When I trained to become a counselor in Belgium, which seems like a lifetime ago, we were taught to check our emotional baggage at the door for the duration of our sessions. It was recommended we visualize placing a suitcase of our ‘stuff’ high on a shelf in the hope of entering clear-headed and open to receive. We were instructed to create a safe place for our clients, who came from diverse backgrounds, life experiences, and opinions.
I observed body language, tone of voice, mannerisms, and what people choose to share or not to share. I was conscious of not rushing or leading the sessions and found that with patience and time, a trust could be built. Sessions progressed, but only as far as the clients chose to go. It was a privilege to sit with clients and walk by their sides as they took their emotional journeys.
One lightbulb moment came during the writing of my first novel, A DECENT WOMAN–it was important to offer my characters the same courtesy, support, and patient attention I’d offered counseling clients in the past.
With that in mind, I created a brief outline and filled out 3×5 index cards for each character with their physical description, age, their back story, and a bit about their personalities; an in-depth character study. After my editor asked me to rewrite several chapters and add two chapters for clarity, the story changed slightly, and it followed that the characters also changed. It was then I wrote a detailed synopsis.
I followed the same basic technique with my work in progress, THE LAMENTS. I outlined the story and wrote a more detailed study of each character to include their weaknesses, deep fears, strengths, idiosyncrasies, physical ailments, and private goals. I included where they were born, who raised them, a bit about their childhood, and a deeper look into their personality traits. I created unique mannerisms, dislikes, likes, and what makes them tick. All that helped with writing natural dialogue, inner conflicts, and the resolutions if any. And since I’m a visual person, I found photographs from magazines to accompany the physical descriptions of each character and added them to the backs of the 3×5 index cards.
After ten chapters, certainly much earlier than with book one, I wrote a short synopsis and later, an eight-page synopsis that grew to ten pages. A week later, I reworked the outline and believe me, the studies of each character changed the interactions and at times, the story. I gave them a proper life and in my humble opinion, they are fully fleshed, complex, crazy, manipulative, lovable, adorable, and complicated characters. Heroes and heroines of their own private world.
You might think spending thinking of each character is a waste of writing time, a cock-eyed approach, perhaps? Allow me to expand on this process: creating characters for a work of fiction is a fascinating process. Initially, I might have an idea of who they are, what their jobs are, and what they look like physically, but I don’t know how they’ll react to the other characters in the story, or how they’ll fare in the complicated, complex world I will build for them. Are they strong-willed, jealous-types, or haughty and arrogant, or empathic and kind-hearted? Are they good listeners, deep thinkers, or shallow individuals who can’t be counted on in a pinch? Are they honorable? Do they have deep integrity? A character’s deeper, more personal qualities aren’t always apparent until I begin writing the story. So the digging into a characters’ psyche is done before and during the writing to avoid writing flat, uninteresting characters and stories.
I don’t know about you, but as a reader, I lose interest if the character doesn’t ring “true” or seems too shallow throughout the story. We don’t always know a character well enough at the beginning of a story, and even if we think we’ve got them ‘pegged’ at the start, inevitably, disconcerting, interesting, and confusing facts can develop, which is key to good storytelling. Some facts may be downright distasteful or wonderfully surprising and both can be helpful to the story.
This writing technique tells your characters stories from their unique perspective.
You may have a different technique for creating interesting, memorable characters, and in that case, your comments are appreciated!
Happy writing and reading to you.
Puerto Rican-born Eleanor Parker Sapia is the author of the multi-award-winning novel, A Decent Woman, published by Winter Goose Publishing. Her best-selling debut novel, set in turn of the century Ponce, Puerto Rico, garnered Second Place for Best Latino Focused Fiction Book, English at the 2017 International Latino Book Award with Latino Literacy Now. The book was awarded an Honorable Mention for Best Historical Fiction, English at the 2016 International Latino Book Awards with Latino Literacy Now. A Decent Woman was selected as a Book of the Month by Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club. Eleanor is featured in the anthology, Latina Authors and Their Muses, edited by Mayra Calvani.
A writer, artist, and poet, Eleanor is currently working on her second novel, The Laments, set in 1926 Puerto Rico. When Eleanor is not writing, she tends to her garden, travels, dreams of traveling, and tells herself she will walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time before her hips give out. Eleanor is the mother of two amazing adult children and currently lives in her adopted state of West Virginia.
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