Building Characters Part 2


When I’m trying to flesh out a character, one of the things I love to do is to sit down and have a chat with him or her.
Several years ago I had an idea for a story and I kept picturing the main character as a Jewish man. His story simply would not come together. He resisted me at every turn. (If you think this sounds strange then perhaps you are not a writer). Every time I sat down to write Beloved, I could not get the words out .At this point all I knew was that David was converted to God. Finally, I pulled up a blank document and began this interview.

Me: David, I’m having a really hard time figuring you out. I keep picturing you with blue eyes and blond hair. How can that be if you’re Jewish?
David: I am not Jewish, like you first thought.
Me: Really? That surprises me. Who are you then?
David: I met a Jewish family who was running for their lives. They ended up migrating north, where my people live. I’m Scandinavian.
Me: Scandinavia? Really?
David: You see, my family and I are sheep herders. I was nearly ten. My father sent me to tend the sheep, when all of a sudden this group of creatures came upon me. Their skin and hair were dark and they had hair upon their faces. I’d never seen anything so strange. And their speech was garbled. I couldn’t understand them at all.

Needless to say, I was surprised! That definitely explained the blond hair and blue eyes. This is a great way to tap your subconscious. By the way, this interview went on for 20 pages as he told me about his back-story, his involvement with the Jews and how he met his wife. From page 11 it became a scene and then the scene eventually became a later chapter in my book.

Once you’ve learned some things about your character you need to keep fleshing them out. One of the problems I had with David is that he was too perfect. I had to give him a flaw. Then I realized his “perfection” was his flaw. In trying to be perfect, he became a little bit self-righteous and really bugged the people around him.

Another interview I had was with Jake from The Penny Project. Now, I already knew this kid was flawed, but I was stuck at a point in the beginning of the book where I had to let that flaw show without getting him suspended from school. So I sat down and had this little interview with him:

Me: What’s your plan, Jake? You’ve uttered these words, and I have no idea where you’re going with it.
Jake: Me either. I just blurted them out.
Me: So you’re got to come up with something that will keep our readers reading and you keep from being a jerk.
Jake: Hey, I’m not a jerk.
Me: Yeah, well, you’re kind of acting like one.
Jake: I just want to keep being popular. And if I hang out with that ugly chic, then yeah, down go my ratings. I mean, you were in high school once, weren’t you popular?
Me: No, Jake, I wasn’t. I was plain. My hair was dishwater, I wore ugly glasses. I was Penelope. Well, not as bad. I had a few boyfriends, but nothing steady for very long.
Jake: Okay, so what? You still had friends, right.
Me: Yes, I did. There was a group uf us that always hung out together. So, yeah, I had a few friends. But you’re sidetracking me. I do not want to talk about my high school experience. Those are over, and I’m glad.
Jake: So what do you to know about mine?
Me: I want to know why you’re being such a jerk to Penelope. You know she can’t help it, right?
Jake: Yeah, but why me? I mean there are lots of people at the school that could be friends with her.
Me: Would they? Really?
Jake: Sure, I mean–
Me: If you’re talking about Amber, would she really be that nice?
Jake: She’s a straight A student, she’s always nice to everyone.
Me: Did you see they way she slumped down in her seat? She was relieved the teacher didn’t put Penelope behind her. She doesn’t want to be Penelope’s friend any more than you do.
Jake: Yeah, so. I don’t want anything to do with Penelope. She’s a real dog.
Me: Why? Would it hurt you?
Jake: Heck yeah! Pierce is my best friend. He only goes for the cute chicks and…

As you can see I’m getting to really know the characters. The voice between David and Jake are completely different and they both gave me key pieces of information that helped me to write their stories.

If you’ll ask your character questions, they will tell you. Sometimes what happens is surprising! And isn’t that the joy of writing anyway?

Another one of my characters is Loretta from my book Mystic’s Tale. For months I had her standing at the edge of a deep ravine with a skinny bridge she had to cross in order to save someone she loves. I just couldn’t seem to figure out how to get her over the bridge. Because this is fantasy, she couldn’t simply walk across it, that would be too easy. I needed something to hold her back, something magical. But what was it? I’d interviewed her, written the scene several different ways, and I’m still not happy with it. One night as I lay in bed thinking about her dilemma, I pictured her standing patiently, arms cross, one foot crossed over the other leaning against the bridge post.

Me: What are we going to do?
Loretta: I don’t know? You figure it out. You’re the writer.

Wow! Talk about attitude. I thought I knew this character. One of the things I discovered as I tried to flesh out Loretta is that she is patient. She will wait…unless she learned that the person on the other side of the bridge was in grave danger. That got her moving. I’m happy to say she went across the bridge.

What do you do to flesh out your characters?