Creating Unforgettable Characters
Vicki Hinze © 2003-11
In 1757, in Poor Richard’s Almanac, the wise and astute Benjamin Franklin wrote: “Little strokes fell great oaks.” Important message tow writers in that saying, because it is through incorporating little strokes (details) that writers create and develop unforgettable characters. Little strokes turn stick-characters into real people.
Little Strokes = details. Concrete, vivid, easily identifiable character traits.
Oaks = readers. Those folks we must convince that this product of our imagination (our book) will transport them from reading words on a page to becoming an active participant in the story. Writers negotiate readers into a willingness to suspend disbelief.
Now everyone recognizes everything is negotiable and that there’s an art to negotiating. This is valuable insight to the writer because negotiating is exactly what writers do when developing all novel elements. A major portion of learning the art of negotiating is in recognizing that the old saying is true–you might cut the deal but the devil is in the details. We’ve all heard that a million times. What we haven’t heard that is of particular
interest to us, as writers, is to acknowledge that, yes, the devil is in the details, but so are the angelic gems.
What do I mean–we negotiate a novel?
Exactly that. As writers, we begin a project in vastly different ways. Our creative processes are different. Some of us start with an idea. Some with a character. Some with an event–a plot. Some, and I tend to fall into this category, develop plot and character simultaneously with the setting.
There is no right or wrong way, only diverse ways, and whatever creative process works for you is right. Remember, it is in our diversity that we writers find our strengths and enhance them.
So our methodology isn’t important. What is vitally important is that regardless of how we approach writing a book, at the end, we have a book. That means we have negotiated every element in it. At some time, in some way, we have had to answer hard questions.
When starting a new project, the first question a writer should ask themselves, in my humble opinion, pertains more to the writer than to the book:
Questions the writer should ask him/herself:
What do I have to say that I want others to hear? And do I feel
passionately enough about this character, or plot, or setting, or this issue
to invest months of my time and energy–my life–in bringing this book to
If not, then why bother writing it? Why set yourself up for failure?
Because to invest in any project you don’t love and see value in and believe
to the depths of your soul that having made these choices and written this
book harmonizes with the writer’s own personal purpose.
If you, the writer and human being, love the book, see value it, and feel it
is in harmony with you, great. Press on. If not, don’t invest. Your time
is too valuable to waste.
Questions writers should then ask themselves about the book:
In the whole world, who is the best possible person to say what I have to
say and want others to hear? Why is this person the best? What motivates
him or her? What does s/he risk in tackling the challenges of reaching the
story goals? Is this risk, these challenges, this story goal worthy of him
or her as a protagonist?
A character wants something. If no one, or nothing stands in the way of
getting it, then you have no conflict, no story. So the writer needs an
Who most wants to stop the protagonist, and why? What motivates the villain?
What does s/he have at risk? Are the actions s/he will take in this novel
worthy of a respectable villain? And are both the protagonist and antagonist
likely to be found in this setting?
Let’s get down to the core of story people.
Story people emulate real people, though they are actually just the creative genius of the writer who develops them. Creating something or someone from nothing and convincing others the creation is real IS creative genius. And writers do this by incorporating those little strokes.
As writers, our key responsibility in the creation process is to craft specific characters for specific story roles. Every character has to grow and change by the events encountered in the novel. Not as a reaction to what happens–reactionary characters are victims–but as a direct result of his or her choices made by experiencing novel events. This is where the angelic gems of simultaneous development of story people becomes evident.
Think of the novel as a three-legged stool. Each leg represents a specific novel element: character, plot, and setting. If the character leg is short (underdeveloped stick characters), then the stool wobbles. The stool can’t support much weight without tipping over.
By developing plot, character, and setting simultaneously, you, the writer, keep the stool (the novel) level. This strengthens the odds of saying what you want to say that you want others to hear–(the theme).
Novel elements should be so tightly connected and interwoven with each other that to change one trait in one story person, one plot event experienced by one story person, or to alter one scene setting alters the course of the novel and the character’s destiny.
