Today's post, on character development. is brought to you by Cat Caruthers, author of Sorority Girls With Guns.
How do you, as a writer, develop interesting characters? This is something I've struggled with for years. I would read books by my favorite authors and think about how wonderful, realistic and three-dimensional the characters were. Then I would wonder how to replicate that in my own work.
Ultimately, I decided it's all in the details. It's one thing to describe a person as “sloppy” or “filthy” or “unhygienic”, but I think this description is more interesting: “He's wearing an orange t-shirt that says, 'Forget candy, give me beer.' Given the color and subject matter, I suspect the shirt was intended for Halloween. Given the way he smells and the layers of stains on the shirt, I suspect he's been wearing it continuously since last Halloween – six months ago.”
You might have heard the phrase, “Show, don't tell.” That's great advice for writers, and it's especially helpful when developing characters. Don't just say that someone has a loud, irritating voice - describe how it sounds. Is it like fingernails on a chalkboard? Does it remind you of another annoying noise?
So where do you find all these interesting details and character traits? In the people you meet every day. I'm not saying you should base all your characters on people you know – for one thing, you'll eventually run out of people you know. For another, if a character is too much like someone you know, he or she might get mad and sue you. So you don't want to base a whole character on someone you know – but you can illustrate aspects of a character's personality with traits you've noticed in real people. It doesn't have to be people that you know well, either – it can be someone you saw at the grocery store, someone you met for five minutes in the mall and will never see again.
I once rode a bus with a woman who laughed a lot – in a very unusual way. Whenever she laughed, she sounded like someone trying to turn over the engine of an old car – and failing. That was all I could think for the whole bus ride – she sounds like an old car engine that won't turn over! I realized when the bus stopped and I finally – happily – got off, that that would be a good line for a future book, so I made a mental note of it.
Another time, I saw some girls walking around my college campus in shorts that were so microscopically tiny, I thought they looked more like thongs with pockets than shorts. That got filed away for later. When I went out with a guy who hit me up for a loan to get his car out of impound on our first date, that got filed away. When I spent 24 hours sitting on a sidewalk in St. Louis, waiting to get into an American Idol audition, next to a guy who not only talked constantly but literally started every single sentence with the word I or my (“My training”, “My vocal coach”, “My experience”, “My play”, “My songs”, “I perform”, etc), I filed that away.
Depending on how much time I spend with the character in the story, sometimes I expand on these traits. I've made up entire characters based on one trait. The guy who started every single sentence with I or my? He became a love interest for the main character in a current work-in-progress. Since I'm relieved to say that I only met the guy briefly in real life and hopefully will never have to spend time with him again, I decided to delve into why he might be that way. What makes a person so self-involved that he can't start a sentence without using the first person? I don't know the guy, so I just made up reasons. Was he a child star surrounded by too many yes-man, and it went to his head? Maybe he had the opposite problem – his parents told him he was amazingly talented, but Hollywood didn't see it that way. Maybe no one ever believed in him, so in his own head, he had to exaggerate his importance. Maybe it was none of those things. (You'll just have to keep reading my books to find out!) Often I'll exaggerate a trait or quirk to make it more interesting (and less likely I'll get sued).
Sometimes the character is minor and doesn't require a lot of development, but you still want that character to be interesting while serving his or her purpose in the plot. I've read many books where a character was only in one scene, but was still colorful and fascinating, so that's what I strive for in my writing.
Sure enough, you'll find a character in Bitch and Famous (to be released on Amazon July 15) who has a laugh like a car engine turning over, and a guy in a Halloween shirt that hasn't been washed since last Halloween. You'll also meet some sorority girls wearing shorts that could be confused with underpants, a main character who bitches about reality shows on a reality show, a customer-from-hell who demands a refund after trying to use her shredder to grate cheese – and those are just a few of the characters you'll meet in Bitch and Famous.
As for writing advice, the best advice I could give anyone is to be observant. Notice the people around you – especially the ones you don't like or find annoying. What specifically do they do that's so annoying? As for the people you do like – great! Know someone who's the life of the party, or a laugh a minute? What do they say or do that you find funny? The bottom line is that great characters are based, if only in the tiniest way, on real people.
Good advice, and in Cat's published work, we may see how well it is put into practice.
You can get Best Little Sorority House in Texas HERE, and its sequel, Bitch and Famous, will be released on 15 July. I've read it and I can say that you are definitely going to love it! Watch this space, for I shall be reviewing it tomorrow.