How to Develop a Gripping Character

Welcome back to the blog! Today I have Laurel S. Peterson talking about creating characters.

Here’s Laurel!

Copyright Ute-Christin Cowan

Copyright Ute-Christin Cowan

Many ways exist to develop a good character, and I imagine each of you has your own favorite way. I like to start with an exercise I got from Elizabeth Eslami, the author of the short story collection Hibernate and the novel Bone Worship. Liz suggests writing for twenty minutes, beginning with All s/he wanted was….

This opens up an initial character desire—chocolate ice cream, maybe, or a new Porsche, or a trip to the Seychelles. Then, Liz says to write for an additional twenty minutes to figure out where that desire originates. Did chocolate ice cream remind the character of the last day he spent with his mother before she died, when they watched the ducks and he bought her a chocolate ice cream that dripped down the front of her blouse? Or maybe the new Porsche would finally make him a viable candidate for marriage in the eyes of his socialite girlfriend.

Everything in the story can connect to that desire. Desire propels us to action; if he wants a Porsche to get the girl, then he needs a good job. What skills or evil manipulation should he employ to get that job? Who stands in his way? Why doesn’t that person, maybe the son of his employer, want him to have the girl, the job, the car? Does he want the job for himself, so he can become company president? Does he also want the girlfriend—because she is beautiful? Because she is perfectly placed in society to advance his own plans for… a house in the Seychelles? Because what he really wants is to sell this company and retire early to play professional tennis?

This set of conflicting desires leads to theme. Does greed drive both these men? If so, how can the writer develop that theme? Maybe the girlfriend is also driven by greed, but greed for attention or beauty products or a personal shopper at Bloomingdale’s. Can the writer portray the setting—Wall Street, Montana oil country, Hollywood—in such a way that the reader sees greed everywhere: in the contrast between chauffeur-driven cars and guys with pedi-cabs, between women buying farmer’s market vegetables and men diving for food in dumpsters. All elements of a story can be used to reinforce a character’s internal state.

My protagonist Clara Montague, from my new book Shadow Notes, is driven by her need to understand the origins of her psychic gift. To do that, she needs to understand her mother, a mother who has always shut Clara out. But now, there’s been a murder, and if Clara can’t get her mother to talk to her, they may both end up dead. Greed definitely informs my book; prying into someone else’s griefs and past can be greedy, and Clara’s determination to own that information about her mother is mirrored in other’s characters’ greed for power and information.

We are driven by needs and desires. Why are so many of us sitting in front of our computers writing novels? What do we want that to bring us? Is it money? friends? a sense of competence or success? We can’t always name those motivations clearly for ourselves, but when it comes to our characters, the better we know what’s going on under the surface, the more we can employ those motivations to make our characters come alive on the page. What tools do you use to bring your characters’ motivations to life?

I’d love to hear from you, and good luck!

Shadow Notes will be released by Barking Rain Press on May 17!

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Cindy here again!

Thanks for this suggestion. I like the exercise and will try it with my next story.

Happy writing!

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