That sounds pretty daunting, doesn’t it? Like a lofty, but unrealistic goal?
It isn’t, and it’s not. Writers craft the perfect character for the perfect plot and have it occur in the perfect setting to express its theme all the time. More often than not, by accident, not because they’ve analyzed the process.
But to analyze the process strengthens our flexibility and makes the process far less painful (read that: more writing and less rewriting). All we must do is negotiate–making choices–until we have credible, logical, reasonable characters acting naturally. Naturally for them, that is. This insures that the character is capable of carrying his or her weight in his or her assigned story role.
Because we write commercial fiction, we should acknowledge specific facts:
1. Readers’ most beloved characters are ones they most strongly identify
with–people like them. Admirable people who entertain them.
Writers should remember that readers’ are armchair adventurers who want to
explore interesting places, dynamic events, and hard issues–but they want to
do it from the safety of their recliners. Our characters give them the
opportunity. Story people aren’t truly like readers, but they are like the
people readers want to be. They’re admirable, heroic, logical. They have
common sense, worthy goals, and they are tough opponents. Strong
qualities–and that goes for villains, too. The main characters are all, in
a word, competent.
Competent characters can carry a lot of weight–face more complex challenges
that are worthy of our admiration. We can sum this gem up really quick.
When’s the last time you admired a wimp? Someone purely evil?
Purely evil is predictable, safe in that the reader and the other characters
know EXACTLY what to expect from this villain. But someone perceived as good who commits evil acts is far more realistic–and more frightening because
neither the reader nor the other characters know what to expect from the
antagonist. What will s/he do? How down and dirty will s/he get? Give your
villain redeeming qualities. Even a psychotic sees himself as good and his
actions as just.
2. Readers expect story people to confront obstacles. Remember: Conflict is the spine of the story. They also expect for those obstacles to not be a cake walk. The story people have to struggle or they’re unworthy of a hero/heroine or villain’s time. Even when doing the wrong thing, story people must be motivated for the right reason.
Life can’t be easy on your story people. They must suffer, struggle, claw their way through escalating obstacles with escalating risks to attain their story goals. And those goals have to be of consequence. Like weak villains, no wimpy aspirations for goals will do. Whatever the character must tackle–not want or need but MUST tackle–should be what matters MOST to the character. Must carry the highest possible risks to that story person. And the odds of attaining that goal have to be formidable and in doubt.
What all this means is that every person in your book should be there for a specific reason, have a specific task to perform, and by the end of the book, that character changes in some way from who they were at the beginning of the book. The change is character growth, and through that growth, the reader knows the consequences of the journey. Remember: nothing worth having comes easily. And if the character–primary or secondary–does not change, then they have not earned their space in the novel, so eliminate them.
Years ago, a good friend, Deb Dixon, was fond of saying “Kill every secondary
character in your book. If they refuse to die, then let ‘em live.” Wise advice, because if you try to kill the secondary characters and they refuse to die, then that signals the writer that the character is performing a specific story role and has earned his or her space and place in your novel.
Has someone along the way in your writing career called your story people, “cardboard characters?” One-dimensional? Stick-people? Underdeveloped? Stereotypical? If so, and you didn’t deliberately intend that they be, then you can see the benefit in refreshing or revising your approach to character development.
Memorable characters are 3 Dimensional: physical, emotional, and spiritual beings.
Incorporating little strokes or details that give the reader insights to all three of these aspects, assures the writer that they are well rounded and fully developed people. The characters didn’t just drop into this setting, this plot, in this novel set with this style and tone by accident.
Everything about them–including their speech patterns, the way they dress, their body language–tells the reader who these story people are and proves they are both universal and unique. To be unforgettable, a story person must be both.
Universal traits are those most of us, as human beings, identify with and feel empathetic toward, and are typically tied to emotions. Not all of us have committed murder. But all of us have experienced the desire to commit murder. Let’s look at an example.
