Thursday, August 26, 2010

Along with my manuscript, I got a letter from the editor detailing information she thought needed to be added to the story. Thankfully, she found the characters well-developed and could relate to them, which was a relief - read less editing to do. 

I firmly believe that apart from good plotting, characters make our stories fascinating. It may be that we admire or sympathize with them. Even when we can’t sympathize, we may be able to understand their position, based on their circumstances.

For this particular story (Dissolution), I never wrote an outline. It was my first NaNo project and something I’d been thinking about for a while, so I went in somewhat familiar with the characters.   These days, I prefer to do an outline, so I know the people I’m writing about. The readers on the writing site where I’m a member do a tremendous job of helping me round out my characters by pointing out things I sometimes don’t see.

In the novel I’m now editing and posting, Dionne Jones cheats on her husband as a means of bolstering her new business. Some readers don’t like her because she’s cheats, is brash, and of course, there are better ways of starting a business than doing it on one’s back. After a few comments about her character, it occurred to me that I had to find a way to make her sympathetic.

Dionne is married, has two children, and is trying to build a house and run a new business. She is also impatient with the pace at which her husband moves. He operates a garage that she thinks would be more successful if it didn’t look like a junkyard.  Clayton doesn’t see the need to dress up the garage or be in a hurry to complete their new home.  Total opposites in outlook and a recipe for frustration on the part of the forward moving individual.

What compelling reason could I find for Dionne to take the route she did? I gave her a history.  Her father was verbally abusive to her mother, who didn’t earn much money and had too many children to raise.  Eventually, he walked out on her mother, and refused to support the children. Dionne made up her mind that the same thing wouldn’t happen to her.  She would contribute to her children’s financial wellbeing, and was determined to be financially independent. She took an unusual route to attain her goals, but eventually made different choices after she went through a rough time with the man who provided the cash injection she needed to keep the business afloat.

Now while some people might not be able to relate to her actions, they’ll be more likely to understand what she did, based on her early history.

I have a challenge rounding out characters in terms of their activities. In the heat of writing the story, I forget my good intentions and neglect to give my characters fun activities and just plain ordinary things to do on their downtime. Of course, the reader doesn’t want to be bored with unnecessary details, but the story resonates that much more if it reflects some part of life as they know it. There’s also the matter of individual mannerisms, plus deciding on personal preferences – perfume, food, clothing, shoes, books, and the list goes on. Inevitably, I only remember some of this stuff after the story is far underway.

Do you, as a writer, consciously think about this stuff before you get to work or do you allow each character to make personal choices as your story unfolds? How hard is it to go back and fill in this stuff, once your story is complete?


  1. Because I write thrillers I often don't have the opportunity to put "normal" daily activities in. But, when I do, I know it adds so much to the dimension of the character. In one chapter, I have my MC (a spy) going to a grocery store (with her mark) to buy things for dinner. I liked that chapter.


  2. I find that readers do like to have those ordinary little details thrown in - in moderation, of course.

  3. Great post! I'm going through this right now, with the character of my YA novel who was raped. She's very self-absorbed, lashing out at people, even people she cares about, and vowing to hurt those who've wronged her. I haven't had many readers yet, but I may have to give her some extra layers.

  4. Are you posting at tnbw?
    By the sound of it, your character isn't in a likable place right now. But with those additional layers, people will understand her better.

    Funny, I'm revising one of my novels and I'm keeping your advice to hand regarding their individual quirks.

  5. Hi Joy,
    I am one of your readers who doesn't like Dionne, but am willing to like her now there is a reason to! I think I managed to give my characters quite a bit of depth in the first novel, but shall take another look at Susan in CM. Maybe she needs more to do that cringe and sleuth LOL

    Your Aussie magte,


  6. Hi Joy, I honestly don't think about those things before hand. My characters tend to take on a life of their own as I write, and those things sometimes come into play... sometimes not. Often I add things in on my second and third drafts when I start to feel something is lacking... quite often it's the things you bring up in this post. Doralynn

  7. Diana,

    My readers give me lots of food for thought, which of course leads to more rounded characters. Good thing that. :)

  8. Doralynn,

    Each time I start a project these days, I remind myself that I don't have the time I used to. This reminder forces me to get out of the starting gate, knowing that the writing flows easier if I have some of the info. I need before I start writing. Plus, I'm lazy, so having some ammunition beforehand makes things easier. :)

  9. Hi Joy!

    It kind of depends on the character...there are some characters I know really well before I sit down to write their story in the novel; others who reveal themselves to me as the story progresses. In either case, I think it's fundamental to know as many details as possible about the history of your characters, even if all these details are not incorporated explicitly in the novel.

    Great post!

  10. Karin,

    Thanks for dropping in. I enjoy writing the characters I feel I know a bit about before things get underway, and yes, history is ever so important to readers understanding our characters.

  11. This post has been food for thought for me. I guess most of what I've written has been based on me - semi autobiographical - and I know myself pretty well! Even the short story I just wrote is taken from bits of my life, but put into a totally different situation. Hmmmm...

  12. Ah, Cass, you'll know what you need to do when you start writing about characters you don't know as well as yourself.


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