I picked up a mirror the other day to check my make-up. It looked flawless. I was satisfied. A little bit of cream, a little bit of color and I looked ten years younger. It made me feel good inside. I could face anything that day because I felt confident of my “youthful appearance.”
As authors, isn’t this what we do—look in a mirror? The only difference is this mirror does not reflect what we are, but a way to see our characters who make our stories live?
What do you do when you first begin planning your story? Do you settle on a theme or plot? Or do you decide who will be the movers and shakers? In other words, your characters.
When you hold up that “mirror” of creativity, do your characters look flawless—the ones you give a little bit of cream and a little bit of color to perfect them? Or do you make them less than perfect—like the real people who have entered your life?
Do you take the childhood bully and use him/her for your antagonist? Maybe this is revenge for what you suffered years ago at the hands of this “mean little kid.” Don’t let your feelings dictate that this character is all bad. Maybe “meanness” was that kid’s middle name. But put a little bit of cream, a little bit of color to that person to show there is some good lying beneath that “bulliness.” Maybe he/she is a product of bullying from parents or siblings. You can do wonders in your story developing this character. You can determine if he/she stays the same, grows worse, or has the moment of conversion, becoming someone totally different.
You can do the same with your protagonist. You don’t want this person to be a “cardboard character,” either. A little spice mixed with the sugar gives them a believable personality. Do the same with your other characters. These are the “people” who draw your reader into the story. And that’s what you want.
In his book, On Writing, Stephen King explains his reactions when he first began working on Carrie, the story of a high school girl who is bullied and tormented by her classmates. His idea germinated with what girls could be like at that age, especially toward one who was an outcast. King listed four reasons why he struggled with the story. First, he wasn’t moved by the story. Second, he created a character he didn’t really like. Third, there was an all-girl cast he wasn’t comfortable with. Fourth, he felt the story demanded a longer than usual writing, and would not be acceptable by any publisher. So he tossed it into the trash can, and went to work. The outcome was his wife “rescued” the manuscript, told him she thought it was worth working. She convinced him to go back to it, and we know how that story ended. Even though Stephen said he never really liked Carrie, the character, it catapulted him to fame. Lesson? Work with your characters even if they don’t seem to “jell” in the beginning. (King, Stephen. On Writing, p.76).
In 2016, East Texas Writers Guild held their annual conference in Tyler. We were blessed with four wonderful speakers—Roger Leslie, Sara Cortez, Linda Burklin, and Sasha Sommers.
Roger spoke on characterization. Probably the most important point to me was to carefully consider the reasons for what your characters say—the arrangement of sentences for each character, what he called the “underground rivers of text” (reading between the lines), and the action occurring during dialogue that can slant the tone of the story.
Two books—On Writing and 45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt– would serve authors well in helping to develop characters that are realistic, interesting, and capable of moving your story forward.
Tons of material exist about characterization. Take what works for you, peer through the looking glass, and envision the people who will make your story live. Then bring them to life.