held high?

One of the most delightful heroines I ever came across was Winnifred Gardner in LaVyrle Spencer’s Spring Fancy. Win blinks with one eye. Not winks, but blinks. How can a reader not be intrigued by that distinction? Or how about Catherine Cookson’s ‘Mallen streak,’ that section of white or grey hair in an otherwise dark head that marks the Mallen men? Then there’s Rex Stout’s PI, Nero Wolfe, who rarely leaves his home and has his sidekick Archie do the legwork for him. Many of Georgette Heyer’s aristocratic heroes are proud, cold, and bored men whom Society believes the worst.

What causes Win to blink with one eye, or why does Nero Wolfe not like leaving his home? The Mallen streak is a condition where the hair follicles are devoid of pigment, a harmless but distinctive condition. And what does hide behind the proud, cold, and bored facades of those Regency rogues and rakes?

Knowing everything I can about my characters, and maybe finding out even more as I write them into life, helps build a better character and story. None of the characteristics are presented as a laundry list. More dropped into the narrative through dialogue or introspection. Is a character’s hair colour more important than the fact that she’s particular about the shape of her fingernails? That would depend on the story’s genre and what part either feature might have to play as a clue or red herring.

I will conduct a character interview if I get stuck at any time. I have lists of questions and pick six or seven. Sometimes the answers come quickly. Other times they take a long time to surface. Those questions the character does not want to answer tend to dig the deepest, but when the answers come, they can be an ‘aha’ moment and make the person on paper burst into life. All these facts, the weighing up of strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, may not appear on the page. However, they have helped me, the author, get to know my characters better and in doing that, presenting a more realistic cast in my books.

And for more ways to breathe life into characters, check out what my fellow bloggers have to say.

Anne Stenhouse

Connie Vines

Diane Bator

Dr. Bob Rich

Fiona McGier

Marci Baun

A.J. Maguire
Helena Fairfax

Judith Copek

Skye Taylor