Monday, January 13, 2014

Fleshing Out Your Cardboard Characters By Debra Mullins

My first ever guest at the Susan Meier Blog for writers is here to continue the discussion on Characters. Deb is a Rita Finalist, who has written for Avon and TOR and is currently working on the third book in the Atlantis series. Characters are Deb's strong suit! I always love her books. So, please welcome Deb Mullins.


I’d like to thank Susan for allowing me to guest on her blog today. She asked me to talk about writing characters. Below is the technique I use when creating mine.


Every memorable story has a memorable character, and whatever is happening with the plot, it’s the character that people remember. But characters are more than just names on a page.  Character is about who these people are.  How will they react to the situations in which they find themselves?  What do they need to learn in order to earn the prize at the end of the book?  Basically, characters need to be just as complicated as real people, and we have to build them that way.


Below are seven things you can do to flesh out a character that seems too flat on the page and make the people in your head come across as people you might meet on the street.


1.    Dominating characteristics. Every character starts with dominating characteristics that are necessary to the story and are usually integral to the internal conflict. Is your character angry? Happy-go-lucky? An optimist? Someone burned by love? Distrustful? Blindly loyal? Why is he like this? The writer needs to decide the dominating characteristics to form the first outline of the character.


2.    Cultural Heritage. Everyone comes from somewhere, and ethnicity and cultural heritage play a big part in how characters look, their views on the world (including the opposite sex), and which values they hold dear. You can find influences of cultural heritage around food, holiday celebrations, and religions, just to name a few. Think of your own family and your own cultural heritage. What foods and traditions have been passed down in your family, and how do they affect you? Can you even imagine life without them?


3.    Picking the right name. For me, picking the right name is essential to creating the right connection for the reader. Once I name a character, the character then becomes a person in my head, with all kinds of quirks and personality traits. I once named a character the wrong name. I needed a loner of a bounty hunter for a western I was writing, but I named my character Donovan. Instead of my loner, I got a charming smooth-talker, and that wasn’t going to work for my story. I changed the character’s name to Jack and suddenly I had my loner. Think about all aspects of the name, like meaning and sound. Hard sounds like G and K and T create a tougher image than soft sounds like S or C. Take into account the dominating characteristic you are trying to convey (loner) and the cultural heritage of the character (illegitimate son of a saloon girl in America’s old west). The name can help you build that image.


4.    Give them a family. Where and how characters grew up and which family members were involved in their upbringing can put a stamp on things like religious outlook, pronunciation/word choice in dialogue, manners, ethical choices and even things as simple as how they relate to children, the elderly, authority figures, and so on. For instance, someone whose grandparents died before he was born might be uncomfortable around the elderly, as opposed to someone who was raised by a grandmother. Even if family members are not in the character’s life, the writer needs to know what happened to them since this, too, plays into how a character reacts to situations.


5.    Negative characteristics and quirks. While dominating characteristics often can be positive, no one is without negative qualities or even simple quirks that make them unique. Determine the negative qualities the character may have and how this can play into the internal conflict, as well as how quirks can make a character jump off the page. A good example of this is Adrian Monk from the TV show Monk. Here we have a socially stunted detective with a laundry list of obsessive-compulsive disorders, whose fears tend to make for very humorous situations. However, his obsession with neatness and order has also created a man who notices when the smallest thing is out of place, making him a great detective.


6.    Determine core beliefs.  Core beliefs tie into internal conflict and are decisions made about life that are formed at a young age, often as the result of a traumatic incident. An incorrect core belief is a core belief that the character formed that is actually not true, but it can’t be changed until its fallacy is proven to the character. This occurs by constantly challenging the incorrect core belief by the events around the external conflict. These challenges create internal conflict—a fight the character has within himself—and drives the story. How the character resolves this conflict and changes his incorrect core belief is the meat and bones of the story and motivates the character throughout the story. It also makes for a very realistic character.


7.    Stay in character, except when it’s more important to step out of character. What makes stories fascinating is that moment when the character does something that seems completely out of character, such as the straight arrow law man robbing a bank. As people, we are automatically fascinated by why our protagonist stepped out of character. An example of this might be Eve Dallas from the J.D. Robb In Death series. Eve Dallas is a tough New York City homicide detective who doesn’t go in for fancy clothes or girly stuff. However, when her best friend Mavis gets pregnant, Eve throws a baby shower, complete with all kinds of fluffy, female trappings. This is completely out of character for her, since she absolutely hates fuss of any kind. Why would she do something so uncharacteristic? Because she loves Mavis. For Eve, loyalty to her friend is more important than her tough image. And this says tons about her character.


I hope you found this article helpful. January 2014 marks my 15th year as a published author, with 15 books under my belt. To celebrate, I’m writing a blog every day of the month. Anyone who comments gets put in a drawing for that day to win one of my backlist titles. Please stop by the blog at and see what we’re chatting about!



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