Character Development

My intern, Kuro, wrote an amazing post about character development. For me, characters make the story. I think, or hope, most writers feel the same way. So creating three dimensional characters is important. Here she is to explain more.

KURO:

I’ve prepared this basic questionnaire in order to assist people of all writing levels with character development. Although there is usually more to it, this form can prove to be quite useful when creating an outline of your character.

Basic Information

Name:

(I like having a name with meaning, and not an obvious one either. For example: Adlai. This is a name of a character in one of my older stories. It is of Hebrew origin, and it means “Justice of God”. Of course, you may have to do some research beforehand, but that’s alright. Take your time.)

Zodiac Sign (optional):

(A zodiac sign gives the reader a notion of the character’s birthday without the author having to worry about choosing a precise date. Although I don’t usually do this, I’ve noticed that many writers fancy choosing a zodiac sign.)

Age:

Gender: 

(You can be more creative than you think with gender. Maybe they are a male that unintentionally gets confused for a female constantly? It’s fun to have ‘trap’ characters sometimes. It can add humor to the story when its needed.)

Family: 

(Talk about this persons parents, their siblings (if any), and their overall relationship with their family. I think that its better to describe it in good detail rather than just “its bad/good”, but it’s your choice. It may not even be necessary depending on the plot of your story anyway.)

 

Mentality

Educational background:

(What kind of school they went to and how this experience was for them? If your character has a rather impressive IQ, it would be a good time to mention that here.)

Personality:

(The personality of a character is my personal favorite part of the character development process. You’d think that there aren’t many different traits you could build this character with, but that’s where creativity comes in. It’s best to make a character with little clichés.  )

Here are a few general traits that are usually worth explaining (optional, but at least do two):

Are they (a/an)…

Sensitive or analytical (do they make decisions based mostly on emotions or on logic)?

If a reason why exists, explain it:

Cautious or daring? If a reason why exists, explain it:

 

Optimist, pessimist, realist, maybe other? If a reason why exists, explain it:

Extrovert or introvert? If a reason why exists, explain it: 

It gets even better…

Gifts/talents:

(Please be careful with this….catastrophes are born in this area. Give a character too much perks and they become severely unlikeable.)

Flaws:

(You should try to keep a good balance between the gifts and the shortcomings, but you must be careful here too. Compensating superhuman gifts with devilish flaws can become just as disastrous.)

Style of speech:

(This may not seem too important, but it actually reflects the personality, the educational level, the social status, etc. of the character. Do they speak clearly, or have a stutter? Do they tend to be profane, or prefer to be formal? What is there tone of voice?)

Life philosophy (optional):

(You can pick a quote for this if you want to.)

Religious stance:

(If relevant, this also includes the character’s relationship with other belief systems.)

Biggest vulnerability: 

(Be careful with this one.)

 

Relationships

View on relationships:

(Try to give an explanation for these views, if possible. Take your time.

There are people who adore solitude and think of relationships as prisons, and sometimes there are extremely dependent people who always need someone by their side. There are all kinds of options here.)

Sexual orientation:

There is a whole spectrum between straight and gay, and I have characters in many of those spots. Knowing the difference between bi-curiousness, heteroflexibility and bisexuality – and knowing which characters are in each group – makes a huge difference when you’re writing about their sexualities. If not straight, is your character in the closet? If yes, why? If not, how did he/she come out?

Past relationships (optional):

(Optional…and awkward) How does he/she view sexual experiences?  What is the importance of sex for this character? This can range anywhere from waiting until marriage, to thinking it isn’t a big deal, to having a severe aversion towards everything about it:

Are they a social person? Explain:

 (Remember. There is such thing as “social introverts”, as well as “antisocial extroverts”. You must be somewhat familiar with the spectrum of different personalities before making a decision here.)

How important are friends to them?

Who are their most salient friends? Write a little bit about how they met, the things they went through, and what made them become so close.And if necessary, what tore their friendship apart:

(Note: “Salient”=most important/most noticeable.)

(Specify please. Which friends are most prominent? Perhaps the oldest, the closest, the one(s) who never left, maybe even the controversial friend that disappeared from your characters life, but remains missed regardless?)

Vocation *

This section is required if your character has a career.

Profession:

Past occupations:

(You don’t need to list an entire resume here, but it’s useful to know.)

Attitude towards current job: 

(Is it your character’s dream job? Are they working towards a bigger goal? Is he/she doing it because they have no choice/is it forced labor?)

