Our Pages

Monday, February 15, 2010

You Are Such a Character

It is a phrase we have all heard time and time again and I am sure most of us have said that to someone. It could have also been said to you. But, what does it really mean?

This person, or you, has done something that sticks out and/or made an impression on the person who made the statement. Often comedy is involved. But much more goes into making a character besides comedic relief. In fact, if you are a writer, you spend a lot of time thinking about your characters and each of us approach developing them in a different manner.

There are some that start with a character questionnaire which the writer completes with the character’s name, date of birth, hair color, height, parents names, siblings, career, etc. I know authors that complete this in detail before they even begin to write their novel.

Then there is the interview process. It begins with the author asking the character their name and the questions continue from there. It is similar to the questionnaire process but with the interview, and depending on the answers given, additional questions may be asked to dig deeper into the character's personality and develop baggage they may carry, so to speak, based on something in their past. You may not have intended to do this, but in the interview process, one thing led to another and new ideas formed to make your characters more well-rounded and deep.

Other authors like to take inspirations from photographs. I know a few who use the photos of stars and unknowns as inspiration for what their hero and heroine look like. This is something I have recently adopted. While watching a movie or TV sometimes one of the actors (actresses included) will have a look I love and remind me of one of my characters. I will look them up on the internet and print off a picture that I post above my computer. That I use as inspiration. I may change the eye color or hairstyle, maybe give them a scar or broken nose, but they remain my inspiration.

In truth, I know very little about my characters when I begin a novel. Everyone, including my hero and heroine are a blank slate. First, I come up with a name and it goes on the top of an index card and posted above my computer. When it comes time to fill in the info of eyes, hair, body shape, etc., I add it to the card as I go. This usually happens while the love interest is observing them. I see my hero or heroine through the other character’s eyes instead of my own. This is also about the time I come up with a picture, or inspiration, of how my characters look. For each quirk one of my characters develops, I add it to the card and sometimes they take up more than one card.

How do you go about developing your characters? Who is your all time favorite character from a book you have read and who is the most unforgettable? They aren't always the same.


  1. I need to start an index card system, that sounds like it's easily accessible esp. if it's taped up nearby. I usually end up keeping four or five wire-bound notebook lying all around. Not too organized. It's a wonder my novels get finished. ;)

  2. love to use My Heritage Family Tree. It's a free download and I can map everything out like you described. I can upload a photo of my character. List birth, marriage, siblings, etc. There's also a Misc. area where I can add details I'd forget otherwise - name of estates, butler, which college they attended, physical descriptions, etc. I can then access the information from any computer hooked up to the internet. (Side note - the program cracks me up. If I say someone was born in 1800, but don't give them a death date - the program will say something along the lines of...This person would be rather old at 210. Are you sure they're still living? Hilarious!)

    And to answer your question - My favorite character of all time would have to be Lisa Kleypas' Sebastian in the Devil in Winter. It's been YEARS since I read that book and he still pops to mind every now and then.

  3. T. Anne,

    I tried different systems for years and when I finally had a wall above my computer I started taping things to it. Besides me hero and heroine, I add a card for each character. If it is the valet, it goes below the hero, etc.

  4. Lydia,

    I've always wanted to figure out that program. Maybe when we see each other in Chicago you can show me (when we have downtime - ha!).

  5. I could learn a thing or two from all this pre-writing organization. I usually carry my characters around in my head for a few months before I put pen to paper, so by the time I start writing I feel like I know them. I don't keep large files about them.

    Once I decided to change my hero's eye color in the second draft, and it was a disaster. It's so much harder than replacing blue with brown. There are all those sapphires and sea blues, cobalt, etc. to consider. Yeah, I probably should have thought that one through before I started writing. :)

  6. I agree, Gail. Once you decide on a character's eyes and hair, don't mess with it. I changed a heroines hair color mid-WIP and it was a pain to go back and fix.

  7. Amy,
    I'd have to say characterization is a pitfall for me. I have a hard time with it. I am definitely a plotter and use plot driven stories. So this index card method is brilliant. I love it! And I'm going to steal it! lol.
    And to answer your questions the most memorable character would have to, of course, be Rhett Butler for me. But you all already know of my obsession lol.
    One of the characters that shaped my writing and made me start writing westerns was Johanna Lyndsey's Colt Thunder in Savage Thunder. I can't put a name to it but he simply compelled me and has become one of inspirations to many of my stories, no matter the time period. I tend to often think of him when I write a new hero. Loved that story and it was one of the first historical romances I'd ever read.
    Great blog post and I learned something new! So exciting! Now I'm going to try this new index method!

  8. This is probably my favorite part of writing: thinking up new people who look and dress exactly the way I want them to! I love that! Even when I played The Sims, I would spend hours setting up my characters and then setting up their home...and I would usually stop playing after that. LOL!

