Archive | September, 2007

Answers To Character Creation Questions

Wow! Yesterday, I opened up the floor for questions on how to create characters, and you all came up with some great ones. I think we’ll be on this thread for awhile.

A reminder: I’ll be out of town over the weekend, and won’t be home till Monday afternoon. I’ll blog Monday night, but Tuesday night is when the next e-zine goes out, so I won’t blog then either. However, you are all free to keep the dialogue going by posting comments here.

Several of you asked about how a woman can write a male POV character. About three years ago, I gave a lecture on this very topic which made me a bit famous because I told the truth about guys. I’m told the talk was quite funny, but I wouldn’t know because I was busy trying not to hyperventilate. The CD used to be available online, but I didn’t find it just now in a quick search.

Barb noted that Shaunti Feldhan’s book FOR WOMEN ONLY explains how men think. I will second this. The book is very clear. My wife had a copy and so I read it to see what Shaunti had to say. I learned that some of the things about guys that I had assumed were “obvious” and “well-known” were apparently not obvious or well-known to women. And that told me something about women. I highly recommend the book.

Holly asked:

How do I work with a character’s voice if he carries a different diction level than I am used to? My novel involves high-born people. I have been trying to absorb myself in high diction in my reading and research, but the colloquial keeps cropping up in the actual writing. In narrative summary, the character’s voice often holds strong and true, but during scenes it fades. Are there any specific techniques for holding a character’s voice like this?

Randy sez: This is why you edit yourself later, AFTER you write the first draft. Just write the scene first and get all the conflict right. Edit it later to get the diction right, when you can focus on just that.

Daan wrote:

Is it wise to base one of the characters in a work of fiction, including her storyline, on a real person and certain disasters that really happened to her? Particularly where this lady is the widow of a famous international bestselling author?

Randy sez: I’m not a lawyer, so my answers are not legally of any value. (There, I’ve just covered my butt.) In the US, the libel laws are fairly loose and public figures probably have little protection from this sort of thing. In the UK, the libel laws are a lot stronger, and you’d likely be in deep doo-doo doing dat. I’d be really cautious about doing it, myself.

If you saw ADAPTATION, starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep, you’ll know that Streep’s character is about a real author, Susan Orlean, who wrote a real book, THE ORCHID THIEF. In the movie, Cage’s character is a screenwriter trying to adapt this book to a screenplay and failing miserably. Streep’s character is portrayed as having a drug-laced affair with the primary character in THE ORCHID THIEF, something that did NOT happen in real life. As I understand it, the movie producers had to get Susan Orlean’s permisson to use her real name. And of course, Cage’s character is Charlie Kaufman, the guy who actually wrote the screenplay. A very twisted movie.

Bottom line: It sounds risky, unless you can get permission.

Destiny wrote:

I sit down and write a character for some time, finish it, but then I find I always create perfect people. People I would love to be. People with amazing powers and things like that (though not always perfect personalities) and then I get all bogged down and add some things bad about the character which don’t suit him/her at all. What do you think I should do?

Randy sez: One word–kryptonite. That’s Superman’s weakness. Everybody has a weakness. It sounds to me like you’re writing “larger-than-life” characters. That’s fine. I do too. Just make sure they have weaknesses, and that the weaknesses are larger than life also. As for finding weaknesses that don’t suit your characters, we can’t have that. Find ones that suit them. If you can’t think of any, go read some biographies of famous people similar to your characters. That should give you some ideas.

OK, enough for today. I’ll be back Monday night to answer more of your excellent questions. Until then, carry on the conversation!

Creating Characters For Your Fiction

We’ve been talking for a few days now on how to create characters. We’ve talked about the fusion of “physiology” and “sociology” to create “psychology.” Now it’s time to open things up for discussion.

Gina asked:

Randy, how do YOU get to know your characters? My characters reveal themselves over the course of my writing. No long walks or conversations, they just pop up and tell me things whenever the mood strikes.

Randy sez: I often get a strong auditory image of my characters all at once and I’ll know how they talk. For me, a strong and unique voice for each character is important. I really can hear them talking in my head. Not quite audible, but I definitely can hear them as strongly as I can remember the voices of my friends.

For visual images of my characters, I go online and do a search for faces. I’ll find several people who look somewhat like my character and will choose the best features of each. In writing proposals, I sometimes include a graphic showing these faces.

For my character’s personal history, I just sit down and make stuff up that I think will fit. I work through the character charts (one of the steps in my Snowflake Method). I know what sort of person each character needs to be in order to fill in the slot in the story that I created them for. But then I augment what they “need to be” with just random stuff. Often, I’ll take personality attributes from several people I’ve known.

Of course, once I start writing, all of the above is subject to change. Often, it feels a bit like magic. You start writing, and suddenly the character gells. This happened when John Olson and I were writing OXYGEN. We had a character named Nate. Neither of us really knew what Nate would be like, but I wrote a sample scene early on with Nate as the POV character. The Nate who showed up was rude and surly and tough, but had an underlying softness to him. John really liked that Nate, so we agreed to keep him. If we hadn’t liked that Nate, we’d have thrown him away and created a new one.

