Thursday, February 21, 2013

Make Your Characters Real

It's easy to fall into the trap of not fully "fleshing out" our characters.  Even with strong GMCs, our characters can still be flat and uninteresting.  And boring characters will have readers closing the book.

What does "fleshing out" mean?

Fleshing out means to expand or become more substantial.  For writers it means making characters more human.  There's nothing worse than a perfect person...or a perfect character.  And that's as if there really was a perfect person.  We do try, but we're human...and that's what the characters in our stories should be.

Each character must have, well, character.  After all, that's why they're called characters. ;)  Character is made up of different things.  Because no one (especially our characters!) is perfect, there are both positive and negative traits within our personalities, just as we have strengths and weaknesses.
  • Human Traits
  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
When thinking of main characters in a romance (hero and heroine), having different and sometime opposing traits, strengths and weaknesses, is ideal.  Here's a short list for some ideas:

Disciplined/Free Spirit
Driven & Determined/Lives for the Moment

Don't shy away from putting them at odds from the very beginning.  Do be sure each trait is motivated (think backstory of character).  What has happened to the character in the past?  Or is happening now that will keep them apart?  (Remember that Push/Pull thing.)  For some reason, these characters should not come together and have a happily ever after.  Read the back covers of your favorite books for ideas, but mix them up, don't steal. ;)  It doesn't matter if the hero and heroine have a past together or not.  Don't always stay in the safe zone.  Mix it up.  The only thing to keep in mind is that motivation.

Give your characters weaknesses.  That's what makes them interesting and real.  Fear works well as a conflict.  It builds conflict.  Connect that fear to the the character's backstory and well-motivated goal that are counter to the other character's, and you're building the conflict between them.

Make them human.  Give your characters a personal habit or small mannerism that sets him/her apart.  I recently turned in a book with a hero who answers "Right," instead of "Yes" or "Okay."  I didn't intend it to happen, but that was a part of him.  Does the heroine cross her legs and nervously wave one foot when seated?  Does she slap her hands on her hips and jut out her chin when angry?  Be a people-watcher for mannerisms to use.

Make them different, even when it's different from the "real" them.
I'm a huge Susan Elizabeth Phillips fan.  Her books are funny and wildly emotional.  I have three that are my favorites.  The first is IT HAD TO BE YOU (Chicago Stars Series).  The heroine, Phoebe Sommerville, is my all-time favorite heroine, so when I had the good fortune to attend a writers' workshop given by SEP, I was thrilled when she talked about building characters using Phoebe as a example.  If you haven't read IT HAD TO BE YOU, Phoebe is a buxom, curvaceous woman and always dresses to show it off, who happens to wear pristine, white underclothing.  Nope, no thongs or bikini undies for her.  She uses her seemingly sexual appearance (through clothing, swiveling hips and pouty lips) as a shield to hide the real her.  There are reasons, meaning she is well-motivated.  What I remember most of that workshop was SEP sharing that she started with a very private heroine, who wore white, common-sense undies and bras.  That was the skeleton of the character.  As SEP built the rest of the character from the inside out,  Phoebe became a "sexpot" on the outside.  People saw one type of woman, but inside there was an insecure girl.  So even within one character, there was conflict, and that's what it's all about. Of course there's always Push/Pull within a character.  It's the I want but I can't have conundrum.  Let's face it, we all have a secret self.

The above is a reminder that our characters should reveal their true selves to the reader, long before revealing it to the other character.  Do it slow and easy.  Don't dump it immediately.  And when you do bring it out, little by little, show it, don't tell it.

Make your characters three-dimensional by using:
  • Internal thoughts
  • Emotions
  • Actions
While your character may say and act one way, what that character is thinking (internal thoughts) and feeling may be quite the opposite.  Be certain you don't forget that or leave it out.  A character may be hard and unforgiving, but when it's shown that it isn't so by using internal thoughts along with clear motivation, that character has dimension.  As for actions, we all know the old saying that actions speak louder than words. Tears welling in the eyes, tone of voice, teeth or hand clenching, and more can be felt by the character and seen by the other.

Make them unforgettable.
When readers close your book at the end, you want them to feel an emotion.  A good emotion.  A smile, a happy sigh or even a tear will endear a reader to your characters and your book.  Make those characters touch the heart by becoming "real."
“I will go to my grave in a state of abject endless fascination that we all have the capacity to become emotionally involved with a personality that doesn't exist.” 
― Berkeley Breathed

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