Character development in five oh-so-easy steps…

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A compilation of my characters from three books, created by image credits: my uber talented daughter: McKenna Bahr.

My first story came from a dream. I can still see her–a woman standing in a crowded amphitheater, anxiously watching a man climb a stage and use it as a throne. All knelt before him, except her. She alone was unable to bow.

I’m glad I woke and scratched down the dream. Today it has evolved into a mega-epic Irish historical fiction called Summoned. Although the dream gave me a basic plot, it was the woman that captured my imagination. Who was she and why couldn’t she bow? Why was she so afraid?

Some characters are tricky. They slip through one’s fingers, evading clear definition. She did not.  I got her right away–a young woman named Kathlin, seeking control over her own destiny. It’s a tradition in our family to create at least one gift at Christmas time. My daughter painted this bookmark of Kathlin…

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Others, though, refuse to be defined. The appear well-developed, but a bit of examination reveals all the little character holes. You can’t fool a reader. They know something’s off, even if they can’t put their finger on it.

My protagonist from Fairless, Tipper Jones,  falls into this category.

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Unlike Shay, the golden-haired fellow on the right, Tipper has continued to elude my capture. Here is what I’ve struggled with:

First draft feedback: But WHY is she so against the Traditions? What makes it so bad that she’s willing to risk extreme punishment to defy them?

Second draft feedback: Okay, so she’s had these visions and is seeking a dream-boy. But what about her? What does she need that she can’t get without sacrifice? And she’s static–she continues to miss opportunities to change and grow. She needs to soften up in the middle and stop being so reactive.

Sigh.

Third round and boy, am I scratching my head. Okay, so better. But we still don’t understand what she needs. It isn’t enough! We want more!!! Gack. What is it with this character? How do I flesh her out?

I headed back to my old stand-by how-to books and came up with this oh-so-easy list. It’s helping me. I hope it helps you!

1) Take some time and journal. I like to write as if I’m the character. Details may pop up that won’t make it into the story but will flavor the scenes.

For instance, I didn’t know Tipper Jones struggled with a poor self-image until I wrote about her early school days. Then I learned how she saw herself–through the eyes of her teacher, who felt she was too loud, too brassy; and her peers who didn’t understand her doubts. Beneath all that reaction and anger, she felt she was somehow broken inside.

2) Journal the arc. Where does the character start and where do they end up?

This gave me the framework for Tipper. In the beginning, she’s stubborn, set on self-reliance, and doesn’t trust easily. Knowing this helped me create characters and scenes that would challenge her to change.

3) What’s the lie? What is one simple belief -or the lie- that influences the action of this character? Answer this and you’ll know your character’s dramatic truth.

Tipper believes she can fudge the truth. She can bully her way through any situation and somehow it will all come out okay. But her self-image is distorted and she doesn’t realize until it’s too late that every action comes with a consequence. Her dramatic truth: her brokenness is actually her greatest strength.

4) Understand the difference between compelling and sympathetic. I want my readers to relate to my characters, not feel sorry for them. Quirks are fine, but I like to dig deeper to discover the real nuggets.

This is from a scene near the end of the second act:

Tipper crept to the back room and found Shay lying on a bed of straw. Soft blonde hair fell across his incredible golden eyes. She resisted the temptation to move the]lock back. He needed sleep. And she needed time to form her plan.

She’d left her home. Tossed traditions aside, put her family in danger and for what? What was the real reason she had left?

Self-determination.

She needed to define herself without rules placed upon her by others. She needed to seek and know who she was and what she was capable of. Sadness flared when she looked again at Shay, but she pushed it away. She wouldn’t find it staying with this irritating, lying, beautiful boy-o. It is time to rise above her limitations without his interference.

She smiled sadly. Or what he would call help.

In the pre-dawn light, she opened her pack and extracted a pen and paper, careful not to wake Shay. He deserved better than this. He was only trying to help her and his sister, but she could see no other way. She’d leave him a note and try to put into words the dream that demanded fulfillment.

Dear Shay,

            How can I leave you, knowing how angry you’ll be when you wake and find me gone? And yes, I’ve taken James, so no need to check.

             I’m sorry for this and for the worry it’ll cause, but I could see no other way. I have to finish what I started. I have to do this on my own.

             Protect her Shay, watch over Gwen and I’ll seek Liam. It’s as it should have been from the beginning. You on your quest, me on mine.

            Forgive me?

            Tipper.

 

She wanted to write what was in her heart. She wanted to tell him she loved him. The words were there, just aching to come out, but she couldn’t say them. Not yet. Not this way.

