Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Creating Dynamic Characters

No matter what genre you write in, chances are you'll be writing about characters. And you'll probably want to have characters that the reader can identify with, sympathize with, and root for.

It's pretty easy to do. When I'm creating characters, either protags, antags, or supports, I do a mental checklist of the following criteria:

UNIQUE- What makes this person different from anyone else? Why is this hero the ONLY ONE who could be in your story? Include profession, race, gender, age, and brief description.

GOALS- What are your protagonist’s goals? Dreams? Fears? Things they desperately want?

FLAWS- What personal, internal problem will get in the way of the hero reaching his/her goals? Addiction? Illness? Disability? Neuroses?

QUIRKS- What are the strange, bizarre, personal, or human traits this hero possesses? Habits and rituals?

PERSPECTIVE- First person or third person, and why?

SUPPORT- Who are the supporting, returning characters that assist your hero? Friends? Co-workers?

ENEMY- Your villain should have all of these traits as well. Who will make a worthy opponent for your hero?

EXAMPLE- Lt. Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels, Chicago Violent Crimes featured in the novels WHISKEY SOUR & BLOODY MARY, and the EQMMM short stories ON THE ROCKS & WITH A TWIST

UNIQUE- Jack is 46, divorced, unlucky in love but a good cop–she had to be to become a Lieutenant in the male-dominated fraternity of the CPD. Jack has dedicated her life to the Job, but is now at an age where she’s regretting never starting a family.

GOALS- Jack needs to do well in her career; that’s the only time she feels good about herself. But she also realizes, for the first time, that there’s more to life than work, and she wants to broaden her personal life.

FLAWS- Jack has insomnia, due to her fixation with her job. She constantly questions her own actions, wondering if she could have done better. She doesn’t think she’s worthy of love.

QUIRKS- Her insomnia causes her to max out her credit cards watching the late night Home Shopping Network. She worries too much about fashion, and is envious of those who dress better than she does.

PERSPECTIVE- First person for Jack, third person for the villain.

SUPPORT- Overweight partner Det. Herb Benedict, accountant boyfriend Latham Conger, mother Mary Streng, ex-husband Alan Daniels, criminal friend Phineas Troutt, ex-partner PI Harry McGlade, hellspawn cat Mr. Friskers.

ENEMY- In WHISKEY SOUR, a serial killer called The Gingerbread Man is making snuff movies in his basement and wants to make one with Jack. In BLOODY MARY, a maniac is dismembering people and leaving accessories of Jack’s at the crime scenes.

As you can see, Jack isn't perfect. Her problems add a dimension to the stories beyond the conflict which fuels the plot.

How about your characters? I have a worksheet download here if you'd like to try it for yourself.


  1. It's probably different for every writer. I'm sure some are very off-the-cuff. I am and I'm not. There are definitely some things I need to know up front. One of the questions I typically ask myself about a character is: "What would they rather do than what they're doing?" That is to say, if I've got a cop character, would they rather be a bartender? If a scientist, did they always dream of being a scientist or do they secretly dream of being a linebacker or an actor? Some characters will want to be what they are. But all. And for me that opens up another dimension to the character that may not actually be played out, but will be something that at some level modifies their behavior.

  2. I like that, Mark. There are innumerable ways to make a character come to life.

    I like Joe's worksheet, but I might add: Background.

    What kind of household were they brought up in? Religious or not? Were they picked on as a kid? Did they have lots of friends in high school, or just a few? When was the first time they got stinking puking drunk? What kind of flower did they buy their date for the prom? What was it they most wanted for Christmas when they were eight? When was the first time they had sex? What pushes their buttons? What are they so passionate about that they could kill another human being? And so forth.

    Much of the background will never make it onto the finished page, of course, but I think it's important for an author to know these things in order to understand motivation.

    Also, Joe: Why first person for Jack, third person for the villain?
    It seems like a wonderful way of cheating, and I've adopted that format for my current project. But what motivated you to go that way in the first place?

    Just curious.

  3. I like the simple worksheet, Joe. I've seen a number of these before, and they can run to 3 or 4 sheets, sometimes more. But I do agree with the good Captain there - homelife and younger days have such a bearing on a real-life personality, and I think some indication of the type of childhood might enlighten the reader as to the personality of the character.

