Building Exciting Characters

One comment I hear frequently from readers is how much they like my characters, especially my secondary characters. I’m often asked how I find them and develop them or what techniques do I use to create them.

In my first Riverbend novel, Journey to Riverbend, readers expressed a genuine liking for the Indian tracker, Old Thomas. Some even asked how I could kill him. My tongue-in-cheek response was I didn’t kill him, I was just writing along and found him dead. Which isn’t true. From my earliest outlines, I knew Old Tomas would die in the story. He needed to in order to spur my hero, Michael Archer forward on his quest to keep his promise. I was surprised to find so many readers liked him.

Another character who draws a lot of interest is Martha Matthews, the pastor’s wife. Martha is the exact opposite of the stereotypical Old West pastor’s wife. She’s sarcastic, has no tolerance for fools, and seems to have never had an unspoken thought. Which can get her in all kinds of trouble. But this was a side of Martha I didn’t envision. This came out after she walked on the page.

Her real purpose was to be a support and mentor to my heroine, Rachel Stone. A role she filled quite well. Her snarkiness was a serendipitous bonus that added both humor and conflict to the story.

When I began writing, I wrote very detailed sketches for my main characters. In depth questionnaires, Myer-Briggs profiles, and other tools formed my hero and heroine. I wanted to know everything about them before I wrote them.

Not so much with my secondary characters. They appeared in the story loosely framed. I had a general idea of who they were. Over the course of the novel, as they walked out their roles, their personalities blossomed forth.

As I’ve moved into more of a seat-of-the-pants writer, I’ve changed the way I develop characters, even my main characters. Instead of pages of questionnaires and personality profiles, I have perhaps two to three paragraphs about hero and heroine. One is basic demographics. The second identifies one or two significant events in their past. The third is their story goals and their major opposition.

Then I let them loose in the story. They reveal the depths of their personalities through their actions and reactions to what happens in the story. When I use this method, they are more fresh and alive. They are more complex and believable and the story world is more vibrant because I’m experiencing it through them.

I find this very freeing for myself, for the characters and for the plot. I’m not constricted into making them fit the character profile I wrote, I’m not forcing them to stay within the profile, and I’m more likely to discover what they would most naturally do in a situation. And the story becomes more alive because of it.

How about you? What techniques and tools work best for you in developing characters?



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