Step 1: Create Dynamic Characters

Dynamic Characters: Gender, Age, History and Character Traits

Why start with character?

1. Dynamic—means takes decisive action, think dynamite. Characters should challenge one another—explode. Mistake number one—creating inconsistent, flat characters who are “too nice” to one another. From day one, create oppositional characters who will challenge and perhaps change one another.

2. “Character Driven Fiction” means just what it says—the characters (and their character traits) drive the action of the plot. If you start by creating dynamic characters who take dynamic action, you will end up with “Character Driven Plots.” The opposite is “Situational Plots,” which means that the author has devised “things that will happen to a character.” The character becomes a puppet and the author, the puppeteer who makes the flat character dance. The puppeteer says, “I’ll make this happen to my character” and then that will happen. Let the characters act, speak and drive.

3. If you think of the best books or movies you’ve ever read or seen, your mind goes to the characters (and “great lines” spoken by the characters), not to the plot. The plot is important, but it is the characters we remember: Indiana Jones, Scarlet O’Hara, E.T., Forest Gump, Thelma and Louise). Need more inspiration, take a look at AFI’s 100 Greatest Heroes and Villains.

Let’s Get to Work—Gender, Age and Character Traits (vital)Gender: 

  • Male or female, gay or straight is an easy choice. Most authors know the gender of the main character/s and why. (Even computer voices and aliens are male or female, rarely neutral, so leave no stone unturned in making this decision).
  • Think outside the box: grandma who rides a Harley, lawyer who is a shoplifter, teacher who loves to teach but hates kids.
  • Who are the secondary characters? Who would most challenge your main character? (Villain? Best friend? Parents?) Let’s take the teacher above. A child who gets under this teacher’s skin is best, and that means the teacher hates kids because he is scarred from the past—and, voila, you have the movie Pay It Forward. The child dies (spoiler alert) but he saves his alcoholic mother and his teacher.
  • Create oppositional characters: No conflict, no action. It’s that simple. When developing characters, you have the opportunity to create tension from the beginning. Even heroes are flawed. For example, in my new Warriors and Watchers Saga, Kami (quick to anger) and Raj (envious of others) come to blows in one scene. I didn’t expect it when writing the scene, but I let them go at it. It was perfect—the scene was driven by them, and it was real. It also gave me a clear reason for Layla (the third female in the group), and I understood why she is timid—she is flanked by two hot-heads. These characters will continue to oppose one another—it’s who they are. The internet is populated by lists of the top 100 great characters of all time. Some stories have a SAG award secondary character—best supporting actor or actress. Do not discount the importance of defining major secondary characters.

Examples:

  1. Indiana Jones is intrepid but afraid of snakes (early incident in his youth). He and his father are also at odds (both love archaeology but Indiana felt abandoned when his father spent more time with relics after his wife’s death). That, in turn, made Indiana independent.
  2. Marty McFly reacts when he is called “chicken” and then becomes impulsive (he reverses this later)
  3. Captain Ahab and Dr. Frankenstein are so obsessed with their own success, they are blind to the destruction they cause others
  4. James Bond, The Godfather, Darth Vader, and the list goes on.
  • As you create the characters, the storyline will evolve, and even scenes appear. Write it all down.
  • Do not edit at this point. Brainstorming is a great word! Let the ideas crash and thunder; let the lightening strike. Just write it down.

Age signifies history:

  • The older the character the more history he/she has experienced.
  • This is also a choice that is genre specific. If you are writing children’s books, remember that children read 4 grades up, in general. Middle Grade (MG): character ages are high school (think Harry Potter). Young Adult (YA): characters are dating or have romantic involvement. YA is often written in 1st person POV (A Fault in Our Stars by John Green (this book also has one of the best hooks I’ve ever read) or Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins). More on POV later.
  • In short, take a few minutes to construct at time line of historical events for your character (when applicable). The timeline is also personal. At what age was cancer discovered, were parents taken to concentration camps or what experiences did Harry Potter have before going to Hogwarts? Draft only what you need. The teacher above experienced a horrific childhood event. You do not need to map out all forty years of his life. Do jot down the key events that altered your character’s life or formed a particular temperament.
  • Sometimes, the history will enter a story, either in a scene or a character sketch. You’ll know when to use it. Example: Here is a paragraph where a historical timeline helped me create Juhara (Sara’s mother in Unveiling). In this case, it was a must to include it in the novel at a crucial time, just after Sara had run away from home:

Exhausted by the turmoil of the last few weeks, Juhara sank into the nearest sofa and allowed a torrent of tears to roll down her face. This act of defiance would not sit well with her husband. When she was a youth, she, too—even more than Sara—had expected fast-paced change in her country. But the years had taught her that change happened slowly. Near the time she was born, American geologists spotted a dome of sand in Dammam, in the Eastern Province, that they hoped contained oil. Abdul’aziz Al’Saud only allowed the Americans to drill, because the Great Depression had diminished his wealth—pilgrims around the world lacked the money with which to travel to Mecca, and hajj was The Kingdom’s, and his, main source of revenue. The first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth wells all failed, but when she was but a toddler, her father accompanied Abdul’aziz Al’Saud to inspect the seventh well, the one that finally struck significant quantities of oil. Her father, a pale-eyed augur, embraced a new and inevitable vision of the future. To stop the oil and the changes that would arrive with wealth, he said, would be as foolish as “a man with a sword battling time itself.” World War II erupted, which slowed progress. Its end brought a rush of production, and her father again prospered. He opened offices in Cairo and moved the family to Jeddah to help transport goods and foreign labor into The Kingdom, the newest boomtown. Juhara and her mother spent happy days in the Nile apartment and the new Red Sea mansion as Sulaiman worked. But travels ceased when she married Abdullah. After his graduation from Cairo University and her brother’s death, Abdullah changed. He vowed to raise his family inside the protective walls of Saudi Arabia—and he had. Her unyielding love for him and her natural gaiety could never reach the place of darkness to which he occasionally disappeared.

  • Do NOT do an “information dump.” Too many novice writers want to dump a character’s amazing “backstory” into the book in the first chapter to “explain” the character’s motivations. That’s bad writing. More on this later. In short, you’ll learn what to use and when. Do walk up to each new person you meet and divulge your life story? Of course not.
  • If a character is not working, create a new one. With the Warriors and Watchers Saga, I scrapped two characters and created two new ones before writing a scene. With my first book, I scrapped pages and chapters—what a waste of time. Save time by pre-writing.
  • Below, is a character summary of Indiana Jones. I create one of these pages for each character I create. I keep these in a binder. I add to them as the character evolves or has a new experience.

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Indiana Jones JPEGPicture: Name (consider ethnicity): Dr. Henry Walton Jones aka “Indiana” Jones or “Indy”Ethnicity: CaucasianAge: various through stories; 36 in 1936Birthdate: July 1, 1899Birthplace: Princeton, NJ

Where grew up: He accompanied his parents, Henry Sr. and Anna Jones on a world lecture tour from 1908-1910

Eye Color: hazel

Hair: short, brown; wears a fedora hat

Education/military service: during Spring Break of 1916, Indiana quit high school, joined the Mexican Revolution and then participated in WWI for 3 years as a spy; during WWI, he used the name Henri Defense and other aliases; attended the University of Chicago (studied archaeology under Abner Ravenwood); transferred to France where he earned an undergraduate degree in linguistics

Work Life: post graduation, he taught archaeology in London, where he met student Deirdre Campbell (they married in 1926, but a plane crash ended her life); in the years before WWII, he worked at Marshall College; in 1936, the US government contracted him to find the Ark of the Covenant, which reunited him with Marion Ravenwood (jilted her); joined the OSS with one girlfriend; faced Soviets in quest for Aktor; other positions held: Associate Dean;