  4. Good points, folks.

    I'd put the 'what would they rather be doing' question under GOALS.

    Backstory can be hugely important, just make sure it stays backstory. Anything more than a paragraph, or a quick reference here or there, and it becomes exposition, which brings the story to a grinding halt.

    Jack lost her father at an early age, andher mother raised her by herself. Very important, but I spent a total of six sentences on it in three books.

    Let the reader fill in the blanks and make the associations. If you spend more than a page on backstory it ain't backstory, dammit! Write that story instead.

  5. "Let the readers fill in the blanks and make the associations."

    This, IMO, is all important. Avoid "on the nose" writing. Make the reader work a little, make the connections herself, and your story will benefit.

  6. I agree about backstory. I struggle with it, too, especially now that I've moved more toward thrillers than mysteries. Keep the sucker movin' along. But I as the writer need to know a lot and prefer to hint at things. For instance, I'm working on a project now where someone asks the main character where she lives, which would seem to be a straightforward question, but the fact is, due to her business, she's almost never there, and often spends months on the road with clients (she's a high-level security expert), and her relationship to her "home" is complex and to her, a little disturbing. But all I really had her do was hesitate and show reluctance about telling him that her "home" was a loft over a gym she owned, but didn't operate. And when he comments that it seems like a lonely life she just shrugs and changes the topic. One line can speak volumes.

  7. As for the 1st/3rd POV switch---oddly enough, when I wrote Whiskey Sour, there wasn't a lot of that being done. In fact, I didn't know of anyone that did it, and I remember it being risky to try (along with writing in present tense, which also wasn't done much.)

    Now, I see it all over the place. Which probably means that it works.

    POV is dictated by the story, not the writer. In 3rd person, the character with the most to lose or gain is the one who should be describing the scene.

    In 1st person, you're stuck in one character's head, which means you can miss a lot of stuff happening away from the character.

    Since people other than Jack are threatened and killed in my books, I needed to get out of Jack's head and follow the action. Sometimes that's with the killer. Sometimes that's with another character.

    In Rusty Nail, besides Jack and the killer, I also switch to Herb's POV, Phin's POV, and another character's POV, maing 5 POVs in what is essentially a 1st person narrative.

    The trick is to know when to switch (when there is no other choice) and to make it seemeless (which is why I now use prologues and begin with a 3rd person killer POV--to make the later switches easier on the reader)

    In an upcoming book, I'm playing with POV again, by using two alternating 1st person POVs (one for hero, one for villain) along with the 3rd person cut-aways.

    Let the story tell you what it needs.

  8. Very nice, Joe. Thanks!

  9. I'm not sure you answered the question, Joe. I understand why you used the third-person for the other characters, but why not use the third for Jack? Yes, it's intimate and clearly makes her the main character, but couldn't you have done that with her in the third person? Then there wouldn't have been that risk of the first to third POV problem.

    Yes, it's used more commonly now. I started reading Sue Grafton's "S" is for Silence and she uses it for the first time. Coben's using it, Jonathan Kellerman, Robert Crais. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I thought it worked wonderfully in Crais' LA Requiem. I liked it in one of Kellerman's Alex Delaware novels, but not in others.

  10. James Patterson uses first/third in his Alex Cross novels, starting with ALONG CAME A SPIDER (1992).

    I read once who is credited with doing this first, but can't remember the author's name.

    Any help?

  11. I grew up reading Spenser and Travis McGee, and wanted to write in 1st because of them.

    Besides being more intimate and immediate, first person allows the reader to become the hero. There's a connection there that 3rd person doesn't have.

    Plus, in the mystery thriller genre, it's the accepted classic form of the narrative.

  12. Patterson may have been first--at least in the mystery genre.

  13. "In 3rd person, the character with the most to lose or gain is the one who should be describing the scene."

    Not sure I agree with this. At least not in a strict sense. Using a minor character's POV can sometimes be more illuminating, and more interesting.

    Whatever works for the story.

  14. Anonymous11:34 AM

    I'd love to check out your character worksheet you mention in this post, but the link is broken. Have you posted it somewhere else?13021

  15. Anonymous11:19 PM

    So, is creating a character around a central idea that fuels actions, personality, and problems a bad idea?