Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Last month, we talked about where our writing ideas come from: Dreams, historical events, poetry or movies, or even from our own life experiences, to name a few. We looked at how our characters can be drawn from people we've known in our lives, whether we admire or despise them.

Characters, we said, can also come from unusual places--such as song lyrics, and can be based upon historical figures of the past. Characters can be born in our own imaginations completely--not based upon any actual person we ever knew or studied in a history book. If you write futuristic stories, your alien creatures must be created entirely within your own flights of fancy. If paranormal writing is your bailiwick, you must create your otherworldly characters from legends, lore, and once again, your own imaginings.

Let's look at what makes up a character's basic framework, beginning with the external elements. These will include all the components that have made our character who he or she is, from the most elementary choices of physical appearance to the limits of cultural and societal dictates that have been imposed upon the character.

One good option is to design your own "character chart" for each character, assigning basics such as hair and eye color, and delving into as much detail as you want. Age, birthday, even astrological signs can be included. Did your character lose a parent? Is he an only child, or the eldest of ten children? Every detail you can assign is like the stroke of a paintbrush. You are an artist, creating the picture of this person for your reader. If you don't allow us to see the details of the character, we can't know them deep down. We learn through your description, your inference, or through the observations of your other characters.

This leads us to the internal process of your characters' lives. Again, as in the physical description, you must delve into the characters' minds and decide what you will allow your readers to know. Your characters' emotions, reactions, yearnings, and thoughts are all an integral part of developing them into people we are going to remember. Will we like them? Empathize with them? Root against the villain? Most importantly, will we care--one way or the other?

Defining your characters' motives and feelings must be detailed, leaving nothing to assumption. This is a key element in creating believability.

But physical and emotional character creation is only a part of the whole "ball of wax." Your characters have to have a world to live in--a plot to carry out. These components include the conflict (what makes the story exciting and why do we care?) and the point of view. Point of view (POV) is extremely important, because this is the character who will be telling the story. The setting can be a huge factor as well, at times, becoming a character in its own right.
How do you introduce your characters with enough flair to make them interesting and to make your reader emotionally invested in them?

Think about books you've read with memorable character introductions. Can anyone forget their first glimpse of fiery Scarlett O'Hara? Or of the handsome scoundrel, Rhett Butler? Grab a copy of "Gone With the Wind" and study the way Margaret Mitchell introduces her characters. Her physical descriptions are matchless. Interestingly enough, she doesn't delve into deep point of view as much as she lets us learn things about the characters through their dialogue and what others say/think about them.

Another example of an unforgettable character entrance is Jack Schaefer's "Shane." Written in the late 1940's, it remains a classic today. This is an example of how very important the viewpoint character can be. Though the story is about Shane, a mystery man who shows up and helps the homesteaders out of a jam against the most powerful landowner in the valley, seeing it through the eyes of young Bobby Starett gives us a poignant understanding of the other characters--Shane in particular. Telling the story through Bobby lets the tension build to a climax that would be unattainable through any other character's "voice."

Another way of introducing a character is through dialogue. Giving the reader a titillating bit of conversation that leads us to
a) the storyline, or
b) discovery about the character's personality or circumstances
is a sure-fire way to garner interest in the character who delivers the line.

Circumstances can also be the means to provide the introduction of a character who is unforgettable. In Thomas Eidson's "St. Agnes' Stand", the main character, Nat Swanson, is in a dire predicament. He's been shot, and is being pursued by two men whose friend he killed in avenging a woman's honor--a woman he barely knew. He just wants to be left alone, to make it to California where a ranch he won with the turn of a card awaits--along with a new life. However, he comes upon a group of orphans and nuns who are sure to be captured and killed by a band of Apaches if he doesn't intervene--and he can't walk away. Again, he steps in to do the right thing--and it may be the death of him.

I hope this has given you a few ideas as to the different ways we have of introducing unforgettable characters--with flair!

If you haven't read these books, I highly recommend them. I teach fiction writing classes in Oklahoma City, and have a fabulous reading list I use in those classes if anyone is interested.

Below is an excerpt from my new release, FIRE EYES, when the heroine "meets" the hero for the first time. Here's what happens.


The man’s warm blood trickled across Jessica Monroe’s bare feet. The band of Choctaws had ridden up into her yard moments ago and slid him off a horse onto her front porch. She forced herself to stand still while Standing Bear spoke. Too much movement would appear rude.

