Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway: Creating Characters Readers Care About

Creating characters for our fiction is one of the most fun, complex, and sometimes terrifying writing tasks. Every writer has their method of character creation. Some use a checklist or a list of questions to interrogate their characters. Others write out elaborate backstories and long histories of their characters’ life. At the heart of every story are the characters, and character growth drives every bit of fiction. Even those stories that rely on more detailed plots depend on the character’s reactions, inaction, and behaviors to move the story along.

What is the terrifying part of character development? Getting it right. We must work to have our character’s behavior ring true. Character creation, the heart of storytelling, is the one thing most likely to keep me up at night, worrying I got it wrong.

What does it mean to get a character wrong? I know that I am not alone in there have been times I am reading a book or watching a film. One of the characters does something so beyond their nature that you close the book or shut the movie off because they have jumped the shark, and now the beautiful bubble of suspension of belief is broken, and you are left muttering to yourself, wtf? And what about writing characters outside our lived experience? What are the key things we need to know about our characters?

Fear of getting characters wrong stops many new writers cold. They get so twisted worrying about how their characters will be received that they give themselves a massive case of writer’s block. Pro tip: If you write contemporary fiction, folks will often assume the characters you create are based on people you know or yourself. This is also part of our fear. We often use elements of ourselves in creating characters, even if we are not conscious of it at the time. We worry that we reveal too much of ourselves or that others will see themselves in our characters.

The cure for this is to write it anyway. Portray your characters as honestly as possible, even if they are fictional. Don’t be afraid to create characters who differ from you in gender identity, race, or culture. Do your research.  Conduct interviews and work with sensitivity readers when you are creating characters that are outside your lived experience. This is how you create relatable characters.

At the very least, I’ve found it helpful to know these things about your characters. In the list below, internal refers to the unobservable, and external refers to the tangible and observable. For example: Wanting financial security is an internal goal. Having a million dollars in your bank account is an external goal.

  1. Internal and External Goals- What do they want?
  2.  Internal and External Motivations: Why do they want it?
  3.  Internal and External conflicts- Why can’t they have what they want? Why can’t they  achieve their goals? Internal and External conflicts
  4.  Fears- what are they afraid of?
  5.   How far will they go? What will they do/sacrifice/overcome to achieve their objective?
  6. The lie they tell themselves and the lie they tell others about themselves. Thank you, Molly O’Keefe, for sharing this bit of wisdom.
  7.  Timeline of significant life experiences up to that point and how they feel about them. For example, a divorce can be seen positively or negatively by the character. {Directions for this exercise can be found in Chapter Six of Eileen Cook’s Build Better Characters. If you can only afford one book on character development on this list, this the book to start with. It is in KU right now (January 2023) for folks that have a KU subscription.}
  8.  Relationships: Who are their important people? Who do they care about the most?

These are some books and classes I recommend as excellent resources for character creation.

  1. Build Better Characters: The Psychology of Backstory & How To Use It In Your Writing to Hook Readers by Eileen Cook. {https://books2read.com/u/mgP2Px} This is the book I wish I had when I was first started writing. Eileen is an award-winning (use her bio) author, and this book explains how to construct characters and, more importantly, get at the root of their motivations, fears, and behaviors—filled with exercises that will help you figure out how to build characters that are believable and relatable.
  2. Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, and Conflict {https://books2read.com/u/4ARJRe} is also a go-to for me. At the heart of any story are your character’s goals, their motivation for achieving those goals, and the obstacles in their way—a must-have, in my opinion, for any writer’s bookshelf. Her simple explanations and worksheets are the most helpful in understanding how character arcs work.
  3. Hal Ackerman’s Screenwriting Class. {https://www.creativelive.com/class/screenwriting-the-art-of-the-first-draft} This class is offered on Creative Live and can be purchased through them. Hal’s explanation of how characters’ behaviors drive plot is excellent and well worth the price. If you buy the class, you can download it for rewatching whenever you need a refresher. I use his method of plot outlining for all of my stories. Knowing what a character will do/sacrifice to achieve their objective is vital in creating compelling plots that will have readers turning pages.
  4. Angela Ackerman’s and Becky Puglisi: Emotional Wound Thesaurus, Positive Character Traits Thesaurus, Negative Character Traits Thesaurus, The Conflict Thesaurus Volumes 1 and 2. {https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07ZH6WS6C?binding=kindle_edition} I use this collection of books in two ways. If I am starting to noodle a book and am casting about for plot ideas and conflicts that will power my story, I thumb through these books for ideas. If I already have a rough idea of the conflict at the center of my story, I will use these books to define how that will play out in the story. Please don’t skip the introductions in these books as they explain the concept each explores in depth and are well worth your time. They fit into Debra Dixon’s Goal Motivation and Conflict framework perfectly.

How to use this information

After reading and rereading and putting into practice recommendations from the above sources, (full reveal, I credit Eileen Cook’s Build Better Character’s book for my Goldie Win), I came up with a form that helps to organize the information I find most helpful to know about each of my characters. You can find a downloadable version here as a fillable PDF workbook.

Disclaimer: While it might be helpful as a standalone workbook it will make so much more sense if you read Debra Dixon’s Goal Motivation and Conflict and Eileen Cook’s Build Better Characters, along with the other references listed above.

Link for Workbook: https://BookHip.com/HDPNDMX

Back to Blogging and New Opportunities

typewriter is on top of a blue tableIt’s been a while since I’ve written for the blog, but I am dusting it off for several reasons. When I started the blog in 2014, I was anxious for a creative outlet. My early posts focused on book reviews, life with ADHD, parenting, and my experiments with different ways to organize myself as I worked toward submitting my work for publication.

After seven years work, I am an award winning author, with eighteen published books (soon to be nineteen). I am a hybrid author working with a traditional small press and indie publishing my shorter works.

So what does that mean for this blog? My new vision for the blog is one where I share writing tips, tools, software, and methods of work along with reviews of writing craft books. As before, you’ll never see pop-up ads or ads at all on the blog. You will see affiliate links from time to time when there are products that I use and think would help you. Affiliate links provide a small commission to me if folks purchase the item using my link. It doesn’t add to your costs, but it helps pay for web fees and keep the lights on for the blog.

When I started seriously working on developing my writing craft, I devoured writing blogs and craft books. I was always looking for ways to work with my brain, with my specific thought processes, and for help with my distraction issues. I found many blogs and books with great suggestions.  Some worked for me, and some didn’t. I’m still working on developing my craft and spend time each week reading craft books and putting into practice ideas and methods to hone my craft. No one ever achieves mastery in the writing craft, but you can always strive to improve your writing.
And that is key about future posts. If I present something on the blog as a method of work it has worked for me, or for folks I know, and your mileage may vary. So for better or worse, from now on, this blog will be focused on writing and working as a writer with distraction issues.

So no matter where you are in your writing journey, come along for the ride by subscribing to my new newsletter, also titled Writing While Distracted. In addition to exclusive newsletter content a few times a month, each time I publish the blog, it will arrive in your inbox. You won’t miss a post. This is a separate newsletter from my author newsletter so don’t worry about redundant content.

 Here is the link to sign up for the Writing While Distracted newsletter and your opportunity to receive my workbook on beating writer’s block. Sign up now because I have so many things I want to share with you all. Click below to sign up and access your free download. 

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See you soon!