We are the parents of a five-year old boy.
A pedophile, convicted and sentenced to prison on three separate occasions for child molestation, has been released under the Department of Corrections “Early Release Program” due to overcrowded prison conditions. Because of his record, we know he is not one of the five percent of pedophiles who can be rehabilitated.
Five hours after being released from prison the pedophile molests a six-year old boy.
Now, how do you emotionally react to this news? Do you understand the urge to murder him?
How do you think the parents’ of the molester’s fourth victim feel toward the molester? Toward their son? Toward the Dept. of Corrections for cutting him loose? Toward the government for tying funding to crowding in prisons?
How do you think the parole board feels? The warden of the prison? The guard who opened the gate, letting the molester walk out of jail? The entire Dept. of Corrections? The governor–for not blocking the release? All these people, and many more–including their own families? Can you imagine being the spouse of the warden, the wife of the governor? The other parent? All the frustration and rage–and disappointment at your spouse for letting this happen. The child of one of those parents? Can you imagine the guilt? The shame–spoken to you by others, but also the worst kind: that unspoken but
seen in the eyes of someone you love?
These are core-level universal feelings. Emotional reactions that many of us human beings share.
Not all of us have had the same experience in which the character is currently engaged in our book, but we understand what the character is feeling. We all can associate love, hate, shame, embarrassment, humiliation, fear, grief, and/or guilt. We understand the feelings even if the event itself is alien to us. These are our common bonds with most other human
beings. These are our universal traits.
Unique traits are those applicable to us. Convictions, ethics, beliefs, social mores–all of those traits that come as a result of our personal histories, backgrounds, and experiences. Those traits that mold our unique characters. Force us to take a stand, to see where on the fence we sit. We choose what we emphasize in our character, and that makes us unique.
Early on in life, we adopt the values and social behaviors–our perceptions of the world we live in–through our parents and/or influential people in our lives. As we grow older, we pull out all those learned things and we choose which ones to keep as our own, or we revise them to fit ourselves and our convictions, or we ditch them altogether and adopted new means we feel fit us best. That’s taking responsibility for ourselves. That’s being a grown up. Blending and shaping our unique, individual traits. Choosing for ourselves.
Now, a little warning:
Do not craft or develop a perfect character. Perfect people are incredibly boring. They’re always right, always do the right thing for the right reason, and we can’t measure up so we resent them. They make us see things in ourselves we don’t want to see. At times that can be a good thing–new insights–but not when we view only perfection. Perfect story people make us resent them because, by all that’s right and good, we try to be perfect–we
really, really try–and we fall short every time.
That makes us human beings. Flaws are normal. Everyone’s got them. If your character is perfect, s/he is not a credible human being. Not very interesting either.
On an entirely different topic, a dear friend named Phyllis Rowan once said, “It takes a lot of heat to temper steel.” Well, it takes a lot of work to temper people, too. We struggle and sacrifice and strive, and we do things to be–in our own eyes–better than we were before we did them. To get better, we first have to be sick. Flaws are sickness. Since we all have them, flaws are identifiable. And if they’re tied to a universal emotion, they’re real. That makes the character real and worth remembering.
Here’s a simple formula for creating an unforgettable character:
Find the character’s Achilles’ heel–their greatest fear or weakness or vulnerability. That’s the character’s internal conflict. Then stomp it. That’s external conflict in the book. The stomping is your plot.
Every character needs both–internal and external conflict–to be a 3-D character. Flat characters we cannot identify with, or get attached to, and we certainly don’t feel empathy with or for them.
Now how exactly do we determine all this stuff?
A method that works really well for me is the character interview. (I use the one developed by Florida First Coast Chapter RWA member, Kim Kozlowski.) Sit down and pretend to be interviewing this character, but NOT as a biographical journalist. As a close, close friend. You are the character’s confidant, s/he trusts you. Now, s/he will open up and tell you his or her darkest secrets and deepest fears.
