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A Writer’s Alphabet: C is for … Characters!

02 Jun Posted by in Writing Tips | 8 comments
A Writer’s Alphabet: C is for … Characters!

I love characters! There’s something magically delicious about sinking my teeth into the development of a new character. Some writers use character sheets that lists every conceivable trait a character can possess. Others find it helpful to walk around the mall and snap pictures of people that resemble the people in their head.

ALERT: This one can be tricky. Be courteous when the policeman comes to haul you away. I’m just sayin’.

If you’re not the aim, focus, click type, you may be the coffee house patron. Many writers camp out in coffee houses or other public places and simply watch people. You’ve read the articles. You’ve no doubt discovered more than one way to spot and fine tune a character.

But, maybe, just maybe, you have the same conflict I sometimes have. The problem isn’t as much coming up with a character as it is choosing the right one. It seems I have a vast cast in my head that is constantly knocking on my brain vying for my attention. Some are demanding. Those can be annoying. But doggone it, they are also some of the most intriguing. So, while I try to shove them to their proper place in queue, they somehow manage to cut line and bounce out first. Which is why I’m finding that my stories are character driven. I’ve read that can be a good thing. I hope the people who wrote that down know what they are talking about.

My main characters in my current piece – a romantic comedy – are strong-willed, funny, and faithful to their cause. Those are their nice qualities. They can also be quirky, pushy and a tad bizarre.  More about that later.  The point is, my characters don’t arrive exclusively in one method. On rare occasion, they arrive full blown and ready to roll. But, more times than not, they arrive in seed form. I’m convinced God plants them because he has a great sense of humor and he likes to see what I can do with those seeds.

We all get those seedlings, but everyone tends their garden of characters a bit differently. Some outline their characters and give them elaborate trellises. Me. Not so much. My way is a bit more unconventional. I go to Wal-Mart. Lots of characters to choose from there. Many, I think, live there! I browse junk shops for characters. While shoppers are scavenging for old, dusty treasures, I’m spying on their movements, their conversations, their appearances. People who shop for old stuff fascinate me. They’re not sure why they like an item, but they like the possible stories or memories that item holds. Personally, I think they are all closet writers, but what do I know? Regardless, I always leave any “junking” trip with a head full of ideas for my characters and it doesn’t cost a dime.

I have another favorite place I shop for characters. My deck. Outside my back door is a wonderful neighborhood bursting with laughter, hope, and helpful, humble people who have endured great joy and heartbreaking losses. When I look out, I don’t see houses, I see stories. I don’t feel the breeze as much as I feel the emotions that are riding its stream. I have a world (as you do) simply brimming with possible character conflicts, traits, and fundamental human behavior.

But those things all take place in my right brain where it’s fun and colorful and where my imagination sees me as skinny. My left brain is a different story entirely. It’s rooted back in high school where my English teacher taught me the fundamentals of writing. Bless her heart for that!

Because of her, my left brain in constantly inundated with the Who, What, Where, When and Why components. Not only as I’m writing my plot line do these little components pop up, but they also make squeaking noises while I’m in the character development mode. Anybody who has ever sat through a journalism class OR a creative writing course will recognize these as the backbone elements – those pivotal puzzle pieces that must be addressed before your story has heft.

Awhile back, I called a meeting of those backbone babies and demanded they help me beef up my characters. I used them as a foundation for each character I fleshed out. For me, it worked. Now, when I build my characters, I want to know WHO influenced them. WHAT makes that character walk in her sleep or cry when she sees a child at play? WHEN was the moment in his/her life that defined that person – when was the instant that was so profound it left my character reaching for God? WHERE was my character when he discovered he could make a decision – a good one – all by himself, and not question its integrity? WHY does this particular person have to tell this unique story? Then there’s the elusive sixth element … HOW. HOW will this character move my plot along? HOW will I use this person to convey God’s message, to help this story bloom?

Once you know those types of things about your character, you’ll know your character AND your story.

So, there you have it. Nothing new. It’s the same information we’ve all been reading for eons, with a few tweaks here and there. But, it’s those tweaks in our writing that give us characters that are quirky, bizarre, and hopefully, endearing and enduring. Speaking of which, I should get back to my characters. When I leave them alone too long they misbehave. I have to make certain my main character makes a good impression when she meets the hot guy mowing the yard.

I don’t have that fella fully developed yet.

OH! I hear my deck calling. I think I’ll go watch my husband mow the lawn. That should help me finish fleshing out that last character!

P.S. Share with us what you see from your writer’s deck. We’d love to know!

  1. Sheila Covey06-02-11

    Maybe I should write an animal book–the only thing on and around my deck is four-legged critters! *LOL* Great post, Debbie!!

    • Debbie Archer06-02-11

      I have lots of those too! I’m thinking we could glean some very human character traits from some of God’s creatures. For instance, we took all 120 pounds of Boo Bear (dog) while we fed the ducks last weekend. The ducks loved him! Grown men, however, stayed far, far away. Go figure.

  2. Jenny Carlisle06-03-11

    Love the Five W’s approach. My problem is usually how much to share with the readers about all of that. I know they won’t really care that my character’s long-dead grandpa was in the Second World War, but it makes my character who she is. Hopefully, that back-story makes things richer without having to write it all out for the reader. Also makes possible future stories! Thanks again for a thoughtful post.

  3. Debbie06-03-11

    I know, Jenny. I always have to go back and decide what NOT to put in there … and that is SO hard! The group critiques are helping me see what to leave and what to cut. Those chicks nail it every time. 🙂

  4. Pamela Stephens06-09-11

    Great article, Jenny! We took our grandsons to Hawaii last year, and as I stood on our balcony overlooking a “walking path” I said to my oldest grandson, “Jake, see that couple over there? and I began telling them a made up story of who they were…then it was his turn. He had some great ideas, and I loved hearing his creativity! That is really what you are doing in your “character” analysis! 🙂

  5. Debbie Archer06-10-11

    Hi Pam,
    Thanks. 🙂

  6. Dyan06-10-11

    I could sit and read your stuff all day long. It’s just like I’m sitting here listening to you. I loved the beginning of your A, B, C, D, etc. book. It sounds absolutely delightful.

  7. Debbie06-13-11

    Well, girl you just made my day!

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