Beginnings Are Not Just Background: Creating Good Characters A Guest Post By Sophia Ryan

 

Character development should start from scene one of your novel and end when the novel does. But how do you write characters we all want to read about?

Coloring your dialog with details such as gesture, appearance, tone, thoughts, and reaction helps readers get a better sense of your characters. And, if readers have a better sense of who your characters are, says author Nancy Kress in her book, Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, they might be more willing to read more of your story.

Beginnings Are Not Just Background: Creating Good Characters  A Guest Post By Sophia Ryan

There are times when you want quick, back-and-forth dialog with limited narrative, but that works best when the reader already knows your characters. In the beginning scenes, readers need more than background and dialog in order to get to know – and care about – your characters. Dialog can’t carry that load on its own.

I’ll illustrate this point by walking you through a brief passage from a novel.

First up is a stripped-down scene of dialog only. As you read, ask yourself three questions: what do you know about the characters, do you like the characters, and what you think the story is about.

“Why don’t you have a boyfriend taking care of your needs?” he asked.

“That’s none of your business.” She turned back and continued walking.

“Girls like you usually have loads of boyfriends to pick from.”

“Girls like me? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Ones with eyes that could stop a man’s heart and lips that could bring him back to life.”

“I’m not incapable of getting a boyfriend, if that’s what you’re suggesting.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“I’d have one if I wanted one.”

“Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Want someone?”

“What I want is…” Oh, God…you! “…to focus on finishing my degree.”

Meh. Feels a bit like eating plain oatmeal, right?

What could you tell about the characters from this exchange? Probably not much. Now, see what happens when you support the dialog with the characters’ thoughts, gestures, actions, and reactions. Using our oatmeal analogy, add butter, milk, cinnamon, nuts, sugar, and dried fruit to the pale mush and see if it isn’t a tad tastier to the eyes and the tongue.

“Why don’t you have a boyfriend taking care of your needs?” His gaze narrowed and zeroed in on hers.

“That’s none of your business.” She stared him down, her eyes hot, her body trembling with anger at the typical male assumption that no woman could ever be happy with and satisfied by another woman. Bastard!

“Girls like you usually have loads of boyfriends to pick from.”

“Girls like me? What’s that supposed to mean?” Before she could stop herself, her hand jabbed out, connecting with his shoulder, and bumped him hard.

He barely budged, and his lips pulled into a snide grin, showing his teeth, and his eyes burned red. Grabbing the back of her neck with one hand, he pulled her close, his mouth almost touching hers.

“Ones with eyes that could stop a man’s heart and lips that could bring him back to life.”

Chills skated up and down her body as her skin absorbed his steamed words. For the first time since he joined her, her heart pounded. In fear? Or lust? Both. She could no longer pretend to be unaffected by his…maleness.

“I’m not incapable of getting a boyfriend, if that’s what you’re suggesting.” The words snapped from her mouth, extra sharp to puncture his ego.

“I didn’t say that.” His eyes stared deeply into hers. She felt a burning in her head, felt a wiggling heat crawling through her mind. At that moment, she was sure he could read the real reason she didn’t have a boyfriend.

“I’d have one if I wanted one,” she said, almost in a defensive whimper, and lost her mind completely when he reached out and brushed a thick strand of hair from her face with his fingertips.

“Do you?” He breathed the words more than spoke them. His mouth went to her exposed neck.

Her skin heated under his touch. Her body turned to pudding. So did her brain. She’d forgotten the question.

“Do I what?” she murmured, and with a low moan, tipped her head closer to his mouth.

“Want someone?” His voice was inside her. Hot. Fast. Paralyzing.

“What I want is…” Then his teeth sank into her flesh, and he sucked her essence into his mouth. Swallowed her. Oh, my God. “You!” The word slipped from her lips on her last breath.

The dialog is the same, but after reading this section you know these characters a little better. You can make assumptions about who they are and what they’re doing. You can decide whether you want to continue reading about them and their situation and whether you like where the story seems to be going. The difference comes from the details in how they react to each other, their thoughts, the way they look, what they’re doing, and so on.

As you’re writing, be sure to ask yourself whether you’re giving the readers everything you want them to know about your characters from the very beginning. Every paragraph has to advance your story, and those that don’t advance it need to go. Every paragraph also has to develop your characters in some way.

Every paragraph has to advance your story, and those that don’t advance it need to go. Every paragraph also has to develop your characters in some way.

Look at a few scenes in your novel.

What are they saying about your characters? What impression are they giving? Are the characters interesting? Or bland? Are they the people who can carry your novel forward? Are they up to the challenge? Or will readers take one look at them and see unadorned oatmeal? If you’re not impressed, your readers won’t be either.

Give this exercise a try and you, too, can fill your beginnings with character, situation, and pleasing prose that will hook – and hold – your readers’ attention.


Author Sophia RyanSophia Ryan writes the kind of books she likes to read: stories where sexual heat sizzles off the page and the characters fall hard into lust and soft into love. Before she transitioned to novels, she wrote short stories for the Trues family of confession magazines and Woman’s World to pay for grad school. When she’s not writing about passion, she’s indulging in it–yoga, hiking, laughing with friends over hot chile and cold beer, and being lazy and crazy with the family. She works full time as an editor for an international professional association and she has a master’s degree in professional writing. Her books can be found here, She Likes It Irish, Dirty Little Secret6 Days of You, Sin City Alibi – coming summer 2015,Only Forever – coming fall 2015

About Katharine Grubb

Katharine Grubb has mastered the art of freewriting because she wrote her first novel in 10 minute increments. There are probably easier ways to write a book, but with homeschooling her five children, she’ll take what she can get. Her latest book, Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day was just released and is available on Amazon.com She lives in Massachusetts and blogs at www.10minutenovelists.com.

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