You listen to what the character tells you about him- or herself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. About their family, the most important person in their life, their most embarrassing moment. Keep talking until you know that character’s every high and low, every triumph and failure, from birth until right now. And listen carefully to how the character describes him- or herself. This gives you valuable information about his/her level of self-esteem, self-respect, confidence.
Then ask a couple of other characters to give you a thumbnail sketch of how they see this character you’re interviewing. Note the character’s physical environment, social status, economic status. Listen to how both talk. What they say, and how they say it. This will give you deep insight into the characters’ story roles, and their ability to execute them.
Note the emotional responses/reactions in the characters, the impact of events on them. What do they feel passionate about, fear, crave? Goals and aspirations and dreams and wishes–and their belief in their own abilities to acquire them. Which of these were passed on by parents, influential people in their lives? Which have been adopted by them as an adult choice?
Move on to the spiritual realm. I’m not referring to religious beliefs, though that is part of what comprises the spirituality of this character, I’m referring to actual character traits. What matters most? Why? What does this character believe in enough to die for? What is his or her tolerance level for disagreements? If confronted by person who shouts at the top of his lungs, opposing what the character says, does the character shout back?
Walk away? Stand and say, “On this issue, we’ll have to agree to disagree” and then consider the topic closed? What are his/her ethics, standards, convictions? Does s/he believe in miracles? Ever experienced one? Ever seen one?
You get the idea. The important part is to invest some time in exploring these story people and their individual character. Know them better than you know your spouse, in many cases, better than you know yourself. (You will, because we find self-directed scrutiny uncomfortable. It breaches our comfort zone, so we shun it.)
The more effort you put into to this discovery process interviewing, the more sure-footed you are in actually writing about this person. It doesn’t mean your characters won’t surprise you. It means they will, and those surprises will delight you and your readers. Why? Because regardless of the surprise, it fits this person to a T.
There’s a simple explanation for why these surprises fit the characters. When we focus intently on something, we absorb tons of information. Sensory perceptions are activated. Much of this info we consciously ignore. But our subconscious ignores nothing. It absorbs everything and forgets nothing. And it takes everything literally.
So our subconscious mixes it all up–every broad stroke, every tiny detail we have absorbed–and then, when we’re on autopilot writing, the subconscious corrects little conflicts and challenges that we consciously don’t know yet exists. It a sense, it fixes what’s broken and spits it out to us with all the kinks repaired.
Interview your characters, listen to what they have to say, and the way they say it. This might sound crazy to anyone other than writers, but the truth is, in exploring and listening to the character discuss themselves, or describe another character, you, the writer, develop a bond of trust rooted in respect. That frees the character to develop in a sense, to open up, and that gives you all the little strokes you can imagine and then some to make
this story person real and living and breathing on the page. It also gives you insights that drive the plot. Those insights personalize this story to this person. If any other character were the main character in it, the story would be different.
The characters will tell you things you never expected. Goals, motivations, internal and external conflicts–their quirks. Profoundly interesting things that intrigue you and fascinate the reader. And that, my friend, is entertaining. Important, because the writer’s number one priority is to entertain the reader. Only through entertaining them do you insure that they will continue reading, thus have the opportunity to hear what you have to say that you want the reader to hear.
No writer can ever forget that what makes a character entertaining is also what makes that character unforgettable: they are created from the inside out. Where what matters most to the character is what is at risk and tested to the max in the novel events.
Unforgettable characters endure a range of emotions, they have opinions, attitudes, goals. They are passionate about everything and indifferent to nothing.
* A hero never wimps out.
* A heroine never wimps out.
* A villain never wimps out.
The writer never wimps out.
That’s right. The WRITER never wimps out. Often the temptation is there, but the writer must fight it. S/he must not become frigid because the story is treading too
deeply into places (fears, challenges, obstacles) the writer doesn’t want to go.
