Since my first book was published, many aspiring authors have asked me for writing tips. I don't claim to be the last word in writing any more that I do in how to conduct one’s life, folks. But I can share what works for me, and if I have the good fortune to help anyone else out there realize their writing dreams, I'll be pleased as punch.
When I get an idea for a story I'll jot that idea down. However, before I write the first sentence of the story itself, I create the main characters. For me, the greatest plot cannot survive poorly realized heroes and villains. Well-developed, multi-faceted people will bring your book to life as nothing else can. You can have a story, but without the people to make that story happen, you got zilch.
Building a character is not as simple as giving your hero blond hair, blue eyes, and a love for pizza. I get to know my characters better than I know myself. Getting acquainted with them inside and out gives them depth, turning them into fully realized characters that sometimes write the story for me. In fact, they've been known to hijack my work. And in every case, they have turned it into something better than what I originally planned.
I'll show you how I build a heroine from the ground up. Allow me to introduce Wenda, a fairy who doesn’t know she’s a fairy, living among humans. She comes from a planned series of YA books tentatively titled Dragonfly.
Physical attributes are easiest to start with, so that's where I go first. Height, weight, body frame, and face get me started. I frequently use the appearance of a celebrity or someone I personally know as a guideline to help me get a good visual of the character. I'll even reference a stranger in the coffee shop if that person entrances my imagination.
Here are Wenda’s vital stats:
Height: 5’3”/Weight: 98 lbs
Hair: White-blond, iridescent highlights, long and wavy
Body: Long, lithe, thin (almost painfully so); looks like a breeze would knock her over
Face: Long, thin features with overlarge eyes; humans call her an alien; forest green eyes, very exotic looking
Mouth: small bow mouth
Next, I take a peek in the character's closet and list what's in there, including accessories and shoes. A character's style can tell you a lot about them. In Wenda’s case, she dislikes unnatural fibers and shoes. She’s even allergic to synthetic fabrics, a clue that she’s not quite like the rest of the people surrounding her.
Dress: prefers very light and natural fabrics, synthetics make her itch with a rash
Shoes: slippers when she must wear any; barefoot when able
Now we move on to mental and emotional makeup. I find picking out imperfections first and foremost is an excellent jumping off point to getting to know my new friend. Yes, your hero/heroine must absolutely have imperfections. He/she is a cardboard cutout of a person without them. Everyone is flawed and watching your hero struggle to overcome his flaws is a huge chunk of the entertainment for your readers.
Wenda’s Imperfections: Skin has ethereal white tinge, she looks ‘different’ and is easily bullied; rarely stands up for herself but will defend her ‘grandmother’ the woman who took her in as a baby (who may be half-fey)
See? We already have a conflict brewing outside of the plot line, spicing your story nicely. Now you can get into the character's strengths. Wenda is also smart, protective, brave, loyal, and puts others' well-being ahead of her own.
Also illuminating a character are her habits and hobbies. Wenda’s first act upon getting home from town or school is to kick off those hated shoes. She checks on her grandmother, who she lives with. Wenda’s grandmother is considered a witch or wise woman, depending on who you ask in town. She’s continually concocting herbal remedies and Wenda is happy to help her or, if the grandmother is quite busy with her medicines, making their dinner.
Wenda also enjoys walking alone in the forest, climbing trees to look over the town near where she lives, or daydreaming by the nearby creek. Because she is different from most, she keeps to herself a great deal. Sometimes the things she imagines come true.
Next I want to know about this character’s home and living conditions. Think about how you would view a character living in a singlewide trailer furnished with thrift store items. This opens up new insights. Why does he live this way? Is he hiding his wealth from greedy family members? Showing everyone else how money doesn't really affect him? Ridiculously frugal because he fears not having enough in the future?
As mentioned, Wenda lives with her grandmother, or the woman she believes to be her grandmother. Their home is small and simple without many luxuries, located just outside of a grim little industrial town. I am still musing over the time and exact location of this place right now, but I will have that locked down before I begin writing the book.
Birthplace and date are also important to note. Region and cultures vary widely as do the mindsets of certain decades. A character born to hippies in the sixties is going to have a vastly different outlook on life from one born in the technologically booming decade of the eighties.
Wenda was born in the land of Faerie, located in a different dimension from the World of Man. She has vague recollections of her earliest years, but has forgotten that she is not human or that her few memories are of another land.
What I want to know most about my characters are their motives. What is it that drives them? What do they desire most? In Wenda’s case, she wants people to like her and stop picking on her, to be a good granddaughter for her elderly grandmother, to get far away from the town she lives in, and to somehow be ‘more’...though she’s not quite sure at the outset what ‘more’ is.
So in a nutshell, here are the main points I use when building a character:
What's in the closet
Home and living conditions
Now that I have the basics of my heroine, I next devise a timeline of her life from birth to the point where the story begins. This is where I discover the life-changing events that shaped her into who she is now.
Year 0: Wenda is born to the king and queen of the Faerie along with a twin brother; twins are almost unheard of in Faerie, so their birth is regarded as a great omen; however the Seer Faerie sees early death for the boy and death for Wenda before her 20th birthday
Year 5: The children are always supervised in hopes of forestalling the curse upon them; however a traitor faerie bewitches their nanny; the children manage to wander into the World of Man and are cut off from Faerie, PROLOGUE, the boy dies in our world but Wenda survives, taken in by old grandmother who sees things of the next world
Year 12: Bullied and teased for being different, Wenda meets a stranger only she can see; the stranger is from the land of Faerie, her back itches as wings are forming, story begins
Typically, my timelines for characters are much more in depth. However, Wenda is quite young to start with, so the timeline is shorter than the norm. More may be added as I continue to work on other characters in the series. Characters who are adults get a great deal more information in their timeline as every major event from their history is noted.
This may seem a huge amount of work, and it can be. Will I use all the information I've gathered about Wenda in my book? Probably not. Some of it will never show up in the story at all. But I now know every nuance of her personality and how she'll act in any situation I throw at her.
This in-depth method of discovery means I have never been at a loss when writing from any character's point of view, nor do my characters do anything at odds with their personalities. Taking the time to thoroughly develop them makes writing easier for me in the long run.
This is my process of character development. It works well for me, but I readily admit it might not fit everyone. We all have our own styles of writing, and no doubt you'll find yours.