Character Creation in a Nutshell
Making up people is probably my favorite part of writing fiction. And when I say making up people, I don’t mean names and physical traits. I actually loathe those parts and will literally get stuck while writing a proposal for a new project because I don’t have a name for my MC. Then I’ll run out to Chipotle for some comfort food, look at the name tag of the first burrito engineer I see: Jim. That works for me. But Jim what? Jim Chicken? Jim Guacamole? Jim Steak? Jim Stakeman. Done.
And physical traits. If there’s nothing in the plot that might require a certain look or feature, then the creation process will go something like this: okay, I did red hair last time and blonde before that, so let’s go with brown. Done.
The parts that I love creating most are the character layers beneath the name and physical description. I usually start with a goal or situation that they’ll be put in during the opening scene(s). For example, Isabel from my upcoming NA, Third Degree is waiting on her acceptance into Johns Hopkins’ medical residency program. It’s obvious right away that she’s confident, even arrogant, but also wants this acceptance so badly. In order to get her through that scene and eventually show her reaction to hearing that she failed, I had to come up with a backstory as to:
1)Why she’s even in this situation of being a doctor at 18 years old
• she’s a child prodigy
• started college at age 12
2) Why this particular program is so important to her
• her adopted father is also a surgeon and went through this program
• it’s the best program in the country, maybe even the world
3) The reasons behind her failure which will lead to the need for change which is the central plot of the novel
• she doesn’t have the people skills/bedside manner
• fails the psychological portion of her intern exam
4) Why the rejection hits her so hard
• she doesn’t know what else to do, doesn’t know how to just be 18
• the rejection reminds her of the first five years of her life which were spent being shuffled between 8 different foster homes
• despite her confidence she is very lonely and has many fears that surface in the wake of this life altering rejection, fears relating to her ability to love and form relationships
All of the above is established in less than 10 pages. It’s tricky to paint that detailed of a picture in such a short amount of space while still showing a forward moving scene, but it’s important.
Following the introductory scene, I typically will then decide where I want my character(s) to end up emotionally by the conclusion of story. How will they grow/change? What will tip them over the edge? What will make them hit rock bottom? What metaphorical limbs will I need to cut off as the story progressing? And then finally, what or who will save them?
Many authors are afraid to write characters who have a significant amount of growing to do for fear that readers won’t like them, but if you start your character at an emotional level of 8 and 10 is the end goal, the story will lack depth and purpose. It takes a certain amount of bravery to write a character who begins at a 1 or 2, but the payoff can be amazing.
I hope you see this in Isabel Jenkins, my heroine in Third Degree. The relationship she develops with R.A. Marshall Collins exemplifies character growth which is why they are so perfect together. Preorder your copy here.