The Road to Creating Great Characters
By Kathryn Springer
Recently I had the absolute privilege to attend the Country Memories Farm Writing Conference in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, as a workshop leader. A beautiful setting, sweet fellowship with other writers, words that blessed and encouraged and. . . alpacas! Speaking anywhere is a gigantic leap out of my comfort zone, but for a girl who loves God’s creation, it was better than a day at the spa. :)
My topic was creating great characters because, well, because I love great characters! The books that line my “keeper” shelf (okay, shelves!) all have something in common. The characters became so real it was like making a new friend. And you keep your friends close, right?
The more you get to know a person, the more they reveal about themselves, which results in an emotional connection. It’s the same thing when it comes to our characters. We want the reader to get to know them. To bond with them. To remember them.
During the workshop, I shared some of my favorite ways to bring characters to life—habits and hang-ups (we all have them!) and the use of props.
Inward thoughts and feelings are usually expressed in outward behavior, so when it comes to your characters, make them count. Tie a habit to something in your character’s past. One of my heroines kept butterscotch candies in her pocket. When she was a little girl, her dad knew she struggled to control her temper so he doled these out to her with the rule that she couldn’t speak until it was gone—and she couldn’t chew it! It was a habit she carried into adulthood. She even knew how long it took for one to dissolve (6 minutes and 38 seconds!). When she and the hero clashed, she went through a lot of candy. In one humorous scene, she handed him a piece and by the end of the book, he was carrying his own private stash!
I brought a life-size, cardboard cut-out of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz to use as a visual aide for the workshop. She’s holding a basket and her dog, Toto, and wearing the ruby slippers. They’re her standard “props,” aren’t they? But think about props in terms of character.
When the story opens, Dorothy is running away from Miss Gulch, who wants to do away with Toto. That basket is more than just a cute accessory—it reveals Dorothy’s heart. It symbolizes her desire to protect those she loves, even if it means putting herself in danger. On her way to Oz, you see that quality again when the Cowardly Lion bullies the Scarecrow. Dorothy puts her own fears aside and stands up to him.
Consider some of the props in great epic stories. Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber, King Arthur’s Excalibur, Frodo’s ring. Props can reveal a character’s dreams and goals and values. Their God-given gifts or abilities. Sometimes even their greatest fear.
Now think about props as they relate to your characters. Props can also represent a specific career. A musical instrument, a paintbrush, or a laptop computer. A gun if you’re writing suspense. A diary, a piece of jewelry, even a stray dog can be a prop.
Ask yourself what would happen if they lost it. What if it were taken away? Maybe the prop is holding them back from becoming the person God wants them to be. Maybe it’s going to save the world. . . or someone they love.
I hope some of these things got you thinking about your characters in a new way! Now, off to the kitchen to grab some chocolate. . . not that it’s a habit of mine. :)
Annette here: I love this advice! So, how about your characters? What kind of props have you given your characters, or could you give them?
USA Today bestselling author Kathryn Springer grew up in a small town in northern Wisconsin, where her parents published a weekly newspaper. As a child she spent hours at her mother’s typewriter, plunking out stories about horses that her older brother “published” (he had the stapler) for a nominal fee. Kathryn loves writing about imperfect people, small towns and a great big God.
When she isn’t at the computer, you’ll find her curled up (in the sun!) with a good book, spending time with her family and friends or walking the trails near her country home.
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