If you haven’t visited the Writers’ Aids Library and read the article on Villains, you might consider it. The stronger villains are the better. Weak, wimpy people can’t cause a lot of trouble. They aren’t strong enough to carry much weight. That means they don’t have the ability to overcome great odds. And the way that translates in the book is they aren’t much of a threat.
A weak villain requires little from a hero or heroine. So if you create a weak villain, you’re also making your hero or heroine weak. You don’t have to be clever or courageous to beat the socks off a weakling, now do you?
But if your villain is strong. Logical, credible, smart and competent and capable of inflicting enormous damage, and well-motivated to inflict enormous damage, then your hero or heroine has to be pretty damn sharp to best them. That’s heroic. Worthy of the name hero or heroine. They deserve the honor of being called one. They’ve proven they’ve earned the right.
Until now, we’ve really focused on universal qualities that we all share as human beings–our commonalties. The qualities we have–or wish we did and hope we do, if we’re ever confronted with the novel situation our character is confronted with now. These are qualities that touch our lives. Make us human. But what specifically makes a character unforgettable?
What makes people individuals?
Their quirks. Those little strokes, or details, that make us unique individuals. Those little things, sometimes tiny things, that are always telling things about who we are inside that gives deep insight to those who know us.
Now, let’s take a look at an example of unique individuality.
We could do a psychological profile, or interview anyone, but I’ll use myself as an example because revealing my darkest secrets and fears is no big deal to me, but it
could be a huge deal to someone else. I don’t care if I look silly, so long as you learn something from it. Silly is a price I’m glad to pay to give you insight.
Let’s say, I’m the heroine in this book. The reader needs a visual image of me so s/he can become a part of the fictional dream. So, the writer describes her: She’s got a thick middle, dyes her hair red, and has blue-green eyes that crinkle from a squint and a little sag in her jaw.
You, the reader, can visualize me, but what do you know about me? Nothing.
You might assume I overindulge in sweets and hate to exercise or that I suffer from a glandular disease, but you don’t know it. You only know what the writer has told you, and so far all the writer has given you is a photograph. Laverne Brigman, hands down the best critical analyst of creative writing in the world, puts that photographic description into perspective. “It’s flat and dull.”
What makes it flat and dull? The photographic image contains universal elements, but there’s nothing unique in it. So far, the reader hasn’t been given one insight into who I am or what I’m about. And if that’s all a reader gets of me–a flat, dull photograph–then are you, the reader, convinced that you want to invest hours of your time in reading my Story? Are you convinced I’m worth the effort? I’m not. No one is–nor should they
But what if the writer deepened that description: Scattered photographs atop the piano proved she was a natural blond. She didn’t deny it, she just didn’t like remembering it. Some years back, she dyed her hair red to signal her family she was majorly ticked at them. She refused to yell. She hates yelling. Hates it. Abusive husbands yell at blonde wives. Blonde wives are small and helpless and insignificant. They’re hopeless. But redheads, redheads command respect. No one yells at redheads–not even new husbands.
Now, you’ve got insight into the person. Let’s go a little deeper, into the shades of red.
At least that’s how her penchant for dyeing her hair red started. But even years after she she’d gotten the courage to ditch the abusive ex–and gathered even more courage to remarry a nonabusive man–she never lost her aversion to yelling . . . or to that small, insignificant, hopeless feeling that came with it. So when at odds with her family, she had to find a way to let them know she was displeased. She dyed her hair red.
Her personality change came inside the box and took effect the moment the dye was applied to her hair. She became a dynamo to be reckoned with. And after a time, she no longer had to dye her hair. Only to present the possibility.
Once when extremely displeased, she left and then returned home with two boxes of hair dye. One was “Lightest Auburn.” The other, “Raging Red.” She gathered her family in the kitchen. “Okay, guys.” She plopped the boxes down on the counter. “Which is it going to be?”
The family trembled. They knew that the darker the red in Mom’s hair, the more ticked Mom was, and a majorly ticked Mom meant Armageddon was about to descend upon every family member’s head. There would be no refuge. There would be no peace.
