September 9th, 2009

ppbk cover

Creating Character

cross-posted from

Creating Character

When I think about creating characters, I think about layers. Initially I may get an overall sense of what a character is like. But then I go back again and again to try to glean more information about them that can find its way into the story. This is especially true for the main character, but is important for all auxiliary characters as well. If we just stick with out first superficial impression of a character, they will feel flat. The more whole our characters seem, the more interesting they are both to read and to write.

When I was writing Breathing, Savannah's brother, Dog, was initially just the typical annoying little brother. But as I went back through, I needed to learn more about him in order to make him his own person, not just Savannah's brother. I needed to do the same with Jackson, with Savannah's mom and her mom's boyfriend, even with Savannah's friends and her mom's friend. I had to find out what they cared about, what parts of themselves they hid from view, what made them happy or sad. Not all of this makes its way onto the page of a book, but without it, the book may not make its way into the world. So how do you go about adding these layers of character?

1. My most tried and true method is interviewing. When I start writing a book, I just go, writing the characters to get the feel of them in the story. But about halfway through I pause and spend a week or so on interviews. I interview every character, asking them about themselves and also about their view of other characters in the story. When I learn something new, I turn back to the manuscript and look for ways to weave in this new information. Ask them anything and everything you can think of and write down their answers! I have a few excerpts of interviews with characters on my website.

2. Try putting your character in a situation and write what happens in first person. Then write the same scene from the perspective of another character in the scene, also in first person. Finally, write the same scene in third person from the perspective of someone watching what's going on. It can be interesting to see how the character handles a challenge from different perspectives.

3. Collage! I mentioned this one recently. My editor had suggested it to me when I was struggling to find the voice of a certain character. And I have to say, it was really fun! I bought a few teen magazines and went through and cut out words and pictures I thought the character would like. The coolest part was that I realized while I was looking for what she did like, I was also becoming aware of what she didn't like, which was equally important. It was very informative. And I highly recommend the process. I didn't end up putting everything I cut out in the collage. But all of it was helpful. Here's a photo of what my little collage looked like:

So those are a few ideas to get started on building character. I also recommend a book called Naming the World, which is full of helpful exercises. Let me know if this post was useful and what other issues of craft you'd like to see discussed!

Happy writing!