Writing Wednesday: Building Characters

At RWA last week, Sarah MacLean and I gave a talk together on creating memorable heroes and heroines. Some very interesting things came up in that workshop planning session (I’ll get to the Orca Test shortly), so it seemed like a good idea to share some of it with you here, with due credit to Sarah, to whom most of the credit is due.

For the next three weeks, I’ll be talking about character. Today’s post will be about building character in general, next week will be the specific challenges related to creating a compelling heroine, and, the week after that, crafting a dynamic hero.

Ready? Here we go….

Many and many a year ago, before the advent of the internet, I read a Writer’s Digest article that contained a piece of advice I’ve remembered ever since (and since this was probably circa 1988, I’ll paraphrase): you can only create Every Man by creating Any Man.

Sorry, I warned you I’d be paraphrasing.

The gist of it was that there’s always the temptation to try to make a character, particularly a protagonist, someone with whom people identify by making him or her vague. Give him the most generic qualities so that people can graft on their own. Make sure not to have any characteristics that offend anyone. In short, a blank slate. The conclusion of the article was that this was author suicide. The characters people remember, the characters with whom people identify– or with whom they don’t identify, but who make them think, who stick in their heads– are the ones who are sharply specific.

Specificity is the key to creating memorable characters.

I’m not talking about the physical details, about hair or eye color, height or weight. I don’t know about you, but I can’t for the life of me remember the hair color of Amber in Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber, or, for that matter, Barbara in Karleen Koen’s Through a Glass Darkly, another of my favorites. What do I remember about them? Amber’s refusal to admit defeat, Barbara’s unexpectedly husky voice.

When you build a character, you start from the inside out. Who IS this person? What makes her tick? What are her quirks? What are her flaws? What are her goals? Who is she inside her own head?

I. Interiority

I promised you the Orca Test, right? This wasn’t originally called the Orca Test. I’ve always thought of this as my Rule of Reaction. The way I get to know my characters, the core of them, is by watching them as they react to the world around them. No two people react to the same situation in the same way. If I were to take you and your best friend and throw you both into the same tank of orcas at Sea World (this is how this became the Orca Test) the two of you would react in completely different ways. That reaction tells you more than anything else could about the nature of that person’s character.

So let’s try the Orca Test. There’s a burning building. Inside is a basket of kittens. (Okay, we’ll get to the Hero Kitten Test in the post after next, but for now just roll with me on this.) What does your character do? Does she try to fight her way in? Does she call 911? Does she waft catnip outside? “What would my character do if…” is a great way to get a sense of just who this person is that you’re trying to write into your book.

While we’re still in your character’s head, you have two more important things to figure out: what are her motivations? And what are her flaws?

When I say motivations, I’m not talking about the short-term stuff. Let’s take Joan Wolf’s The Gamble as an example. For those of you who haven’t read it, the heroine’s short-term goal is to secure a Season, which she does by blackmailing an earl. But that’s just the external manifestation of her real motivation, which is providing a safe household for her vulnerable and permanently child-like younger sister. This character is driven by her need to protect and shelter. She’s a caretaker at heart, fiercely loyal, and fiercely protective. That’s motivation.

Likewise, when we talk about flaws, we mean the big stuff. Clumsiness, for example, isn’t a flaw; it’s an external quirk. A flaw is something deeply embedded in your character’s make-up: an unwillingness to accept help, perhaps, or a draining timidity. Those are flaws and the conquest of those flaws is part of what’s going to shape your plot.

II. Physicality

Okay, you know all this stuff going on in your character’s head. You know her motivations and flaws; you know exactly how she’d react to those orcas. How do you convey this? One way is through the character’s physical movements. A great deal of individuality can be conveyed by the way a character moves.

Think, for instance, of Turnip Fitzhugh. Turnip doesn’t walk. He bounds, he bounces, and sometimes he ambles. His larger than life personality conveys itself through his uninhibited and upbeat way of perambulating. Lord Vaughn, on the other hand, would never bounce. He might occasionally glide (although even that’s a little over the top for him), but he would certainly never be caught in something so undignified as an amble.

What are your character’s physical tics? Is she an impatient foot-tapper? Does she tend to face the handle of her teacup just so on the saucer? Does she have sweeping hand gestures? The list of possibilities is infinite and very, very revealing.

III. Dialogue

One of my favorite indicators of character is dialogue. How your protagonist speaks conveys all sorts of information about his character.

A shorthand for this? If you remove the dialogue tags, your readers should be able to tell instantly who’s speaking. No two characters should have interchangeable dialogue.

There are several ways of doing this. The most obvious are verbal tics, such as Turnip’s “and all that, don’t’cha know.” Many characters have a favorite word or phrase that pops up again and again.

More important, think about cadence. Some characters (ahem, Turnip, ahem) speak in long, rambling, run-on sentences. Others are terse and clipped. Everyone has different ways of stringing sentences together. How do they arrange their words? What sort of rhythm is there to their speech? Lord Vaughn, for example, has a very complex, somewhat elliptical means of speech, loaded with purloined quotations. You would never confuse his dialogue with that of Alex, from Blood Lily, who has a very forthright, direct way of speaking.

Listen to the people you know. Think about what their speech patterns say about them. Then apply that knowledge to your character.

Those are my tricks. How do you think about creating and defining character?

Next week, I’ll be back, same time, same place, to talk about the specific challenges of creating a compelling heroine.


  1. Céline on August 1, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    Thank you very much to you and Sarah MacLean (whose books I love too!) for this insight about building characters… You might have “unstuck” me … 🙂
    I was only starting to see how I could build my characters, which I deducted from what I read, but to see it written like that has given me ideas! Thanks a lot!

  2. Shannon M. Howell on August 15, 2012 at 4:08 pm

    I hadn’t thought about the words for movement! Time to go edit 🙂

    Lovely. Thanks for sharing!

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