Barb wrote:

Once I’ve worked out the basic plot for my story, I write a personal letter from the main character to the reader. Of course, the reader will never see this, but I guess it works things out in my head. In the letter, the character begins by telling his past and why he is the way he is today. Then he tells the story from his/her point of view.

I can’t tell you the surprises my characters have come up with on their own. I used to laugh at people who said their characters talked to them, but I’m telling you, it’s true. Since I’m writing as a Christian, I like to think the Holy Spirit has a lot to do with this. So many times, I’m amazed at how plot and characters come together with an incredible story AND message of God’s work in a normal person’s life.

So . . . when the main character is finished, I have the antagonist write a letter in rebuttal. He, too, begins by telling his past and why he is the person he is, but then tells the entire story from his point of view-thoughts, feelings, actions included.

After that, I usually do one more letter by the protagonist’s romantic partner or confidant.

Randy sez: I really like this idea. It’s similar to one I read last week in James N. Frey’s book HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD MYSTERY, which I blogged about just before I went to the ACFW conference. I think this method should really work well, and I intend to try it myself on my next novel, which I am composting in my mind right now.

I think we can plan our characters all we want, but when we sit down to start writing, that character will come alive in ways we never planned. That’s what makes writing fun for me and I know a lot of other writers who feel the same way. It feels like magic!

Any other questions on character creation? Go ahead and leave a comment. I’ll try to answer as many questions as possible on Friday night, since I’m going out of town (again) over the weekend to go to a wedding in California. I’ll be back blogging again late Monday night.

24 Hour Special on Fiction 101 & Fiction 201

I rarely run a special on my products, but I’m doing it today, September 27, 2007 to celebrate freedom.

My flagship products are my Fiction 101 and Fiction 201 lecture series. I’ve taught these at writing conferences across the country. Last year, I created them as software products that run in any web browser, which lets you SEE my notes and HEAR me lecture.

Fiction 101 and Fiction 201 are available on CD or as large electronic downloads.

Recently, I’ve outsourced the CD distribution to That means FREEDOM for me from the drudgery of packing CDs in envelopes and mailing them off. It saves me MONEY, which I can pass on to my customers in lower prices. I have already cut the price of the CDs by about 20%.

To celebrate that FREEDOM, I’m slashing the price of a CD by ANOTHER 50%. Just for today, September 27, 2007.

I rarely run a 24-hour special, but when I do, hundreds of people typically take advantage. If you don’t have Fiction 101 or Fiction 201 and you want it, TODAY is your chance.

To learn more about the 24-hour special on Fiction 101 or Fiction 201, click here.

Putting Your Character Together

In the last several days, we’ve talked about two important aspects of your characters, “physiology” and “sociology.” I like to think of these as “nature” and “nurture” — the internal and external forces that make your characters who they are.

The final aspect to think about is “psychology” — the result of putting “physiology” and “sociology” together.

Neither “physiology” nor “sociology” is enough to explain why people are the way they are.

The fact is that identical twins can be radically different people. They have the same physiology, but may have different sociology. They’re going to meet different people, do different things, and react to them in different ways.

Likewise, two kids can grow up in the same house, but be vastly different because they inherited different genes. Every parent who ever had a genius child or a musical prodigy knows about this.

“Psychology” is the fusion of “physiology” and “sociology.” How does a given person choose to use their natural talents and compensate for their natural deficiencies? That’s part of their psychology. How does that same person react to their family, tribe, culture, nation, education? That’s part of their psychology too.

In the Harry Potter series, Harry and his cousin Duddley are raised in the same house, but they have different genes and they’re treated vastly different by Duddley’s parents (Harry’s aunt and uncle). Duddley grows up to be a selfish, arrogant, sadistic brat. Harry grows up to be a forgiving, courageous, resourceful boy.

When creating your characters, it’s not enough to know what color eyes your character has and where his moles are and what his IQ is. It’s not enough to know about his parents, brothers, sisters, teachers, religion, and all that.

You also need to know his responses to all those. Does he care what color his eyes are? Is he embarrassed about that mole the size of a rat on his chin? Is he obnoxious about being smart (or ashamed of being stupid?) Does he get along with his parents (or with one but not the other) and why? What about his siblings? Did he have a favorite teacher, and if so, which one and why? Does he follow in the religion he grew up with, or does he choose something radically different?

The answers to all those questions (and many more) are the basis of your character’s “psychology.” The better you understand your character, the more able you are to answer all such questions.

Please note that you don’t HAVE to figure all this out by writing it down, as if creating characters were some giant paint-by-numbers game. Creating characters is about getting to know these people who inhabit your skull. It’s about learning more about them than you know about yourself or anyone else in the “real world.” It’s about hearing their voices.

If you can do that by writing it down, then fine. If you prefer to take long walks on the beach with your imaginary friends, then that’s fine too. If you start talking to your characters in public, then you have gone around the bend and need to be institutionalized, but you can avoid that by holding a cell phone up to your ear so nobody will know you’re a perfect loon.

Do whatever it takes to learn your characters inside out. That’s what writers do.

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