This month, I thought I would include the Maine Crime Writers in something I’ve just started doing at my own blog on Wednesdays, to celebrate something the Twitter-verse calls #WriterWednesday, or #WW. In the Twitter world, you use that hashtag and then include all the writers in your sphere as a little virtual shout out. Don’t worry: I’m not going to do that. Instead, this #WriterWednesday I thought I would post an excerpt and exercise from my new writing guide, Creating Complex Characters. The guide is broken down into five daily lessons and corresponding exercises that help writers master the fine art of character building. Since I know a fair number of our readers at MCW are writers, it seemed like this might be appreciated.
This excerpt is from day two of the book, titled Getting to Know Your Characters:
On day one of Creating Complex Characters, I looked at one of the biggest questions out there for fiction writers: What motivates your character? Now, let’s move on to those little details that make a character come to life for readers. Things like personal history, physical characteristics, financial constraints, and spiritual philosophies all come into play here. A lot of what you learn about your character in today’s exercise may never even be mentioned in your novel, but knowing them goes a long way toward informing your narrative. When you know your character inside and out, that knowledge bleeds into things like how they express themselves, how they interact with others, and what their perspective may be in a situation. Not to mention that, if you’re writing a series, knowing the ins and outs of your character up front means you won’t have to second guess yourself in book three when you can’t remember what color your heroine’s eyes are or whether your antihero drives a Camaro or a Prius.
Take Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum as an example of how powerful knowledge of the little things can be for readers. In Evanovich’s bestselling series, bounty hunter Stephanie Plum is a good-old-fashioned Jersey girl with a tight-knit family, a philandering ex-husband, and two sexy-as-sin love interests with their own complicated back stories. What else do readers know about Stephanie?
She has a hamster named Rex, who represents the most enduring commitment she’s made thus far in her life. She has a wildly eccentric grandmother, Grandma Mazur. Her constantly revolving stock of cars is regularly repossessed, crashed, shot at, blown up, or otherwise destroyed, with the exception of Big Blue, Grandma Mazur’s seemingly indestructible 1953 Buick Roadmaster. Fans know how Stephanie’s marriage to Dickie Orr went bad and who he cheated on her with, what Stephanie likes to eat (peanut butter and olive sandwiches and Boston creme donuts), where she grew up, when she was born (October 12), what she wanted to be when she grew up (a reindeer, Peter Pan, Wonder Woman, a rock star, and a rock star’s girlfriend). In other words, Evanovich’s readers know plenty about Stephanie Plum, gleaned over the course of twenty-three books, four novellas, and a short story (as of this writing, anyway). We learned the bulk of that information, however, within the first two to three books—which means Evanovich knew that information within the first two to three books.
If you want to write an enduring series with characters who stay with the reader for the duration, then you need to go into it with a clear idea of those little details. For Evanovich, this might have been fairly simple because of the striking similarities between herself and Plum. In “A Conversation With Janet Evanovich” posted by Claire E. White on the Internet Writing Journal in January of 1999, Evanovich says, “I wouldn’t go so far as to say Stephanie is an autobiographical character, but I will admit to knowing where she lives.” Whether your character is secretly you or not, though, those little details that make us who we are can make or break a book or series.
Writing Exercise: 20 Questions
When I began writing my Erin Solomon mystery All the Blue-Eyed Angels, I was an undergrad at Goddard College. I’d only written literary fiction before that, so the mystery thing was a whole new ball of wax. I found myself getting more and more mired in the plot, and feeling less and less like I understood who my characters were or what role they played in the book. While I felt like I had a pretty good handle on my main character, the motivations of my secondary characters were murky at best. What made them tick? Why were they doing the things I was forcing them to do? What kind of life had they lived before I brought them to the page? In order to get to know those secondary characters better, I embarked on a little mission of discovery for each of them.
That’s what this exercise is about for you.
Begin with a character you don’t know well. This can be one you just thought up, or someone you’ve been writing for a while but with whom you never felt a real connection. And I know you might feel a little silly, but write the answers to the following questions from your character’s point of view.
(1) What was your first car?
(2) Do you believe in God? Why or why not?
(3) Favorite color?
(4) Favorite movie?
(5) Describe your first kiss.
(6) Cat or dog person?
(7) Favorite food?
(8) Famous person you most resemble?
(9) If you weren’t in your current career, what would you be doing?
(10) Where do you want to retire?
(11) Favorite sport? Do you prefer playing or watching?
(12) Which parent are you closer to?
(13) Favorite childhood memory?
(14) Worst childhood memory?
(15) One thing no one knows about you.
(16) Three words friends would use to describe you.
(17) Life of the party or wallflower?
(18) Favorite book?
(19) Who is your hero or heroine?
(20) What is your animal spirit?
When I ran through this exercise with a secondary character who’s kind of a loose cannon in All the Blue-Eyed Angels, Joe Ashmont, I came out with a better idea of where he came from and what vulnerabilities he brought to the table. It made me more empathetic toward the character, and I think ultimately served to make what could otherwise have been kind of a throwaway character, far more complex. Here are a couple of the answers I came up with:
Describe your first kiss.
Out behind the chapel with Becca, on a dare. Second base on that first kiss, at 10 years old. I was what they called an early bloomer. And Becca… Well, she was born good to go.
Cat or dog person?
Dog. The only good cat I ever met was a drowned one.
If you weren’t in your current career, what would you be doing?
Nothing I’d want to do but haul traps. Might as well put me in the ground the day I have to give up my boat.
And that’s the gist of the exercise. If you choose to go through the twenty questions, I’d love it if you would share an answer or two from your character’s point of view in the comments below! Or, let us know if you have other strategies for building memorable characters.
Jen Blood is author of the bestselling Erin Solomon Mysteries and the 5-Day Fiction guide, Creating Complex Characters. To learn more, visit www.jenblood.com.