“Will you care for him, Fire Eyes?” The direct question took her off guard. The Indians had insisted on giving her a name—Fire Eyes. They had brought her, on two occasions now, wounded men to care for. The last one had died.

Still, they saw her as a healer. Sometimes she felt they were trying to include her in their civilization now that she was virtually alone. But their infrequent visitation was a small price to pay them to leave her in peace. Relatively speaking. She gave an inward sigh, wondering if she would ever feel truly at peace in the world again. Nonetheless, she would care for the injured man. What other choice did she have?

She nodded. “Yes, Standing Bear. I’ll do what I can for him.” She looked down as the unconscious stranger rolled onto his back, even farther across her feet. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and his dark hair was matted with blood, his face bruised and swollen from the beating he’d taken. The late afternoon sun glinted across the metal badge pinned on the tattered remains of his shirt. A lawman. She stepped back.

Standing Bear made a motion, and four of the eight warriors accompanying him jumped to the ground and approached the wooden porch where Jessica stood.

She took another step back, her heart pounding in her throat even as her mind directed her to be calm. They meant her no harm. Ignoring her, they lifted the beaten, bleeding lawman, and carried him through her doorway straight to her bed.
“Not—” Jessica began.

They roughly deposited him right in the middle of the white and blue quilt Jessica’s grandmother had made for her as a wedding gift.

One of the braves gave her a harsh look, and she forced a smile. “Fine. That’s just fine.”

The muscular, bare-chested Choctaws brushed past her as they came back across the threshold. Jessica looked up once more at the chief, and could have sworn, for a moment, she saw amusement in his coal-black eyes.

“Marshal Turner is a friend.” He nodded toward the front door. “He will not harm you, Fire Eyes. He can be trusted.” Standing Bear paused. “We will not harm you, either.” His gaze flicked over her, and she knew he had seen her momentary fear.

“I-I know, Sir.” Jessica’s feet were sticky with the lawman’s drying blood. “You’ve been good to me—” She hesitated. “I just get anxious sometimes.” Her gaze drifted past him to the two warriors who were returning from the barn where they had stabled the marshal’s horse. One of them carried Turner’s saddlebags, which he laid at her bloody feet before swinging onto his own mount’s back.

Standing Bear nodded, turning his horse to go. “We will come again in three days. Do not allow him to die.” He said it imperiously, as if by his command, it would be so, and the man would live, regardless of his injuries.

Jessica’s mouth tightened in silent rebellion as, without a backward glance, the warriors melted into the nearby trees.

What had she done?


  1. Cheryl--interesting thing about characters. On rare occasions I use a relative or friend as a guide, but never for my hero or heroine. They are always strangers to me--until they tell their story. I've never changed a character's physical looks once I have her/him pictured.and it's it funny we think we know these characters. Aren't they as real as friends and neighbors? Also, I've never been at a loss to envision a character. If an author doesn't give me a clue right away, I'll have her set in stone myself.Excellent discussion-Celia

  2. CELIA!!!

    You know, in class, we talk about how are characters are not "characters"--they are PEOPLE. So I'm like you. I usually don't have people in my life that I model my people in my stories after--I have a good idea of who my people are and what they want, etc. And I think since we write a lot of historical things that it's hard to think of any actual people in our lives today that would be models for our historical people. Glad you enjoyed reading, and thanks for commenting. Yahoo is acting up again--don't know how long I'll manage to be one.

  3. Cheryl, I like your character's chart. I usually do the same. In addition I write the characters' backstory before starting on a new story. Nice excerpt.

  4. Oh man. I just wrote a long comment before I signed in and now its gone. don't ya just hate that? I use enneagrams and pictures of people to determine what they look and act like. But I also create an agenda page for each character, independent of the plot. For example, the older sister in my WIP is learning to drive. She wants to drive as much as possible. The car keys are always missing. And she never stops talking about driving. Unless she's annoying her little sister.

    Nice post, Cheryl

  5. Hi Mona,
    That's a good idea about writing the backstory. I like to know my characters. Sometimes something pops up and surprises me.LOL Glad you enjoyed the excerpt, too!

  6. Maggie,
    YES!!! I hate it when that happens. And it has happened to me so many times that it made me want to quit even writing comments on blogs. LOL I like your idea about the "agenda page"--that is really a good one. I may go back and create one of those for one of my WIPs that I'm stalled on right now. I think it might help.