On Writing


Know who you're writing: your characters

Characters, for me, are the most important elements in the story. If I'm not interested in at least one character I don't care about the story. Creating believable characters (and different ones each time) can take a lot out of a writer. There are so many details to iron out: what does he look like, how does he walk, talk, dress (and undress), and react to other characters? Where do you start? Again, this is just me, but I start with looks and a name. Once I know those, everything else falls into place.

If I can find the name with the right sound, ethnic background, and symbolism, half of my characterization battle is done.

I visualize my stories as I write them, as though I'm watching a movie in my head, so I usually end up "casting" the parts. It helps me to start writing if I can picture a real person in my head-- someone I've seen in real life, an actor in films or a TV series, or even a person in a photograph. This method helps me to get a handle on describing what the characters look like, how they move and speak. As I write, the characters take on a life of their own, of course. Each one becomes a fictional creation and less like the person I mentally cast in the role--the same way a good actor disappears into the part he or she plays.

Choosing the right name for a character also helps. Sometimes I do more research on character names than on any other aspect of a story. (I know this is one of my personal quirks, but I just can't seem to get down to writing the story if the name of a character feels wrong to me.) Among the books on my shelves are Sherrilyn Kenyon's fantastic The Writer's Digest Character Naming Sourcebook (Writers Digest Books, 2005) and Chamber's Biographical Dictionary (W&R Chambers and St. Martin's Press, 1969), which I picked up at a library sale. The sound of a name can give readers immediate clues about the character. (Wilson Petigrew or Bret Stone--which character do think is more likely to be strong in the face of disaster? Which seems more likely to be the best diplomat?) If I can find the name with the right sound, ethnic background, and symbolism, half of my characterization battle is done.

Even though most of the pages in your manuscript may focus on your hero or heroine, don't neglect the other characters. Know every character's purpose and personality. You never know which one may capture the reader's attention. Well written villains or secondary characters are just as important to your plots, can become reader favorites, and may be potential main characters for sequels. Relationships between a protagonist and secondary character can show the reader a lot about the main character. (Foil is the literary term for a character that does this.) Batman would be boring without his relationship to Alfred. Scarlet O'Hara wouldn't be half as compelling without the contrast to Melanie. And where would Frodo be without his Sam? Don't let your secondary characters hog the spotlight, though. Remember that they're the supporting cast, not the stars. (There's a bit more about that coming up next.)

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