(OPTIONAL) Attitude towards current co-workers and bosses:

(Optional. Apply if useful) Salary:

 

Secrets

I love this part.

What are their….

 Greatest phobias, and why? Explain:

Life goals/dreams. Explain: 

(If relevant) Compulsions/obsessions: 

(Can range anywhere from strange, to just plain disturbing.)

Secret skills: 

(Be cautious here.)

Do they want to change anything about their current life?

Do they want to change anything about their appearance?

Physical

Overall description:

(Please explain this as thoroughly as possible.)

Hair color and style: 

(You can use a reference here if you want too.)

Eye color/eye shape

Mannerisms:

(I can use myself as an example. I twirl my hair…a lot. If you find it relevant, go ahead and explain how the character feels about their habits.)

Style:

(Our clothing sometimes reflects who people are more than they realize.)

 

Athletic? Average? Dangerously thin? Explain if necessary:

 

Extra details (everything here is optional)

Daily routine:

Night owl or early bird?

Light or heavy sleeper? Sleepwalking and insomnia can be added here:

 

(Tip: Try to be as general as possible in the next few questions. For example, unless your character has a particular taste for a specific flavor of Sushi, you’ll be just fine with saying “Sushi” or “Japanese cuisine”.)

Favorite cuisine/food:

Smoker/drinker/drug user? (College experimenting counts): _

OOC trait: Everyone has an out-of-character trait. What is your characters? Explain if necessary:

***Special thanks to Kuro for providing this. She definitely gave me a few things to think about, and hopefully you found it useful as well. Anything else you want to add? Leave in the comments below! 🙂

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Mental Health Issues in Fictional Characters

I wanted to bring up this topic since it seems to be a bit on the controversial side. The heroine in my second book, Destiny United, suffers from an anxiety disorder that gives her frequent panic attacks.

I eavesdropped on a conversation between a writer friend and an agent at a writer’s conference about this very topic. This writer’s story was a historical romance novel about a man just home from war who suffers from PTSD. The agent told her that publishers don’t want stories about people with “issues”. Because women read romance for escape, they aren’t interested in reading about heavy themes like PTSD.

Although the advice didn’t change much about my choice in creating an anxiety disorder in Erin, I did keep it in mind while writing.

First some background. Both heroines in my first two books were raised in foster care. The reason I chose this route is because: a) I wanted my heroines to have obstacles to overcome, b) having been a foster parent and adopting two children from foster care, it is a passion of mine, and c) I needed mysterious pasts to go with the storyline.

I have a son with special needs and multiple close family members who have mental health challenges. This is a topic very dear to my heart.

That being said, romance readers do not want to read about characters with heavy issues, according to this agent. I haven’t actually polled people on this so I can’t confirm it as a fact, but I’m guessing she’s right to some extent. This is her career after all.

Though anxiety disorders, or any disability/mental health condition, is not a light matter, I had to keep it light in my book. Again, giving readers a sense of realism along with the escapism they crave. If you didn’t already know, it’s a tough balance. So, yes, Erin has panic attacks. She depends on boyfriends to get through her daily life. She can’t go to mall, restaurant, or movie theater without self-medicating. It is relevant to the story but really only an active part for the first third.

Marcelo, being the hero, forces her away from her sheltered, fear-trapped life and coaches her through her anxiety so she can live again. Here’s an exchange from the end of the book where she explains it nicely:

“You’ve come a long way from the scared little girl I met in Albany. I only had to drag you kicking and screaming from your safe little world to get here.”

“No,” she snorted. “You took my safe little world, tore it up, stomped on it then burned it to ashes.”

He shrugged and stalked towards her. “I challenged you.”

“You taunted me.”

“I pushed you.”

Beyond what I thought I could handle. You thrust my fears in front of my face where I couldn’t ignore them. You forced me to take a good, hard look at what was holding me prisoner and decide if I wanted to die there alone.

Erin’s particular disorder was a result of trauma endured as a teenager, not a chemical imbalance. It came from fear and there are different degrees of fear. Her fears were encouraged by purposefully sheltering herself where she thought she was safe and secure. It involved staying in a static state where she was rarely challenged to grow as a person.

She was “healed” not because mental illnesses are easy to “get over”, but because it stemmed from a place that could change. Brain chemistry, as an adult, can not change without the help of medication. But conscious fear can.

