Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Characters: Who's the Person Inside?

Five Scribe Readers:  I'm pleased to present two writing personas, Darlene Ryan and Sofie Kelly, whose newest release COPYCAT KILLING is rapidly climbing the Amazon Ranks.  She offers invaluable advice here.  I'm taking notes.  ~ Donnell

A couple of years ago, I took my mother to the funeral of an old friend. At the reception afterward, Mom was quickly surrounded by a group of women she hadn’t seen in more than twenty years. After the third round of having my cheeks pinched and hearing, “Is this the baby,” I escaped to the kitchen where there was a pot of strong coffee and a poker game going on. (Not a disrespectful gesture to the deceased; she’d been using her sweet, little old lady face and card-shark skills to bilk her son’s friends out of their gas money for years.)

After, as we headed home, I asked my mother about her conversation with her old friends. She caught me up on who was doing what and with whom, and then she sighed, “And of course nothing’s changed in Lowey’s life. Nothing ever does.” She shot me a sideways glance. “I know it’s a terrible thing to say, but I think I had the same conversation with her in 1963 that I had today.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Mom shrugged. “I’ve known her since your sister was a baby, but I don’t really feel I know her at all.” She laid a hand on her chest. “I don’t know the person inside. I don’t think anybody does.”

To make a character come alive for a reader, you need to know the “person” inside. The best characters are the ones who feel almost like a real person, not like the literary version of Flat Stanley. You need to know what your characters love, what they hate, what they think they should want and what they really do want to make them feel like real people to your readers.

Some writers know all the surface details about a character; what color her hair is, whether her eyes are blue or brown, and if she has Crocs or Jimmy Choo pumps in her closet, but they don’t know what her secrets are. And secrets can make a character feel more real.

What is your character is hiding? What is it that she doesn’t want anyone else to know? Maybe next to those expensive Jimmy Choo’s in her closet she has three pair of size eighteen sweatpants, two pair that are size ten, plus a pair that’s size six. A woman with three sizes of sweatpants in her closet is a different person from the woman who has five pair of tailored black pants, all a perfect size four.

Maybe you’ll share some of your character’s secrets with your readers. Maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll hold something back for a later chapter or another book. But knowing those secrets will help you figure out what kind of a person she is and how she’ll act. Maybe all your readers will learn is that your main character has fiery, red hair, while only you know it’s courtesy of L’Oreal. You may tell them that your hero has a university degree, but you might not share that he had to repeat Grade 2. 

Ask yourself, what scares your character? What makes her cringe with embarrassment? What does she lie about, even to her closest friends? What is he terrified of losing? What keeps him awake at night? What makes her laugh? Who broke his heart?

When you can answer these kinds of questions you’re a lot closer to knowing the person inside your character and your character is a lot closer to feeling alive.


Darlene Ryan is an award-winning author of young adult fiction including Five Minutes More, Responsible, Saving Grace, and Rules for Life, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. Her latest teen novel is Cuts Like a Knife.

As Sofie Kelly she writes the New York Times bestselling Magical Cats mysteries including Curiosity Thrilled the Cat, Sleight of Paw, and her newest release Copycat Killing.

Visit Darlene at www.darleneryan.com

Visit Sofie at www.sofiekelly.com

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