    I have used the character outlines in the past, though I hardly ever fill them out completely. Typically, once I get the picture of the character in my head, I'm not likely to forget their hair color, eye color, skin color, etc... What I do forget is how many brothers and sisters they have, their birthday, their middle name, etc...I guess that would mean I have a photographic memory?? LOL!

    I do love the idea of using a family tree, like Lydia uses. However, it's hard enough to find time to write, if I waited to finish a family tree to start my book, I might never write the book. LOL!

    Great topic!

  9. Melissa,

    I hope the care system works for you. I love it. I have cards for all WIP's I've worked on in the last two years. And, when I start working on a sequel of one of my stories, I reuse the cards which is why when I kill someone off I write "Dead" in red letters on the card. I can still refer to him but I am careful no to resurrect him. Of course, it happens in soap operas so maybe it could happen in a romance - lol.

  10. This is a great topic. I use the index card system as well. I start mine before I start writing and I add information to the cards as I go along. My favorite character from books I've read is Hannah Swensen. The author (Joanne Fluke) describes her so well that I truly feel like I know/am her at times. Sounds cliche, I know.

  11. Jerrica,

    One of my biggest issues is remembering who the family members are, unless I write a very quirky relative that is unforgetable.

  12. Regina,

    I am glad to hear someone else uses the card system and it works for them. I am not familiar with Hannah Swensen (Joanne Fluke). I will need to check her out.

  13. Amy, what a true observation. Unforgettable and Favorite are not the same.
    I have a lot of unforgettable characters that I've also loved.
    For my character development, I usually don't do much in advance. Just start writing and see where the story takes me.
    I like your index card idea. I always forget my characters' ages!

  14. Jessica,
    Thanks for stopping by. Prior to the index cards I just started to write and see where they took me. One of the first things I now note is the year my character was born. I don't alwasy give them a birthday, but I do give them a birth year so I can figure out how old they are in say 1811 or something like that and keep their age accurate if there are sequels.

  15. Oh wow. The index card system seems like it would help a lot! I always forget things about my characters -- especially their quarks. Not usually what they look like so much, but their age in which years, et cetera. (Especially in my current project, which includes characters at the same time spanning a large amount of ages and the story taking the heroine from fourteen to twenty-one. Phew.) Thanks for that! I really might try that.

    Oh, and I think my favorite character of all time has to be Thom from Hero by Perry Moore. Don't know if that is counted so much as Romance or anything -- but he is my favorite, and his romantic interest, Goran, is definitely the most memorable and a favorite, too! I think I just love Thom and Goran together much too much. Then again, all the characters in that book are so well made!

    Anyway, great topic! Glad I found this place!

  16. I've tried a few different ways to record details of my characters but fail to continue using most. The best way for me, so far, is to tie them to a picture of a real person. I can see their features, height/build in comparison to others without me needing to write them down. One day, I suppose, I will kick myself for not having a better system for the facts. LOL.

    As for favourite character - Sebastian from Devil in Winter has always a fav.

  17. Karra,
    I hope my suggestion works out for you. I would certainly need it if my story was covering six years since I need it when the novel only takes place in a month - lol.

  18. Heather,

    Adding pictures to the mix is new for me, but I really like it. But there are a few characters I haven't found a good likeness for. Regardless, I can't see not using my cards. I've glanced up at them more times than I can count to double check family titles, hair color, quirk, etc.
    I don't think I've read Devil in Winter. I have so many books in my to be read stack I am sure it is there somewhere.

  19. Amy,

    Great blog. I love my characters. I love their quirks, faults and everything. Much like Gail, I spend time thinking about them before I begin writing.

    One thing that has worked well for me is interviewing them. I don't have set questions, so it really becomes more of a stream of consciousness exercise. I'm blown away sometimes by what comes out. What I really want to know is what is it at their core that drives them. What void or need do they seek to fill?

    I don't spend a lot of time on the physical aspects of a character, but I have found photos of approximations of my characters on occassion. Usually, I focus on one or two physical characteristics that makes a character unique, such as dimples. My fav!

    A character I love is Becky Bloomwood. She is fantastic!

  20. I used to type details into a file - planned to use an Excel worksheet but never got organized. Then I got a release-day copy of Snowflake and it's great. Any new features I come up with, I just add them to the page. I'm almost organized, at last!

  21. I start with a blank slate. I come up with the names and then I decide what they want, how they are going to try and get it, and what or who is keeping them from getting it. Along the way, I learn their past and what makes them tick. I think this is good and bad. The character throw me a good deal of unexpected suprises which keeps the story interesting. However, I often find myself rewriting a story two and three times because I learn who the character really is as I am writing it. I don't think I could do it any other way, though. I have tried really planning the character and the process freezes my brain, literally.

    My all time favorite character is Whitney, from Whitney My Love by Julie Garwood. She is funny, unpredictable, headstrong, stubborn and stupid. I feel like her, and I completely relate to all the mistakes she makes.