A dozen years ago I read a book by author, Debbie Macomber, called Dakota Home. By the time I finished, I’d fallen in love with her hero, Jeb. I couldn’t stop thinking about him and for three weeks I headed to bed early so I could dream about him. He wasn’t some shirtless hunk, but a rancher who probably wore overalls to do chores. I’m guessing Macomber spent months (or even years) working with the character of Jeb until she had it just right. Twelve years later I still think about Jeb and his family.
If we fast forward to 2015, it’s obvious the writing industry has changed considerably. Today’s authors are sometimes forced to crank out 3-4 (or more) books per year, leaving them little time to create a cast of unforgettable characters that will stay with their readers long after the book has ended. Three years ago as I set out to self-publish my first novel, Last Chance Texas, it became apparent to me that while I liked the hero, Nathan Wainwright well enough, he didn’t stand out as an unforgettable hero. Something had to give.
The best money I ever spent was purchasing The Complete Writer’s Guide to HEROES & HEROINES: Sixteen Master Archetypes by Cowden, LaFever, and Viders. Not only did it help me create authentic characters, but it gave specific examples of how different character types would interact and what problems they’d undoubtedly encounter in their relationships. There are a multitude of books on character development, and although this worked for me, it’s not for everyone. Which leads me to
Tip number one:if something isn’t working for you in creating believable characters, mix it up and try something else. Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.” It turns out he was right!
Tip number two: Get your hands off that keyboard, go sit outside for hours and think long and hard about those characters you’ve created. I can’t explain what it is about breathing in the air and staring out at our pasture of donkeys and goats that gets my creative juices flowing, but it does. Sensory imaging has become very important in the characters I create. I often close my eyes and listen to the characters speaking to one another. I cannot articulate how or why this works; I just know it does.
Tip number three: Write down at least one page of questions to ask your characters. Conduct an interview with them. If you don’t know how they’ll answer the questions you posed, you don’t know them well enough. (I do this silently at my computer so my husband won’t be tempted to cart me off to an assisted living center).
The rewrites for Last Chance Texas took me over a year to complete. In the end, hero Nathan Wainwright barely resembled that beta male I’d created in the first chapter of the book. Admittedly I was discouraged at times, thinking about how most of my friends were cranking out books at a frantic clip while I was not. Still, I stuck to my guns and when I read an excerpt from Nathan Wainwright’s point of view at a book signing several years back, those listening fell instantly in love with him, and one went so far as to ask, “Does Nathan have a brother?” Of the six books I’ve written, this will forever be my favorite. Maybe that’s because I had to work so hard to get it right. Students learn a great deal by doing the homework required; so do writers.
Someone once said, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” I have no idea who said it, but it’s particularly true in writing. For all you readers out there, who is your unforgettable character and why? I’d love for you to leave a comment! Happy reading and writing.