Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Guest Blogger: Building Characters

Today I'm pleased to introduce you to a friend and fellow author, Emilie.

Building Characters

Characters are the most important element in a story. They’re what will shape the story, drive the plot, and pull readers in. You can have the most elaborate, well-plotted story, but if the characters aren’t interesting, a reader is going to get bored and put the book down.

Readers want to read about realistic, relatable characters. If your character is perfect, never does anything wrong, and has no flaws, the reader won’t be able to relate to them. Give them some realistic flaws. Maybe your heroine is quick to jump to conclusions, or your hero has a hard time controlling his temper. Those are faults people can relate to--possibly something they themselves struggle with. Don’t be afraid to make a character human and give him/her imperfections. Believe me, they’ll be more enjoyable, and your reader will be pulled in emotionally.

That’s just one way to make your character interesting. Another is to give your character a history or backstory. This is something that the reader doesn’t need to know in full, but is good for you as the author. It will help you write about your character.

A couple years ago, I had a character, Hermione, who I couldn’t figure out. She was secretive, stubborn, and trusted no one. I had a very vague idea as to why, but couldn’t figure out the real reason. So I sat down and started filling out a character questionnaire for her. I flew through the basic questions (hair, eyes, height etc.) but when I came to the question about childhood/teen experiences, I had to pause and really think about it. By the time I finished, I had a full page and a half of lined paper describing what happened in her past, and those pages were invaluable to me. I finally understood why at the time the story takes place she trusted no one but her sister, and several other things that helped me write the rest of the story.

Past experiences are also going to influence how your character will react. Sheridan, another of my characters, wasn’t very self-confident. His parents favored his older brother, who couldn’t do anything wrong in their eyes. Sheridan is seen as a failure and has to struggle to prove himself his whole life, and when the opportunity comes for him to break a curse and be the hero, he doubts himself, despite his friends encouraging and cheering him on. His past is going to affect his decisions.

His decisions also influence how the story will turn out. Sheridan could turn away; refuse to help break the curse because he’s afraid of failing again. On the other hand, he can stick to it and do his best, regardless of the threat of failing. Those are his options. If he chooses the first option, the story will end very differently than if he goes with the second.

Change is also important for a character. If by the end of the book there is no change whatsoever, the story will have no meaning. This doesn’t mean your character needs to change drastically, but something needs to be changed. If Sheridan breaks the curse, his self-confidence will be boosted, and he’ll start believing in himself more. In contrast, if he doesn’t break the curse, his confidence will wilt even more, crushing what little belief he had in himself. Either way, he ends up changed.

In some stories your character might require a drastic change. Take, for example, Scrooge from Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. At the beginning of the story, Ebenezer Scrooge is a cranky, selfish, old man. He goes on a journey into the past, the present, and the future, accompanied by three ghosts. He sees what his life would be like if he continued on his self-centered path, and he changes his ways within a night.

Names can be significant to a character as well. There is no strategy or right way to go about picking a name. Sometimes you just know what name will suit your character; other times it will take a little more work. I tend to look for names with meanings that show the character’s personality, or that intertwine with the story. If you find while you’re writing that the name you’re using isn’t working, change it. Don’t keep working with a name you dislike. It will slow down your writing.

All this rings true when creating your villains as well. They need to be realistic, only their flaws will be more prominent and often they don’t overcome them. Backstories are also just as important for villains as they are for main characters. They show you how your villain became who he/she is at the time your story takes place, and you discover their motive. As for names, I wouldn’t find a villain very intimidating if his name was Elmer.

Finally, your characters will sometimes whisper ingenious ideas into your head that work much better than the ones you had planned; other times, they’ll refuse to tell you anything and you’ll have to struggle through to the next part. Don’t stress. It’s all part of the process of getting to know them, just like you would get to know an acquaintance. Eventually, they become good friends.

So next time you meet new characters for your story, try getting to know them before writing and see what happens. It’s an adventure: get out there and have fun!

Emilie Phillips wasn't much of a writer in her younger years. In fact, it didn't interest her until the age twelve, when her sisters began writing. Not wanting to be left out, she put pen to paper and hasn't stopped since. Many of her stories involved princesses and princes, kidnappings, and there were a number of pioneer stories. While these are still elements she loves, fairy tales and fantasies captivate her.

She wrote her first complete novel, Midnight Captive during NaNoWriMo in 2010. It is in the revision/editing stages at the moment and once it is finished, Emilie hopes to self-publish it sometime in the new year. She is currently preparing for NaNoWriMo 2012 during which she hopes to write and complete her third book and year participating in the writing fiasco.

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