She folded the note and left it by his bedroll where he’d see it when he awoke. There was no helping the betrayal he’d feel. She stood up. It was time to for the journey to continue. She walked through the barn, keeping her movement soft and light. “Be well, Shay,” she whispered as she closed the door.

“Be well, Shay,” she whispered as she closed the door.

5) Allow their brokenness to become their strengths. And know, some characters shine without any effort while others will haunt you forever.

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Shamus O’Reilly, from Fairless as imagined by my daughter, McKenna. He’s one of my all time favorite boy-os and one of my writer’s group most-loved characters. 

Both Fairless and Summoned are on wattpad.com.

I wish you happy writing!

Sue

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About Sue, the YA Author

My passion includes writing and reading contemporary and fantasy young adult books.
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14 Responses to Character development in five oh-so-easy steps…

  1. Judith Post says:

    You’re so good! Loved the scene you included.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the support! And don’t you wish you had a handy artist like mine? I still laugh when I look at those drawings!

      Like

      • Judith Post says:

        Your daughter must have inherited your drawing and writing talents. Great genes run in your family.

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      • I agree! And as they should, the genes improve with each generation! (did you know her story on wattpad has 13,500 views?)

        Like

      • Judith Post says:

        That’s awesome! I never got the hang of Wattpad. I’m a drop out.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It can be hard to get that kind of readership from Wattpad alone. She has an Instagram account and uploads drawing of her characters. Most of her loyal followers are from there. Which gives me a good idea to pass along- why not upload pics onto Pinterest and link them to your author website and Wattpad? You could post picks of your characters favorite foods and scenes from the cities where they roam… You know, generate a buzz about your books. Pinterest is super easy to use too!

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  2. Judith Post says:

    You’re ahead of me, but that’s a great idea. I signed up for Pinterest, and that’s as far as I got. I’m a slacker:)

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  3. The #1 point above is outstanding advice! It’s one of the ways I try to approach it (although my impatience frequently gets the better of me), sometimes just sitting down and writing back story brings out character traits just not obvious in the novel itself. But, yeah, I find myself referring back to that history in a way that doesn’t necessarily show up directly in the book, but I know s/he’s acting a particular way because of that history.

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  4. Sue, all I really want to do is write, getting the hang of the blog, twitter, etc is beyond me, I guess. I have the basic on posting but not much else. I need to change the heading picture. Will get around to it. I wish I could do the pictures for my book. I did a couple illustrations for the book that I wrote for a couple kids in Seattle. They and their family was the main characters, and it was a space adventure with a dragon, no less. The want more chapters, help! I have to find something of yours and hopefully get time to read. If I have time I will read 3 or more books a week. Now I am writing a book and am 2/3 through. Your whole family is very talented!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Changing the blog header is pretty easy- it’s done from the main dashboard. Something like “appearances”. Wish I could help! The more I play with blogging the more I know, so just keep writing what you want to share and give it time. You’ll get the hang of it!
      Sounds wonderful – the picture books. I illustrate too. It’s very satisfying. What are you writing? I’d love to hear about it!
      And yes, my family is talented- very proud of my daughters!
      Cheers!
      Sue

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      • I wish I was as talented as your family with illustrations, I did a dragon and a dragon egg for a short book I wrote for some friends in Seattle. It was only 74 pages on 5 X 7 pages, had it put in book form with a cover and gave it to them and my family for Christmas. I visited the kids today and they wanted more chapters, guess they liked it. I have a murder mystery about 2/3 done. It is about a woman Realtor (I was a Realtor for 30 years) that get involved in trying to clear couple that bought the land around a lake, when one of the people turn up dead floating in the lake. The twist is that it isn’t him, so now we have to find out who it is and who did it. I do know how to change the header picture, just need to find a new one to take its place. So many things, so little time! Thanks for replying and would love to read something of yours.

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      • Well, children don’t lie! When they like something, then it must be good! Your murder mystery sounds awesome. What a great thing – tapping into your experience as a Realtor. I’m sure it will lend authenticity to your story! I know how it feels – too many things all clammering for attention! And as to my writing – you can find two of my stories (they aren’t completed uploaded yet) on http://www.wattpad.com. You can search under “Vermontwriter” or stories are “Fairless” and “Summoned.” Have a great day!

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      • Looked you up on Wattpad and read only one page of Fairless, would love to read more. I am thinking of asking if the people that I wrote the story for in Seattle would agree to let me post it on wattpad if I substitute new names for theirs. Can I upload it rather than type it? I looked around the site and couldn’t find the answer to that one. Thanks

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      • I hope they do! It’s a great place to put your stories and to read others. You upload one chapter at a time (copy and paste from your original document). First sign up, then go under “my works” there you can add your story. To add a chapter go to “add new part”. Good luck and thanks for the read!

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