Do the characters in your novels seem flat? Or are they all too similar? Do you struggle with their dialogue?
If so, you're likely not digging deeply enough into their personalities. To create multi-dimensional characters who will keep your readers turning the pages, you have to get down to the nitty-gritty, you have to get to know them inside and out.
In this video, I talk all about how I create the characters for my bestselling novels, including how I become my characters when I'm working on a novel.
One of the biggest challenges you face as a novelist is creating believable characters who don’t all look and sound the same. Besides the usual character worksheets that can help with this, here are some quick tips and tricks that I’ve used over the years to make my characters distinct.
1) ASTROLOGY BOOKS
I’m not suggesting that you copy the traits of a Scorpio or Pisces and plop them down in your novel as the main character. That would be just plain foolish. But astrology books can be a fantastic jumping-off point when trying to create colorful characters.
One of my favorite books is an old standby, Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs. Besides containing a wealth of ideas about personality types, Goodman’s book is a joy to read. Take her opening description of the Aries personality, for example: “Have you recently met an unusually friendly person with a forceful manner, a firm handclasp and an instant smile? Get ready for a dizzy dash around the mulberry bush. You’ve probably just been adopted by an Aries. Especially if you’ve found it a little tough to take the lead in the conversation.”
Now even if you don’t care one bit about the traits of an Aries or any other astrology sign, this description could be the seeds of a dazzling character, especially when you add your own imaginative ideas. Sun Signsis filled with goodies like this.
2) MAGAZINE PHOTOS
Trying to describe what your character looks like? If you’re like me, you’ll fall back on people you know or someone you’ve seen recently. And that’s fine–up to a point. But sooner or later you’re going to want to travel a little further and wider when it comes to portraying your peeps on the page.
Pick up a magazine and check out the faces there. I mean, really look at them. Describe them using pen and paper or fingers and keyboard. How wide or far apart are the eyes? What shade of brown is that hair? Are the features equal on both sides of the face (usually they are not)? What type of hairline it that?
This will spark your imagination and it makes for good practice when it comes to depicting the features of characters. While you're at it, you may even find someone with the physical traits you had in mind for that villain you’ve been struggling to describe. And if you’re looking a particular lifestyle or ethnicity, just pick up a magazine that fits—GQ for fashionable men, sports magazines for athletic types, women’s magazines for homemakers and career woman, Seventeen magazine for young adults, Essence magazine for African American men and women and so on. Chances are there’s a magazine full of the types of characters you’re attempting to portray.
3) NAME DIRECTORIES
Lots of authors struggle with naming their characters. Coming up with a few names might not get you. But trying to name a dozen on more, big and small, of all types, gets to be a challenge. Especially since you likely want to stay away from using the names of close family and friends.
You don’t have to go it alone. Fortunately, a gazillion books and websites can help you with this. Sites for first names are really plentiful. Just Google “baby names” and you’ll come up with all sorts of lists, even by ethnicity. Parenting magazine online has a list of popular names from all over the world. An article on Writer’s Digest called, “The 7 Rules of Picking Names for Fictional Characters” has useful tips such as “Get Your Era Right.”
If you’re a woman I’m sure you remember listening to your parents read or tell you fairy tales about the beautiful princess riding off into the sunset with her charming prince and living happily ever after. Although we’ve come a long way since the days when I was a kiddie, many girls still get their pretty little heads stuffed with these fairy tales in one way or another. From books to movies to television. It’s as if the fairy tales, or something close to them, are wired into our DNA.
Is it any surprise, then, that variations of the happy-ever-after theme so often seep into the grownup stories that many women write? There’s often a beautiful girl with beautiful hair and beautiful eyes. And a tall sexy, breathtakingly handsome hunk. Together they ride off into the sunset. Men usually have no such illusions about their lead characters. They will shove them into all sorts of mischief and mayhem. Women are getting better about this, but I still see it, especially in beginning women writers.
Yet real life for women rarely if ever resembles a fairy tale. We gain too much weight, we need makeup to improve our skin and eyes–or so we believe. Worst of all, we age. We don't stay 19 or 29 forever. Gasp! We get cellulite and wrinkles and saggy skin. In our relationships, we argue and say nasty things. We lie and cheat and get lied to and cheated on.
And if statistics are any guide, most of our relationships—whether marriage or shacking up—don’t last forever. Even when they do, we soon discover that our mate has flaws and quirks and personality traits we could very well live without. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we will admit that we’re pretty darn flawed too. And that together we’re two imperfect beings who have created an imperfect union, despite all the love we may continue to have for each other.
So why are we so soft on our female lead characters? Women writers especially? Why do we often have to make them flawless or nearly so? And why do we create plots with these silly happy-go-lucky endings? I think it has to do with all the fairy tales we tell our impressionable young girls and women. It starts at a very young age and really never stops. It continues with sappy love stories in novels and movies and on TV for women. I enjoy an occasional sappy love story as much as anyone. The challenge is to dare to be different and keep it out of our writing. (Unless you're writing a romance novel. Then you're excused. Maybe.)
In my early novels I struggled with this. I was afraid that if I deviated from the norm for women’s fiction–with the pretty girls and happy-ever-after endings–that no one would buy my novels. A couple of editors even suggested that I make my lead character more attractive or more appealing in some way. I was encouraged to write happier endings because that’s “what readers want.”
But do they really? All the time? I know I don’t. In my last novel, Money Can’t Buy Love, I decided to try something different and created a deeply flawed lead character. Lenora Stone struggles with her weight. She lacks poise and self-confidence. In short, she’s like many of us. Then I asked myself, what would such a vulnerable woman do if she suddenly came into a huge fortune and captured the attention of the man of her dreams? Would she smarten up, gain confidence, and go on to lead a life of dreams? Or would her flaws kick in and lead her down a twisted path?
The ending of Money Can’t Buy Love falls somewhere in between. It’s not joyful, nor is it sad. It’s real. Lenora suffers consequences but there's a glimmer of hope. I believe that readers are more diverse and more adventurous in their literary tastes than we sometimes give them credit for. And that they can enjoy stories of flawed female lead characters who don’t meet deliriously happy endings.
I encourage beginning women writers to challenge themselves. Be bold and adventurous and willing to take reasonable risks with your female lead characters. Explore options outside of your first instinct to always protect them. You will be rewarded with deeper characters and far richer stories.