Monday, 28 June 2010

Character Building by Gina Rossi

Many thanks to all who've offered snippets of news and articles for this blog - I'm really chuffed at the response!

And I'm proud to present, the first donated article on building characters by romance writer Gina Rossi. Thanks Gina!


How do we create strong characters for our stories? Occasionally they spring onto the page fully formed (praise be!) but mostly, they are wrung from the blood, sweat and tears of sheer effort.

Here are some tricks that work for me:

First decide what the character looks like:
Let’s say you’re writing romance and you’ve made your hero the failsafe, tall, dark, handsome specimen. Now scrutinize him and familiarize yourself with his physical appearance. Exactly how tall is he? Why do you call him ‘dark’? Dark eyes, dark skin, dark hair? Work from top to toe. Of course he’s got good teeth, but is one of them slightly crooked? How hairy is he? Does he have muscly arms and nice feet?

Find a description of a hero you like. Rewrite it in your own words. Use different adjectives and verbs. Try using opposites and see how your hero comes out.

Know what he looks like. Write it all down in a large notebook.

Getting to know him:
Now, what is he actually like? Start by asking him questions about his appearance. How did you get that scar? Why haven’t you shaved? You have a small tattoo of a what on your left thigh? Who gave you that watch? Are you limping? Are you left handed? Ask ‘Why?’ too. Keep on asking until you run out of things to say. (Remember this is not a real man, so he won’t wander off and turn on the footie.)

What do his hands tell you? His eyes? His mouth? Can you see if he is confident? Brave? Or vulnerable? Holding something back? Does he look you in the eye?

Ask why. Make him answer. Write.

Make small talk with him, make big talk. Ask him what his biggest regret is and tell him yours. See how he reacts. (If he asks for your number and doesn’t call, kill him off and write his eulogy)

And, at the back of your mind, remember he needs a name.

Go out and find him:
Go people-watching to judge books by their covers. Sit somewhere with a cup of coffee (and your notebook) and see whether you can spot someone who looks and dresses like your hero.

Is he young and conservative, or older with a laid back attitude to clothes? Or does his entire wardrobe come from the surf shop? If a perfect example of your hero doesn’t present, patch his look together from what you see around you.

Order another cup of coffee and spare a thought for your other characters too. Look at people passing by. Write down the first impression you get when you look at their clothes.

What about that young woman in the vintage Chanel suit? Flick her into opposite mode and ask why she could be found in black motorbike leathers after dark? After hours courier? Midnight biker? Er...kinky? Don’t forget to write it all down.

Pin him down:
While you’re out, buy a food magazine, a fashion magazine and a car magazine (or any magazines, though ‘Dental Appliances Monthly’ won’t get you far on this one!)

Find a picture of your hero, his dog, his car, his friends, his favourite restaurant, his clothes, his ex fiancée, the stunning diamond ring he bought his ex fiancée that she threw back at him. Find a picture of the exact spot where he threw that same ring into the sea. (*Sigh* I know!)

Cut these pictures out and stick them into your notebook. Don’t spend hours leafing through magazines in search of the perfect man. Limit yourself. Make yourself find him, even if he’s a patchwork.

Make notes. Keep going.

Know how to know him:
What makes you feel you know someone well? Have you known them since childhood? Shared secrets? Worked together under stress? Imagine your hero is that someone and write down all the points that make you feel you know him really well.

And likewise, what’s missing when you don’t know someone well? Think about it and make sure your hero doesn’t have any holes.

Remember you are not concerned, here, with the hero’s relationship with eg. the heroine. This is about the hero’s relationship with you, and vice versa.

Breathe real life into your hero:
Use a character questionnaire: Kate Walker’s Characterisation Worksheet in her book 12-Point Guide to Writing Romance is a fantastic way to start. Add your own bits.

Has your hero got phobias? A nervous habit? Fill it in. (If you unearth a fabulous nervous tic that can’t possibly be used by your hero, keep it for someone else. Let nothing go to waste).

When you’ve done as much as you can, apply the exercise to someone you know well. You’ll be surprised to discover that there are some things you don’t know about people you know well. Health warning: this can lead to marital spats. Try it using other people you know and mix up their traits. But use caution. Giving Great Aunt Mildred’s 9 am sherry habit to your 8 year old nephew could lead to trouble.

Filter out elements of these exercises that suit your hero and jot them down.

And don’t forget to hide your notebook when you leave the room!

So. Finished? Now do the same for your heroine, and all your main characters.

Most of what you’ve written in that large notebook will never appear in your story, but at least you – and your readers – will know exactly, precisely, intimately, who you are writing about.

Ooh, I like the idea of getting intimate with your tall, dark, handsome hero! Brilliant article, Gina. Keep them coming, folks!


L'Aussie said...

Excellent in-depth advice on character building. Thank you..:)

Dolores Doolittle said...

Thank you loads, Gina, for the Fantastic advice, and thank you womagwriter for setting this off.

jenny wilson said...

great post, definatly got me thinking

Jobiska said...

Thank you so much for this. Wonderfully written advice that made me smile and challenged me too.
Now I'm weak at the knees over my hero - I just have to pinch myself and start writing about him!

Gina said...

Thanks for these comments! And enjoy turning your daydreaming into writing, Jobiska...