Saturday, May 16, 2009

"Developing Characters"

Developing believable characters can sometimes be difficult. For one thing, they need to live and breath in your story. If they don't, the story will be flat and uninteresting. The reader needs to either love them or hate them. They also need to care whether they overcome the demons in their lives or win the hand of the lovely maiden (or gorgeous hunk of a hero). If they don't care about your characters and believe in them, they'll put the book down. None of us want that to happen.

The following excerpt is the first three paragraphs of my book, Taming the Heart.

“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this,” I teased as a cool evening breeze brushed a strand of hair across my face. I quickly tucked it behind my ear.

Lydia set her camera beside the rustic footbridge that spanned Black Creek—the contrast of the wild Shasta Daisies against the weather-beaten planks had caught her eye and she just had to capture it. She smiled her crooked little grin and continued adjusting her tripod, perching it precariously on the water’s rocky edge. “I can’t believe you came. Getting you out of that house for more than a quick trip to the grocery store is like coaxing a mouse out of its hole. You’ve become a bit of a hermit, my friend.”

“I have not. I just like staying home, that’s all.” I knew she was right, but admitting it to her meant I’d have to admit it to myself. Her analogy of the mouse was truer than she knew. My mother called me mouse. I’d always thought it was a loving term of endearment until I overheard her telling her boyfriend the real definition one day. She’d said I was weak and always underfoot. In her mind, it was enough of an excuse to justify her leaving. It was the last time I saw my mother—her priorities no longer included me.

Did you learn anything about the characters? Are they lovable? Do you feel sorry for Kira, whose telling the story through her point of view? Has Kira let her mother's opinion of her influence her life? And what about Lydia? Is her friendship with Kira genuine and valuable?

Tell me what you think. I want to know everything you get out of these three paragraphs, even your assumptions and what images come to mind as you're reading. What questions do you ask yourself about the characters? What parts tweaked your interest and curiosity? Do you want to know more?

And yes, you can consider yourselves my guinea pig readers.


  1. I liked this Christine! By the end of the third paragraph I was completely immersed in Kira's life.. and I felt a definite twang of compasion for her, knowing her mother left her. I also liked the way you subtley used the term mouse as a quick backrgound filler, but also has a memory that naturally happens. I didn't even realise I was reading a memory until I was done. Very good! And erm, more?

  2. The first line does make me ask a question--it makes me want to keep reading to find out what "this" is.

    What's the significance of her quickly tucking her hair behind her ear? That kind of action can work just fine most of the time, but I'd want to see an action that characterizes her more explicitly there. There's some very subtle characterization going on there, maybe--tucking the hair behind her ear parallels how she's tucked herself away in her house--but I think we could get something to give us the same impression just a little more explicitly there.

    The visual imagery is very vivid in paragraph two! But it quickly answers the question I wanted to know more about, the thing that made me want to keep reading in paragraph 1 without bringing any more questions. Maybe a corollary, though--why does someone need to be talked into taking a couple pictures?

    I might switch the order of clauses in the second sentence of paragraph 2--now that you've set up the scene she wants to photograph, it's a little smoother to show Lydia adjusting her camera, THEN the smile which seems more related to her line of dialogue.

    Although Kira's characterization is direct with Lydia making the mouse analogy, I think it works well. I feel like I already have a fairly good idea of the characters from the first three paragraphs--that's quite an accomplishment!

    Personally, I think the flashback in paragraph three might be just a little bit much. I tend to shut down with too much emotion too quickly--I feel like the author's trying too hard to build our sympathy. I want to see Kira as strong, but this might come off as self-pitying. I don't want to pity characters; I want to feel empathy for them so I can root for them to overcome their difficulties.

    If you trimmed it back here to maybe just "My mother called me mouse. It wasn't a term of endearment" (or "It wasn't the term of endearment I thought it was."), then we want to find out more about Kira's past. As you pull us along, helping us to get to know Kira better slowly, we become more sympathetic and more interested in her story and we want her to overcome her past even more. Obviously, Kira's relationship with her mother will taint a lot of her thoughts, but that doesn't mean we need a flashback every time someone says a word her mother used.

    It does seem like Lydia's and Kira's friendship is genuine. Lydia is getting Kira out of her comfort zone in a good way, doing something for her friend that she knows needs done.

    I guess it's not actually stated, but I do assume that the narrator is female.

    I recently heard someone point out that when you pick up a book in the store, you have the back cover copy, the title, the cover art, where it's shelved, etc., to help you form an impression of the book and its tone. Having read the synopsis, I know where this is going and the genre--and I know Kira's in for a big surprise. It might be nice to have a hint of that in the beginning (but that need not be in the first three paragraphs). I know it's a surprise to Kira, but a hint of mystery somewhere in the opening scene (again, it doesn't have to be in the first three paragraphs--there's only so much you can do in three paragraphs!) would help to pull us in.

    In all, I think you've drawn some vivid images here and introduced good characters--nice work in three paragraphs!

  3. This was good. Kira's character actually reminded me of a friend of mine. It's like pulling teeth to get her out of the house - during the day at least. She herself had some bad expeiences that led her to being a hermet. That made Kira's character more real for me, I could relate something to it.

    Beyond that, I did feel for Kira's character. Having a parent abandon you is a terrible thing and it leaves life long marks. I'm very interest to see where you go with this and to see more of her character.

  4. I want to read the rest of it!

  5. Wow, Christine! What great imagery! The characters are real, I like that. The only thing I saw was that I had to read it twice to truly understand it. But I'm not sure that was because of the writing, I think my brain has just turned to mush after all my finals!! I do like the mouse comment, but I also think it would be good to leave it a little more open ended about her mother. But then again, now I want to know if her mother left her young, and her father didn't seem to be in the picture, where did she grow up? Was she a foster child? Was she old enough to take care of herself? Those were just my first impressions, hope they help!

  6. Yes, I felt you painted very real characters. Lydia is possibly a photographer, or maybe it's just one of her hobbies. I can tell she is also a good friend who tries to get Kira out of her "hole".

    Kira has had a hard life and is reserved and introverted. Very good start. Thanks for sharing.

  7. You already know what I think about your chapters and your whole book for that matter! Great blog and way to use your own writing to teach! *hugs*



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