Now you know a great deal more about this person. But let’s say everything’s sailing along smoothly at home. The family is appreciative and respectful. Mom comes home with a box of “Raging Red” hair dye.
The family freaks out. “What have we done?” They feel guilty, though they’ve done nothing. Then direct blame elsewhere, accuse and quiz each other, “What did you do? Whatever it was, take it back now. Get on your knees if you have to–before she goes red! For God’s sake, you know how she gets when she’s Raging Red!”
But the writer has Mom explain. “No one has upset me. I just need some spunk.” She thinks, but doesn’t say–because two of her children are blond and she doesn’t want them to feel blondes are insignificant, helpless, or hopeless. Redheads can deal with anyone and anything. They’ve got guts and courage and spirit that no one can undermine for long. And, being a Raging Red, she’ll remember that every time she looks in the mirror.
So the motivation for dyeing the hair red has done a total one-eighty, surprising the writer–and yet it fits this character because the writer and the reader, know what that dark red hair means to this character. We know and understand feeling insignificant, helpless, and hopeless. We intuit that something has triggered these feelings in the character.
We know that, at times, we all have to pick ourselves up and press on, just as we know that at times we need to kick ourselves in the butt and remember: “We are not the person we were. We are the person we’ve become.”
Now, because of our experiences and the insights we’ve gained from those experiences, we have grown and changed. We now have the tools to meet our challenges constructively. The red hair just helps remind the character, the writer, the reader that all of us choose how much something impacts us. How much power we give it. We choose what we will and will not tolerate, and we will NOT tolerate feeling insignificant, helpless, or hopeless. Ah, yes. We’ve grown, and we’ve changed.
In incorporating a unique character trait tied to universal emotions, the writer has given us insight into a character that no photograph could convey. Now, the family–the other characters–might be confused by this shift in motivation, but sooner or later they’ll figure it out. In the interim, the reader is right there with the character because they’ve got the inside track. The readers know what the red means. They might not yet know the trigger, but they know there’s been a trigger and someone’s pulled the sucker.
Now, it’s test time.
Test 1. Close your eyes. Pretend you’re in a grocery store pushing a buggy down an aisle. You pass the canned goods, the bread, the cookie row, and now you’re in personal care and hygiene products. On the shelf, you see a box of red hair dye. What is the first thing that comes to your mind? Do you see that box of red dye differently now than you did before?
Test 2. Now visualize yourself in your shopping mall. You see a redheaded woman. She’s teary eyed. Do you wonder if she was a victim of domestic violence at some time? If she dyes her hair red to signal her family she’s ticked off? Do you see her differently than you might have before?
If you responded “Yes” to either test, then the writer has opened a door in a reader’s mind. Given that reader new insight, a different perspective.
A flat photograph–a still shot–can’t do that. It isn’t strong enough. But the writer has given the reader a physical description and deep insight into the character’s emotions and spirituality–the whole person. The universal and the individual quirks.
CHARACTER TO PLOT OR PLOT TO CHARACTER? EITHER? NEITHER? OR BOTH?
If your plot is laid out prior to your doing character interviews, how can you, the writer, know what’s at risk for the characters? Why these are the greatest risks for this particular character? How do you know the character’s goals are what they are, and what motivates them to act (vs. being reactionary like Perilous Pauline tied to the railroad track–the
victim, which is unheroic)?
You can’t know these things. So if your creative process is such that you plot first, then you’re going to have to craft characters with all the needed elements to best say what you have to say that you want others to hear by gearing the characters and their traits specifically to the plot you’ve created to integrate those universal and unique individual ties. I heartily recommend that you keep the plot flexible enough to incorporate conflicts
attuned to the unique individual. Otherwise, you will lack full-integrated novel elements that make these people the best people in all the world to experience this plot and tell this story.
If your creative process works so that you develop the characters first, then you’ll need to adjust the plot so that this plot is the perfect plot to tell the story of these characters–saying what you, the writer, have to say that you want others to hear.
