Creating Characters: Who Will You Be?

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By Johnnie Alexander

I rested in a vinyl chair, weary and in pain, pensive and in love. My day-old daughter nestled in my arms, her thick black hair brushing against her shoulders.

“Who will you be?” I whispered.

In that moment, I couldn’t even imagine a toddler “her,” let alone a grown-up “her,” and yet I was so curious. Would she be shy or outgoing? Quick to laugh? Given to tears? Who would she become as she grew up? Who would she fall in love with?

That tiny infant, my first, celebrated her 33rd birthday only a few days ago. She’s an intelligent, compassionate young woman, a wife and mom, a gifted writer, and an entrepreneur who is building a community of writers. And she blesses me than she can ever know.

Imagining Characters
I often remember that long-ago moment, cradling my infant in awe and wonder, when I create new characters.
The basics, we all know, are dictated by genre: A murder mystery requires a victim, a criminal, and a crime-solver; a romance needs the boy who gets the girl.

But how does one simple label become a living character in our imaginations and in our readers’ hearts?

Some writers bring characters to life with extensive bios or interviews. One of my critique partners creates amazing characters using the Meyers-Briggs temperament charts.

I whisper, Who will you be?

When I decided to write a WWII novel centered on Nazi art theft, my male protagonist already existed as a secondary character in another story.

But the heroine? She was a mystery.

Here’s a peek into how she revealed herself.

The Thought Process

A story about hiding art needs a character who cares about art-an artist.

An artist who lives in Holland, home of the Dutch Masters, and who has art of her own to protect-an art gallery that’s been in the family for generations.

Problem: I once heard an editor advise novice novelists to stick to American characters.

Solution: My heroine is Dutch-American, born in Chicago, but raised in Rotterdam, Holland.

Question: Why is she raised in Rotterdam?

Answer: Because her mother died, and her grief-stricken father sent her to live with his family.

I opened a journal and wrote, My name is Alison Schuyler . . .

Over the next few pages of free-writing, Alison revealed enough about herself, her family, and even an odd superstition that I could begin writing the novel.

A Drastic Measure

Free-writing isn’t always the answer. A contemporary heroine gave me fits for years, turning her back on me and being totally uncooperative.

Until I changed her name.

Thank you very much, she said. Now we can chat.

A Story-a Life-Revealed

The integral details are a foundation, but it’s in the writing of the story that characters reveal themselves, surprising me with their conversations, their actions, and even their secrets.

Their lives unfold through the pages of the story just as our lives unfold through the passing of years.

Johnnie Alexander Aug 2015Johnnie Alexander’s debut novel, Where Treasure Hides, won the ACFW Genesis Contest (Historical; 2011). Her first contemporary romance, Where She Belongs (Misty Willow Series; Revell), and her first novella, “The Healing Promise” (Courageous Bride Collection; Barbour), will release in 2016. She lives near Memphis with alpacas and Rugby, the princely papillon (who trees raccoons).

Comments 0

  1. Until I changed her name. I love that. Characters can be so stubborn, but aren’t they fun!
    I like the journal and free writing idea. I think I’ll make a journal for each of my characters.

  2. Thank you Johnnie. I have written many pages of notes on a character, but the idea of a journal is totally new to me. I journal myself. What a great way to get to know a character! Again, thank you!

  3. This was an amazing post!!!! Your daughter sounds like a sweetheart. 😉
    I love that you said your character wouldn’t talk to you until you changed her name. I have a villain who has remained imprisoned in a WIP for five years because he thinks he’s the hero. Every time I go back to see if he’s changed his mind, I have to put him back in time-out.

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