A Character By Any Other Name…
One of the perks of being a military wife is the opportunities I have to travel around and meet new people. In the last six years, I’ve lived in six different places in four different states. Craziness! But, oh, the wonderful people I’ve met!
From the wonderful women in the different PWOC (Protestant Women of the Chapel, basically a women’s fellowship group on post), to the “natives” in places like Hawaii, to the wacky neighbors (because you just never know who you’ll be living next to), I’ve met a wide variety of people. Some are quiet, some talk more than I do. Some enjoy being involved, some prefer to stick to themselves. Some are quirky or friendly or funny or hardworking or…well, the list goes on and on.
As a writer, I know that EVERYTHING is possible fodder for a story—well, so is EVERYONE. You’ve seen the t-shirt, right? CAREFUL OR YOU’LL END UP IN MY NOVEL!
God created us, each unique. We have our own quirks, our own fears and desires, our own pet peeves, our own beliefs. We have our own physical appearance as well—short, tall, thin, and curvaceous.
Why wouldn’t we make our characters just as unique?
I may not be much of a plotter, Lord knows I’ve tried! Still, the one thing I do sit down and do before I write a single word on a project is get to know the main characters. Yes, I scour the internet for photos. I fill our bios and answer questions. I explore their quirks and the backgrounds to figure out who they are today and why. By the time I get to the keyboard, I have enough information to fuel the brief idea of a plot I have.
The same goes for secondary characters. While they may not share the screen time with the main characters, their personalities—who they are—will carry some of the plot. While they may not need to be as fleshed out (depending on their importance to the story) as the main characters, they do need to be distinguishable.
So, how do we make our characters stand out? There are four great opportunities.
1. Dialogue: We all have unique speech patterns based on various aspects of who we are—education, where we’re from, personality. In most dialogue longer than a sentence, a reader should be able to tell who’s speaking, even without a tag.
2. Action: Just like speech, each person has their own quirks. Some people chew their finger nails when their nervous. Some people jiggle their leg when their bored. Some people have strange laughs or odd rituals. In Brandilyn Collins’ book on writing, she points out that every quirk started somewhere, and it will be more realistic if you can find out why your character insists on throwing her bejeweled hands around when she talks.
3. Inner Thought/Narration: We don’t always say what we think. We don’t always act on what we think, either. Sometimes we don’t show our emotions. The deeper your character’s POV, the more of an individual they’ll become. It adds a layer of dimension unique only to your character.
4. Conflict: Are you in agreement with yourself 100% of the time? Not likely. Everyone struggles with something. Much like an alcoholic struggles with the question of whether to drink or not, we may struggle with beliefs or fears. In my latest novel, Dividing Spirits, Graham struggles with his trust in the Lord because of how and why his mother died. Even though he is facing a war led by her killer, he still can’t reach beyond his own pain and fear. It shows in the way he acts, the things he says.
So for you writers out there, don’t be afraid to take the time to get to know your characters. I know writers who have character journals where they write “as their character”. Others interview their characters and keep asking “why” until they reach then end of that line of questioning (another suggestion from Brandilyn’s book). Whatever works. God didn’t create cookie-cutter people, neither should we.
Ralene Burke is a military wife, homeschooling mama of three, and aspiring writer/editor. She lives with her husband and young children in the beautiful state of Hawaii (for now). Her novel, Dividing Spirits, was a semi-finalist in the 2011 ACFW Genesis Contest. She’s also an assistant editor for Wives in Bloom, an online magazine for Christian military wives. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys time with her family or a good book. Often she finds herself the teacher and the student, the encourager and the fighter. And when He sees fit…a light piercing the darkness. Find out more at http://www.raleneburke.com.