Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Let's talk characters

I worry about my heroes and heroines.
While surface characteristics like hair and eye color, height and weight are pretty easy to figure out, the more I read about or research characterization, character arcs, etc., the more I become Regan from The Exorcist. Panic and doubt become a living demon inside me. Eyes rolling, head spinning and ready to spew... I flounder. Is my hero strong enough? Is he sympathetic? Is my heroine making her own decisions or am I making them for her.
To put it bluntly, I doubt myself; I doubt my writing; and then I doubt my ability to create realistic, likable characters. And if they're not realistic or likable, then do they really deserve the happy ending I have planned for them?
Whenever I have these freak-out moments, I do what I've always done... I turn to the dictionary. I find comfort in the basics. Do you?
So what does "character" mean?
Here's my favorite definition: "The quality of being individual, typically in an interesting or unusual way."
A straightforward, punch-you-in-the-gut sentence that knocks the freak right out.
All we have to do is create, explore and write about interesting individuals. Basics... remember?
So what makes your heroes or heroines interesting? Professions, experiences, upbringing, etc. Start there and expand.
I received some invaluable feedback on my first manuscript. "Make your hero seem more like a normal guy," a contest judge said. "Give him a quirk."
At first, I balked at this suggestion. I mean, my hero must appear to be the perfect Alpha Male; he's every woman's fantasy. He doesn't have a hair out of place, EVER. Well... unless the heroine musses it with her fingers. ; )
But the more I thought about the idea, the more I liked it. Quirky little habits or traits makes my characters more approachable, not just to the reader, but to me, as well. (I always think of Indiana Jones and his fear of snakes. Loved that!) So in my latest manuscript, my hero has a habit of humming songs to himself as a distraction. For example, when he "rescues" his best friend's inebriated sister from a bar, he hums the lyrics to Dwight Yoakam's Little Sister. I love his quirk, because in this particular scene the meaning is two-fold: he tries to distract himself from the sight of her long, lean legs sliding off the bar stool AND remind himself that as his best friend's sister, this woman is off-limits to him.
The quirk also pops up later, when the heroine dares the hero to let her kiss him.
"Just one kiss," she whispered. "Just one kiss and if you don't feel the way I do, then I'll never mention any of this again."
"One kiss? That's it. Then you'll leave me alone."
"Yep. But, you've got to give me a chance though. None of that humming."
She'd noticed that.
"What?" She shrugged. "I see -- and hear -- things."
In this instance, the hero is surprised that this woman he's always thought of as his best friend's self-absorbed baby sister would have noticed anything about him, especially a trait so private and personal.
So how do you approach characterization?
Have you ever given your heroes or heroines quirks?
What works, what doesn't?


  1. LOL, Tina, that story of yours sounds so like something I would love to read!

    This whole character things is so important. I'm embarassed to say, the story I'm working on now is the first one that I've really loved my hero! Hopefully that means the reader will too.

    I haven't really thought of quirks in the same way you have. My heroine is very quirky, and her quirkiness works against her. My hero, OTOH, is probably too straight. Maybe he needs a quirk too.

    What's great about the way you use that in your snippet is that it shows so much about both characters.

  2. Here's a good exercise to try, and I hope will help you with better character development: people watch. Not only write down what you see (looks) but what you hear, smell, etc. Someone clears his throat constantly, person has a tic, has complicated relationship with a person he is talking with (on assumption, of course) or try to imagine what a person is really like though you don't know him that well. I think Mark Twain did that ...had a notebook of sketches and ideas about people he saw. (Could have been Dickens, though.)

    Also, don't give up or stop! Just keep trying and self-edit; look for ways to strengthen your characters.

    Good luck!

  3. Your characters and story sound very interesting, Tina. I spend a lot of time working on my characters before I start the book but I think their quirks kind of develop as I write them.

  4. Autumn: Thanks again for your help -- and thanks for your comments. When we target category romance I think it's easy to fall into writing the stereotypical Alpha Males that we think editors want to read. We play it a little too safe and our heroes sometimes, well, *whispers* fall a little flat. When we write what we want to read, when we avoid the predictable and we really delve into the uniqueness and quirkiness of our characters... that's when things get interesting -- and fun!

  5. Hey, Beth! How are you?
    Great idea! Sounds like a lot of fun, too.
    The "don't stop" part is key. Just keep on, keeping on...
    Take care.

  6. Thanks, Anne. Your characters and stories sound interesting as well. If romance is all about the journey to the HEA, then we have to create strong, jump-off-the-page characters who keep our readers' attention AND give our readers the emotional satisfaction of a truly great romantic journey and romantic ending. How we get to that point... I'm still working on that... :)