Character Building

Today I want to talk about character building. Like most good authors, I read a lot. One of the things I have noticed recently in new material is characters not constrained by rules with one dimensional personalities capped with a thousand dollar hairdo. I don’t know about you, but I quickly stop reading those books.

Characters need to live and breathe on the page. As a writer it is your job to make your characters come to life, which means they have to live in your head first. I realized when I was working on getting all the Raven post-its and audio files into one place just how much there is about Raven that y’all don’t know, but that make her the whole person growing on the pages.

When I create characters, I start with a name. It may not be *the* name, just a name that is in the right ballpark. Raven began as Rhianna, then Nicole, then Nikki before eventually becoming Raven. Then I give her a basic appearance. Hair color, eyes, skin, weight, height. Just enough to get a mental picture of this character. The mental picture is important. Your character begins as a mental stick figure. Its strange that giving them a few details leads to other details you didn’t imagine at first. We naturally fill in the blanks that aren’t provided until the character fits in comfortably in our imagination. Its important as a writer to then put those details in your notes. Those little fiddly things your imagination adds may never all get in a book, but they’re important for your writing.

Once I have the physical, I start spinning it around in my head. Who is this person? What makes her tick? With Raven, I knew she was going to be a police detective. The whole series is based around that premise. How did she become a detective? What sacrifices did she make to achieve her goal? Why? What experience made her who she is?

During this process I made a stack of notes. Things like “father dead” then later “father killed on duty.” “Mom pissed-why?” This stack of notes, which seem meaningless by themselves, build into Raven’s backstory. Ten books in, readers still don’t have all of Raven’s secrets. I mean, it would be a pretty boring story if you knew everything by book three.

Its important, when brainstorming, to remember the physical. Not attractiveness, breast size or any of that nonsense, but details. Scars. Tattoos. Hairstyle. That weird toe on Levac’s left foot. Raven is described as a tall, athletic woman with unnaturally red hair that spills down her back and green eyes that seem to glow with an inner fire. Occasionally her pale skin is mentioned, or the tattoos on her left shoulder if visible. I think I referred to her breasts as “full” once, and seriously what the hell does that even mean?

Levac on the other hand is short, with messy black hair, a five o’clock shadow and eyes no one is sure are brown or green. He dresses sloppily, his clothes are stained and he eats all the time. He’s not exactly physically fit but still capable of chasing down badguys with Raven.

Here is the interesting thing. I never said Raven was attractive. The first time she is introduced the reader learns she is tall, has dark red hair, green eyes and is pale, as vampires tend to be. The next description basically the same. Her outfit is more important than anything else.

Same goes for Levac. I never said what color Levac’s skin was, nor did I say he was overweight. I’ve lost track of the number of people who assume he is overweight and Caucasian because of his behavior.

I am pointing this out because it is terribly important to your writing. Readers will feel a tighter connection if you let their imagination fill in details. They need enough to form a basic mental picture, not so much they are forced to see what you, the author sees.

What readers need to know is the stick figure and small details, mixed with the rich background that makes a character step off the page and into their imagination.skyesig