Love Life/Children: 1925 had a brief affair with Ravenwood’s daughter, Marion (this ended his friendship with Abner); London: Deirdre Campbell; Indy jilted Marion a week before their marriage (reunited later and married); he and girlfriend Sophia Hapgood joined the OSS during WWII; he later fathered a son (Mutt Williams) and a daughter

Description (must fit character traits): jungle attire in the bush; suits if lecturing

Health problems: eye injury at some point; in his 90s, he walks with a cane; by the early 1990s, he is living in New York City with his daughter and grandchildren

Car: rides elephants, safari, horses

Personality traits/quirks: obsessed with artifacts; gets in over his head; clever; afraid of snakes (gives him a human, vulnerable quality); “code” character—lives by a strong code of honor (with relics not with women)

Dialogue traits/quirks: one-liners; humorous; bravado; not afraid to take the easy way out (shoots the swordsman)

Other: uses a whip; revolver; will come into contact with various famous real people of history who will shape his outlook on life; his mother grew ill and died, after which father and son moved to Utah in 1912, but their relationship became strained, as his father dove into his studies; in 1916, father and son moved back to Princeton and Indy joined the revolution

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Character Traits (vital):

  • This is the most important decision you will make in crafting a character. By writing down the temperament and traits that drive the character, that character will drive the plot.
  • Character traits are a mixture of nature and nurture—born with it or learned from experience. Is your character an only child, middle child, adopted? How was he/she nurtured? By whom? Did this history produce a character who is quick to anger? Curious? Rebellious? Only when you know your characters as real people, will their actions and dialogue come through in scenes as natural and real.
  • What not to do: do not make your character an adopted child, simply because you do not want to deal with creating parents or other family members. Do not create “fake” families and friends for the sake of having them present either. Some secondary characters will remain in the background—an example is John Green’s A Fault in Our Stars. The main character is a female adolescent, so of course she has parents, but they remain largely in the background. Other secondary characters will play larger roles. You will learn to use the secondary characters well—just where and when needed for authenticity and plot value. But populate the story—do not fear it! (In the first draft of Unveiling, I restricted the family members to make my life easier—it was a mistake. I scrapped it and dove back in, taking the time to develop the entire family—several generations—not all of which I used, but Sara’s youngest brother became her best friend and aid, and her loveable, wise grandfather became an important character). List of Positive and Negative Character Traits (638) from MIT’s Ideonomy website. 

Reference book to have in your library: New Personality Self-Portrait by John M. Oldham, M.D. and Lois B. Morris  Why this book is vital: Personality Self-Portrait

This book will bring you up to speed fast on understanding character traits and how those traits drive a character’s actions—the subtitle is “Why You Think, Work, Love and Act the Way You Do.” It even has a personality test to identify your main traits. Best of all, each chapter identifies a major trait from mild to severe—in other words, if this trait is carried to extremes, what would a person be like? Example: one of my strong traits is the “Vigilant Style,” but taken to extremes, the result is “Paranoid Personality Disorder.” I can’t say enough good things about this book as a way to understanding how character traits drive a character’s decisions and actions. (And you’ll learn a lot about yourself too!)

 

What does your character want? What does he or she need?               

 Wants are a goal–they are directly stated:

Parent Trap – twins want to get mom and dad back together

Farenheit 451 – Guy Montag wants to be happy, and in his society that means being mindless (burning books)

Hamlet – wants to discover his father’s murderer

Shrek–Wants to be left alone in his swamp

An Officer and a Gentleman­ – Zach is a loner; uses people; refuses to make connections

The Wizard of Oz – Dorothy wants to get home from Oz

Legally Blonde—She wants to chase her boyfriend and get engaged

 

A need is an attribute of character that the person needs, but he or she is unaware of it. This is what will constitute the character arc or growth, even though the individual will probably fight it, because it involved change. It is what makes them a better person or what gives them the true “boon” that will forever change their lives.

