Most writers know all about creating character profiles and writing GMC (Goal, motivation, conflict). They know that characters need believable backgrounds and both internal and external conflict. Yet I still read books where the writer has mixed up the characters’ names because they can’t remember who’s talking or whose head they’re in.
They don’t know their characters.
As a reader, that’s really irritating. It makes me think the author doesn’t care enough about their characters to know them properly and doesn’t care enough about their book to double check all those things and make sure it’s right. The fact that the book has generally gone through several rounds of editing and no one has picked it up tells me that the characters being confused are too similar to each other.
So how do you know when you know your character well enough that you won’t get them mixed up or forget who they are?
Many years ago, my writer friend attended a workshop run by Gary Crew who said he knew the character when he could hear his voice. Other authors might say they know their characters when they can see their walk or the way their eyes crinkle at the corners when they smile. That last description has been overused in the last three books I’ve read (one series by one author) to describe one of the major characters – a different one in each book.
For me, I rarely know my characters thoroughly enough to finish writing a book until I’ve written at least three chapters. It doesn’t matter if the chapters are from their point of view, or another character’s. What matters is that I learn how my character walks, talks, responds to other people and situations, and how they do those things differently to everyone else in the book.
By the end of three chapters, I’ve begun to think about my characters as real people. Their personalities have settled and their reactions to things that happen in the book match that. By the end of three chapters, I’ve worked out where the holes are in the character profile and how I need to change the character background or plot to account for the way the character responds to situations.
Of course, most of those three chapters end up on the bin, but at least I know who my character is.
One example of this process is Heath in Warrior Pledge. The book opens with Checa sitting on the mountainside watching the sunrise, waiting for Heath to arrive. Heath’s arrival is much anticipated and heralded by nature with as much fanfare as the new day. He bursts onto the scene in a bubble of joy which swings mercurially through hurt to anger. The scene shows Heath’s personality perfectly and lets the reader know exactly who he is and how he might respond to things that happen during the book.
That scene was one of the last scenes I wrote in the first draft.
I needed to write myself into Heath before I could portray him so accurately.
A challenge for you:
With the next book you read, make a note of when you thought you saw the true personality of the main character. Did you see it straight away? Was it revealed in a series of carefully or brilliantly scheduled actions? Were you told what the character was like, but he never lived up to the promise, always feeling two dimensional?
Which of those books did you like best?