The Playground is thrilled to kick off Guest Blogger week with our friend and fellow chaptermate, author Debra Webb. When she isn’t renovating the historical home she and her family live in, she is crafting fast-paced romantic suspense at a speed most writers would be envious of. Thanks, Deb, for joining us at the swingsets!
Good Monday morning! Thanks to the Writing Playground folks for having me. And don’t worry I’m not going to talk about renovating this hundred and ten year old house—though I could tell you some stories! I’d like to share a lesson I’ve learned over eighty-some-odd books. There is one absolute truth about creating a fiction novel: the story is only as good as the characters. If you’ve been around the publishing world for a while, whether published or unpublished, this is not news to you. And if you’re not a writer but love to read, you know this from experience as well.
When I consider my favorite movies it’s quite easy to nail the reason I love them. Gladiator is one of my favorites. Not because I’m into watching the gore and violence or because the plot line was particularly compelling to me, but because of the character, Maximus, that Russell Crowe played. His brooding, wounded hero portrayal proved outstanding, in my opinion. Who can forget the lines, “…Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance in this life or the next.” Amazing! Then there’s another of my all time favorites, Long Kiss Goodnight. I loved, loved, loved Samuel L. Jackson in this movie! His portrayal of the character Mitch Hennessey was awesome and unforgettable. I have many, many other favorites. The reason I’ve presented these two particular examples is to demonstrate my renovation realities theory.
Generally when a story starts to develop in my very twisted mind I have one of two elements as a launching pad—a character that has stolen my attention and insists on being written or a plot idea that won’t leave me alone. Either way, it’s the characters that ultimately get the most of my time. Because I fully understand that when you hear a reader say, “God, I loved that story!” it is the character/s he or she loved. Creating those memorable characters is the key to an unforgettable story. Consider some of the classics that have endured the test of time: To Kill a Mocking Bird or Gone with the Wind. Both of those novels capture a time and place that is stunningly palpable to the reader. You can feel the story, taste it…smell it. But when you hear readers, young and old, talking about those stories the actual topic being discussed is nearly always one or more of the characters. Both authors created truly unforgettable characters.
So, how do we go about creating that unforgettable character? First, we make them real. Second, we renovate until we can stand back and say “yes, that’s what I was going for.” Whether you’re writing a wounded rogue or a quiet, sensitive computer whiz, he must have numerous layers just as real people do. It’s not enough to merely give him a name, a date of birth and profession, you need to give him the same elements a real guy would have. Where did he grow up? Any siblings? What about his parents? Dead? Divorced? Has he or she been married? Divorced? What was the environment like in his childhood home? What good or bad things happened to forge his personality and way of thinking? Whatever steps he takes, whatever judgments he makes about the plot, the other characters or his life in general are all motivated by who he is. You can’t fully develop who he is unless you give him a complete history. Think of your own life and the environment and events that made you who you are. That’s what you need for each of your characters. Whether it’s the hero or the heroine or the villain. Yes, the bad guys/gals have to be real too. The absolute best bad guys/gals are the ones readers feel some slight connection to. Creepy, huh? But it’s true. Look at Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. A truly gruesome, sick character. But he had so many, many layers. Extreme intelligence. Charm. Etc. No matter that he was a demented killer, there were tiny, tiny fragments of who he was that were undeniably relatable.
MOTIVE IS EVERYTHING.
That’s right. Motive. Every single day of our lives we wake up and make one decision after the other. Whether to make the bed immediately upon rising or leave it for later. What to wear. Shower? Make-up? What to eat for breakfast? Load the dishwasher or not? A second cup of coffee or not? Spouse, kids, school, work, bills, etc., etc., etc. All those things and many, many more require decisions every day, every hour, every minute. Every single decision we make, spontaneous or not, is motivated by who we are and our thought process. What happened to you when you were five and older sister locked you in the closet? What happened on the playground when the bully took your milk money? How it felt when your first love dumped you because he/she was a complete idiot but you didn’t realize that until a long time later.
WHO IS HE/SHE?
Give him or her a life and fill it with a history and I promise you will have created a compelling and unforgettable character. Now I don’t have any fancy charts or research books. I don’t even do all this up front. Most of the time I do it along the way (which means going back and layering—so if you can do it all up front, kudos to you!). That’s the renovation part. Yeah, I know, most folks (especially editors) call it revising. I prefer to think of it as character renovating.
So, how do you build and renovate your characters? Who are the characters you remember the most?
Thanks for joining us, Debra! We'll be giving away a copy of one of Debra's books to one lucky commenter. You know the drill. :)
Join us all week for visiting guest authors!