An Officer and a Gentleman­ – Zach is a loner; uses people; refuses to make connections

Parent Trap – the parents need to learn, not the children; she left before, and he didn’t go after her; he does not make that mistake twice

The Wizard of Oz – Dorothy learns to appreciate her home and her family

Farenheit 451 – Guy Montag is curious and unhappy; he does not fit in to a mindless society; he needs knowledge and he seeks it

Shrek – he learns to love and care for others

Hamlet – tragedy—his fatal flaw is not corrected; it leads to his death; he is sensitive, driven, foolish, impulsive, a smart-aleck; this leads to his foolishly stabbing Polonius, which sets up his tragic fall

Legally Blonde—to learn that she is smart and capable and to value a man who sees that

 

What would happen if the above characters did not discover and accept their needs?

Parent Trap – the parents would never be together—they would live separate lives without love or in a shallow relationship

Farenheit 451 – Guy Montag would be unhappy for the rest of his life; live a shallow life

Hamlet – he discovers the murderer; but 7 people die, including him

Legally Blonde—her old boyfriend asks to marry her; if she didn’t change, she would accept

Shrek – Shrek would get his wish and be all alone and grumpy

The Wizard of Oz – Dorothy would never love her family and friends like she does

An Officer and a Gentleman­ – Zach would be a worthless user of others and a loner, just like his father

Hamlet – tragedy—his fatal flaw is not corrected; it leads to his death; he is sensitive, driven, foolish, impulsive, a smart-aleck; this leads to his foolishly stabbing Polonius, which sets up his tragic fall

 

  • Now draft a character sketch—the description of how a person looks is less important that divulging (through description) the character traits and temperament of the individual. Brown hair and hazel eyes tell me nothing. Height, unless unusual, tells me nothing. Weave the character traits through the physical description to reveal temperament. Only highlight the important features and let the reader fill in the rest, using his or her own imagination. Read the examples that follow—you’ll know how they look, in general, but mostly, you understand what makes them tick.

Examples:

  1. Vera’s icy blue eyes shot through me, around me and over me to reach her target: Chris, the star quarterback. She tossed her brunette tresses over her shoulder with flamboyance and laughed for Chris’s benefit not mine. When that failed to draw his attention, she increased the decibel level of her shrill voice. And when that failed, she resorted to grabbing my shoulders and shoving me backwards, books and all, until I crash-landed in Chris’s arms, after which Vera raced to his side, shouting, “Klutz alert!” and initiated a conversation. At least, I had an easy exit.
  2. You can’t really blame Dahl for being bland. After all, his parents named him after a sheep. Or maybe he grew into the name. His lackluster brown eyes matched his dull brown hair, muted beige clothes, and pip-squeak voice. Dahl did everything in his power not to stand out, which made him stand out even more, like dried scat stands out on a dessert trail.
  • Create a name that fits the temperament of the character or is so wrong it works for a strange reason. Examples: Forrest Gump—Gump is a gimpy name, but Forrest denotes growth, nature, simplicity; Napoleon Dynamite—big name for a dorky guy; Juno (goddess of mothers and childbirth), and the list goes on.
  • What not to do: do not select common names for major characters unless that name is special in some way. Do not select goofy names, hoping they stand out, if there is no connection to the meaning of the name.
  • Pay attention to first letters. It’s hard for readers to remember Anna, Ariel and Angie—too many names starting with the same letter.
  • Make sure you check the ethnicity of names (use baby name internet sites or the book below). Lina A. Karmouta, who vetted my novel Unveiling, informed me that some of my character names were Arab but not specific to Saudi Arabia. I gave her a list and she marked the common Saudi names. I changed some character names. I chose names that fit the characters (in meaning) and sounded familiar to Western readers. Talk about a challenge, but it made all of the difference in authenticity, and I’m grateful for Lina’s advice. It’s changed how I approach character names. Also research names within a given historical period if writing a historical novel (or resurrect an old name, if it suits the story).

Character Naming SourcebookReference book for your library: Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon This book is divided by region/ethnicity. Very helpful. 

  • Organization tip: start a binder to keep your characters in front of you at all times. Make notes as you write to keep track of details, experiences and timelines.

 

 

 

 

 

Go on to Step 2: Create Key Plot Points Using the 3-act Structure

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