However your creative process works is right for you. Any approach it is right so long as it works for you. But to have strong and unforgettable characters, the stool legs–character, plot, and setting–have to all fit and work in harmony with each other so the stool–the novel as a whole–doesn’t wobble or tip over or collapse.
If your current character-discovery process is fluid, fine. Fantastic. Whatever the process, know far more about the characters than you ever put in the book. Then you’ll never have to worry about inconsistencies, about someone acting or reacting out of character. At least, not without that character being strongly and compellingly motivated to do so. You, the writer, won’t have to stop and ask yourself how a character would react in any given situation. Being real and fully developed people to you, you’ll KNOW how they would react. Every strength and weakness, every secret, their deepest dread, and most absurd dream.
You’ll know that this person in this story role typically has these traits and this kind of background and is apt to be found in this setting. Everything works together. Every single element feeds and enhances all the other novel elements, including tone and style.
And I want to discuss tone as it relates to character for a second.
You all know I’m fond of sayings. Well, I’ve written one for you that I hope will serve as a reminder on the relationship between character and tone. It’s an important relationship, because it sets the mood of the scene. The reader senses that mood and absorbs it, and that goes a long way toward carrying the reader’s emotional response to the scene and what’s happening in it, and what’s happening inside the character.
“When the soul weeps, there is nothing so vulgar as laughter.”
That’s the saying. And it’s meant to remind you that the setting and tone of the scene should mirror your character’s current emotional status.
Now, some writers artfully choose to use contrast in intensely emotional situations. If it’s contrast you’re after, then make it sharp and stark, and the character’s emotional reaction to that contrast crystal clear.
Otherwise, you’ll confuse the spit out of your reader. An example: if the character is mourning and the sun is shining. Then the reader’s emotional reaction to it, should be stark. Indignant. Insulted. Irritated.
Why? Because we process details we note in harmony with our current emotional state. If a character’s ticked, make it storm. If it’s sunny, then the sun is arrogant in daring to shine.
Some of you have probably heard my favorite take on this, but just in case: You are the character. You’re standing beside a lake. You’re a man whose son has just died. What do you see? Moss and vines choking the oaks. Cracks in the wood shed. Shadows and dark, gloomy water. In short, glaring reflections that give the sense of your misery.
Now you’re a different character. A little girl. You’re standing in the same scene near the same lake. Only you’re riding your bike “no hands” for the first time. What do you see? Sun sparkling on the water. Butterflies fluttering their wings. Happy, free things. Liberated things. Ones that carry the emotional sense of your victory.
What we notice reflects our inner state.
In considering all we have discussed in this series and combining it with what we know individually and factoring in our own unique perceptions of our world, we have compiled a wealth of knowledge that arms us as writers. The result is we can create characters who are no longer characters but real, living, breathing human beings with significant contributions to make to our books in the eyes of all those who read them.
Make no mistake. When you write a book, you have the opportunity to change lives. In crafting and molding and developing characters, you definitely do that.
On making that statement, the first question I’m always asked is, How do you measure your success?
The answer is simple. Find your own individual box of red hair dye, incorporate it in the novel, and then trust your readers. They’ll let you know.
You’ll receive letters from readers addressed to the characters. Miss Hattie, from the Seascape novels, has gotten a good bit of mail. Duplicity’s attorney has received a lot of mail from prisoners wanting her to prove their innocence. Some included their entire legal files!
You’ll get feedback in tearstained pages from people pouring their hearts out to you because you touched an emotional chord in them and they knew–through your characters–you’d understand. And you’ll be told that when reading your work light bulbs went on in readers’ minds. Your work helped readers reconnect to their values, beliefs, and convictions or that they gained a new respect or appreciation for something previously ignored that you explored in a book.
You’ll know. The readers will see to it. And they’ll see to it because you didn’t create a character, but an admirable human being to whom they feel attached. You’ve developed an unforgettable character. You’ve learned from Benjamin Franklin the value of those little strokes.