What a Character!

A young woman emailed me recently after being frustrated in her attempts to create great characters for a story she was writing. Her complaint was that everyone in her book seemed like they were made up, and of course even though that was true she didn’t want it to be so obvious! She wanted to know what was she doing wrong? How could she make her characters come alive and seem as real as the characters in the books she was reading?
While writing my novel The Curse of Addy McMahon, I learned a ton about developing characters – my big problem were my secondary characters, though. In the early drafts, I just wasn’t paying as much attention to them. I’ll probably always write like that, but at least I know that I know how to develop them so that by the final draft they won’t be flat as the paper they inhabit.
So you understand what scenes and to whom I’m about to refer, here is a description from an interview I did with Cynthia Leitich Smith:
The McMahon family lore revolves around a curse. It started when Addy’s great granddad chopped down what was rumored to be a fairy lair back in Ireland. Addy blames this alleged curse for all the bad things that happen in her life, when maybe she should actually take responsibility for some of them.
Addy keeps her diary in graphic novel format, which she calls her “autobiogra-strip”. Through them we learn that her best friend Jackie hates her…the curse caused that? Everyone saw a mean comic she did…was that because of the curse? And worst, her dad died a few years ago, and it looks like her mom’s friend Jonathan may actually be a new love interest. That’s just gotta be the curse…doesn’t it?
So now that you know a little of what the story is, I can continue…
My favorite experience writing this book was watching the characters develop beyond the two-dimensional paper I was writing on. They feel like real people to me now, but they didn’t always – they developed after I received criticism that one character or another wasn’t fully drawn.
One reader told me he couldn’t “see or hear” the character of Jonathan. I realized the reason was because I couldn’t…so how could anyone else? I decided to give myself a leg up, and went on a search for some kind of reference material, as I often do when I illustrate. I picked a TV character upon which to model Jonathan and whose look matched how I saw him – handsome and charming. (If you’re curious, the TV show was West Wing, and the character was “Josh”, played by Bradley Whitford.)
I saw him differently than Addy would though, so when I (as Addy) ended up drawing him for her autobiogra-strip, he ended up looking like a total dork because that’s how Addy’s sees him.
I learned the most about character development (and, frankly, plot development as well), after my editor made a comment that now seems very funny to me. The book starts right before the Christmas break. The next scene was New Year’s Eve. I had completely skipped over the actual holiday! My editor told me that Addy didn’t have to celebrate it, but it seemed odd not to mention it at all.
That one little comment, scribbled in the margin of my manuscript, opened what ended up being many threads that I was able to weave throughout the story and which enabled me to bring it to a whole different – deeper – level.
For one thing, it became a vehicle for Addy’s best friend, Jackie. Addy has a Christmas gift for Jackie in the beginning which Jackie tries to open early because “She has to know absolutely everything,” Addy explains, revealing an important characteristic of Jackie’s that gives weight to a later scene (can’t tell you what it is though – it’s a spoiler!).
Another thing that was added after “The Christmas Comment” is a scene that takes place on Christmas day. Addy goes downstairs and sits alone in the pre-dawn darkness. Because of their fight, she and Jackie do not share their traditional opening of their stockings and trading candy canes for chocolate before everyone else is awake. I love that scene because it poignantly illustrates Addy’s pain at being estranged from Jackie.
I wouldn’t have thought to put that in if I hadn’t gotten the one line of critique from my editor!
Remember there are many ways to develop characters. Try to imagine their likes and dislikes, their quirks and personal habits – they’re all clues into a personality. Think of the various habits and attitudes of people you know and ascribe them to one of your characters. Whether it’s social tics, a certain way they hold a pencil, or how they always greet their friends, every well-rounded character needs something (actually, a lot of somethings!) to make them real and lure them off the paper and into a reader’s life.

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