Friday, September 16, 2011

Developing Your Characters

by Jean Henry Mead

Some writers start with a setting, others with a theme. I’m one who begins with characters. But how do you breathe life into people who inhabit books to make them more than cardboard characters?

Characters have both inner and outer lives, according to Bharti Kirchner. I agree. Inner lives consist of beliefs and motivations while outer lives are your characters’ public personas. There are a number of techniques that can be used to reveal both.

Dialogue demonstrates a character’s personality, background and education. It also reveals how they feel about others. The following exchange is between my protagonists, Dana Logan and Sarah Cafferty, two 60-year amateur sleuths who are caught in an Arizona flash flood in Murder on the Interstate:

Sarah warned about the amount of water on the road: “We’re going to hydroplane.”
“Too much water for that.” Dana switched the headlights to low beam and drove forward. “Where the hell is the road?”
“Stay between the delineator posts. There’s one off to your left.”
“I see it. Where’s the next one?”
Dana heard a scraping sound and Sarah yelled, “You found it.”
Later, when their Hummer is washed onto a sand bar, Sarah says: “Thank you, Heavenly Mother. Thank, you—“
“We’re not out of danger yet. If it starts raining again, we’ll be washed away.”
“What can we do, Dana?”
“Pray for all you’re worth.”
“I asked that the power angels be sent to help us.”
“Good idea. Maybe they’ll fly us out of here.”

There’s obviously a difference in religious beliefs between the two women as well as emotions and cynicism.

Physical descriptions also help the reader to visualize characters. Dana and Sarah are as alike as Mutt and Jeff. Dana’s tall with auburn hair and is said to resemble the actress Gina Davis while Sarah is short and plump with curly blonde hair.

A character’s birth place also contributes to her persona. Sarah Cafferty grew up in rural Nebraska and spouts expressions such as: “He took off like a scalded cat.” Dana, on the other hand, is a native Californian, who is a little more sophisticated, and I’m sure readers wonder why they became best friends. By transplanting both women from their retirement village in the San Joaquin Valley, in A Village Shattered, to Wyoming in the second novel, Diary of Murder, both women have to learn to adjust to a new lifestyle and that helps to define their character.


Mark W. Danielson said...

My characters grow as they tell their story. What's important is I must like them. Even sinister characters have a purpose.

Jean Henry Mead said...

That's true, Mark. I enjoyed writing from a serial killer's POV.