Did Erin’s “healing” happen much more quickly than it would in real life? Well, yeah. I have to keep the story moving and give readers a HEA. Is healing as easy as someone telling funny jokes and concentrating on breathing? Of course not. Is there such thing as vampires, fae, werewolves, and witches?

You see where I’m going with this?

It’s fiction. I strive for my books to mimic real life themes; trust, forgiveness, love, while also giving you a sexy hero who only cares about your pleasure in bed and says romantic things your husband would never think of.

Isn’t that the point?

What I look for in a book (of any genre) is 1) entertainment, 2) humor, 3) depth and emotional connection

What about you? Does a character with “issues” ruin a book for you? Are there any books that deal with mental health challenges or disabilities well in your opinion? What are the 3 things you look for in a good book?

Characters: Love ’em or Hate ’em

A couple months ago I went to a local RWA writers conference and met the talented Kristan Higgins. She taught a workshop about characterization. I wish I kept the notes because it was not only very informative, but like most things she does…freakin’ funny.

So I wanted to talk about characters and get some feedback from readers. I am very passionate about characters. They’re what make the book. The plot is secondary, the humor is secondary, and yes ladies, even the sex is secondary. Because what’s the point if you’re not connected to, or at least entertained by the characters? Whether it’s someone you want to root for, one you love, or one you love to hate.

But I strongly believe characters should be flawed. I like my characters to be as close to real as possible – minus all the fantasy elements (since I write paranormal) and the fact that they are all abnormally gorgeous (cause you want some amount of escapism, right?). But in other ways, they should feel very real. That means multi-dimensional.

Let’s talk about contradictions. I think everyone is a contradiction in some ways. For instance, I consider myself feminine though I hate make-up and prefer guy movies. My husband is considered shy but among close friends and family he can be very chatty. I’m spontaneous but I use a calendar. Can you think of a few? Again, the reason for this is because humans are multi-dimensional.

We also change. Sometimes through the course of a decade, sometimes a year, sometimes only a matter of days or weeks. Because of the nature of my books (and being a fantasy writer) my characters sometimes change quickly because of extenuating circumstance they are often forced into. Isn’t that true in real life? Has anyone had a life or death situation that changed them forever? I went rock climbing once and almost died and it shook my world. I wised up fast about safety and adventure. I also learned exactly what I was made of. I can think of a hundred examples of this.

Now let’s talk about conflict. How important is conflict in a book? Well, I’ll let you answer in the comments but to me it is vital. Wouldn’t it be a dull book if the characters made perfect decisions in every situation? Or never made mistakes, never made a hurtful comment to someone they loved? Not only is that unrealistic, but it’s pretty boring too.

I write a lot of conflict for my characters. Maybe I torture them a little (Lol!). There’s one scene in my newest book where Marcelo calls the heroine, Erin, out on a character flaw of hers. She gets pissed, she gets sad, and she does something a little spiteful in the heat of the moment. Being hurt by someone we love (or at least respect) is a powerful thing. It makes us do and say stupid things because we are in such pain.

I believe characters should make mistakes – sometime big ones. Why shouldn’t they have to deal with pride, forgiveness, guilty, etc? We all do.

And I like intensity. I just do. I’m dramatic, passionate, and emotional. It’s what I write and I’ll never apologize for it. Anyone read the Fever series by Karen Marie Moning? Talk about intensity and conflict, right? Mac and Barrons hated each other up until the very end of the very last book. But I LOVED every minute of it. It kept me wondering…what are they going to say/do next? When will they admit their feelings? It drew me right in. It was powerful, emotional, made me stop and think, and sometimes I hated the characters, other times I thought they were the shit. I had felt so many things throughout that series I was almost exhausted from it.

If there are negative things about my characters, I certainly hope there are an equal number (or more) of redeeming qualities. Sage, from my first book, is rough around the edges. She’s sarcastic and can be mean and cold. But she’s smart. She’s a survivor. And she’s loyal once she trusts someone, it just takes her a while to get to that point. Erin, from my second book, starts off very dependent because of an anxiety disorder. She goes through a massive transformation after being confronted with life or death situations. She may start off as a weak character but she’s also playful and witty and has a kind heart.

Bottom line: characters have weaknesses just like we all do. They are multi-dimensional, just like we all are.

So…those are a few things that are important to me in reading fiction and writing my books. What about you? What are your favorite parts about characters?