Building great characters

I’ve been talking with an aspiring writer who is very, very smart and driven, who confessed she didn’t really understand how to develop character beyond what she was already doing. She’s had some revision requests and wants to understand more about how to write great characters.   

This is one of my favorite subjects, so I thought I’d offer a few ideas this sunny Saturday afternoon, and a few exercises for you to try.  Most of these are taken from a talk I quite like to give, so some of you might have heard me talk about this before. 

Women’s fiction and romance novels are character-driven plots.  The only thing that makes a romance interesting, no matter what style or subgenre you might be writing, is the particularity of THESE particular characters and our feeling that these two people really must be together.   To believe that, especially in our cynical world, we have to know and understand what makes each character tick, what motivates them, how they get through each day. 

I’ve talked before about Tony Soprano, and will say again, if you want to study character, The Sopranos has a lot to teach, especially about layering and the various influences that combine to create a character.  I’m slowly, slowly finishing the series, and last night watched one in which Carmella went to Paris with her friend Roz.  As always, the layering of character is quiet and you have to be paying attention to see what’s there.  Carmela is stunned by Paris.  By the beauty and the art and the weight of time and history.  This is a woman who was born into a time and place where her considerable brains and hungers have no real chance of finding expression through her own efforts, so she’s directed those energies into her husband, her children, her standing in the community.  She’s a tortured, loving, hungry soul, and watching in her Paris made me cry.  I wanted to know what would have happened to her if she’d had the chance to go there at seventeen, after taking three years of French.  Her reaction to the city was profound, and she tried to reach out to her friend, but Roz simply doesn’t speak Carmella’s language, and Tony won’t understand either. She returns home, and in the last scene of the episode, she carries her laundry downstairs, and nothing in her external world is changed, but we know something huge has happened within Carmella. 

The lesson is, great characters are complex.  They are a mix of good and bad characteristics, just as every human being on the planet is a mix.   I am. You are.  Your husband, your children, your parents.   

How do you get that on the page? How do you find out the layers of your own characters and bring them to life? 

We all start with the simple stuff.   Sex, age, career, cultural background, family history.   I think of these as the things that would show up in a police report: "White male, age 34, accountant."  The family history comes in the next level. Stuff a psychologist might want to know:  birth order, class, education, etc.

Next comes the passions:  He loves fly fishing, watching reality television, drinking iced tea with big chunks of lemon, a juicy steak on a hot summer day, his ex-girlfriend whom he hasn’t spoken to in five years but secretly believes he will never get over.   What does he hate?  What would he banish from the world if he could?  What does he believe about God? 

What one thing does he believe in absolutely? What is he most afraid of?   What would he do if he could do anything at all? 

In voice class, we do exercises that begin:  "The house I lived in when I was seven years old….."   "I am twelve and….."   and "I am eighteen and….."   Doing those exercises in first person from the POV of the character can take you a lot deeper into their psyche.

One thing that powerfully brings a character alive is the inconsistencies.  Tony Soprano the mafia boss who can be so tender.  The socially conscious queen of the mob who is slain by the beauty of Paris.  Think of some of your favorite characters–can you pinpoint those inconsistencies?   

Where is that tension?  Think of your mother. Right now.  Where are the inconsistencies of her character? What maddening, endearing tics and attitudes does she carry? 


A few little tricks that are fun to try:  write the starbuck’s order of your character.  For example, I used to be a triple vente latte with skim milk and seven raw sugars.  I always had to make a little joke about how much sugar was in the coffee because it was embarrassing, but I wanted it my way.   What does the dichotomy of skim milk vs seven raw sugars and TRIPLE coffee say?  (Babe, you are so in denial.)  I’ve since downsized considerably because the more I run, the less I can tolerate large amounts of coffee.  A modest grande, regular, skim milk, two (or three if I’m feeling indulgent) raw sugars.

What does your character order? Or would she skip Starbucks for the local coffee shop down the street? 

Another great trick I learned from great romance author Jennifer Greene many years ago: look inside the purse of a woman, the glove box or pockets of a man.  What are they carrying with them? What does it say?

It is also true that each one of us is the star of our own movie.  With a secondary character, imagine that person is the start of the movie and see how the layers begin to appear. 

There is always something brilliant about every human. Every human.  There is something disgusting or reprehensible about every human.   Find the two, and you’ll be well on your way.

Can you think of other examples of the tension in a great character?   Name some.  Scarlet O’Hara, of course.   Who else?

6 thoughts on “Building great characters

  1. A great character for me is Maggie Deloach in Anne Rivers Siddons’ HEARTBREAK HOTEL. Her tension lies in being an absolute product of her times (late-1950s Southern girl) with the niggling sensation that there’s something more, something different, something not right with her world.

    Father Ralph de Bricassart from THORN BIRDS is also a wondefully dichotomous character. Everything he did, he did from an inherently selfish place, yet McCullough drew him so beautifully, people still fell in love with him.

    And Mad Men, the new series from one of the former Sopranos producers is a delicious current example of character development.

  2. Barbara, yes, yes to Ralph de Bricassart.

    I’ve been hearing good things about MadMen. I’ll have to find it. We don’t have HBO, though.

  3. It’s actually on American Movie Classics, so if you have at least basic cable, you should have it. It’s so amazing.

  4. The new FX show Damages has some really meaty characters – one played beautifully by Ted Danson. He plays Arthur Frobisher with so many layers and contradictions. It’s wonderful.

  5. Ted Danson is so good. I’ll have to check that out, too.

  6. I’ve been watching the new AMC series, Mad Men–about a Madison Avenue admen in the fifties. The protagonist, Don, adman extraordinaire, is absolutely fascinating in his fifties macho man’s man denial of everything he really is and even where he comes from. He’s created himself from the ground up of beautiful lies, which is why he’s the alpha dog at the agency;he *is* what he does. A total liar, like Tony Soprano and Scarlett O’Hara, he’s also indomitable and fascinating. I hope this show lasts. It’s scathing and wonderful. And so nails the fifties world and consciousness.

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