So before I can make them come alive in the pages of a book, my characters need to become real to me. It’s not that I expect to become best buddies with them. Some of them are pretty creepy villains, after all. But they do have to become three dimensional people with likes, dislikes, and a lifetime of experience behind them.
What works best for me is when I discover a single event in a character’s past that brings him/her into sharp focus. That one moment has shaped their personality and their life’s decisions. For example, when I was writing westerns, I ran across a reference to a gambling hall owner who hated small coins. So every morning, he would throw them out into the street where boys would be waiting to scramble in the dust for their fair share. I could just SEE one of those boys desperately needing those pennies to feed both himself and his sick mother. If luck was with him, they ate. If not, they went hungry. That moment defined him for me. Cal would spend years travelling from town to town as a gambler, chasing Lady Luck because she’d been his salvation at an early age.
Another example was when I was reading a book on ancient warrior women. The archeologists were discussing the artifacts they found in a grave—jewelry, fine clothing, and weapons. It was clear to me that she’d been buried by someone who loved her. How would that person feel about these scientists putting those personal possessions in a museum and pretending they knew something about the real woman? The answer was easy—he’d hate it because no matter what the scientists thought, they’d never know the sound of her laughter or the touch of her hand. Of course, for him to know what was going on, this guy would have to be a thousand years old. Since I write paranormal romances, that really wasn’t a problem. He became Ranulf, the first of my Talion heroes—a thousand-year-old Viking warrior. (Just so you know, he stole her jewelry back from the museum.)
Sometimes I learn a lot by figuring out what kind of car a character drives. One of my favorites was a classic muscle car that one of my Paladins drove. Jarvis had owned it since it was new and kept it in perfect condition. He also liked to drive it through the twisting roads of the Ozarks faster than he should. What did that mean to him as a character? Obviously, he liked power and speed. As a Paladin, he was comfortable with danger, maybe even craved it. But even more important, he held onto the things that were important to him, which included the people in his life.
I also had a Paladin who carried a sword cane. It was a gift from Hunter’s friend, and while he appreciated the gesture, he hated that he needed the cane to walk. He’d been badly injured and wasn’t sure he’d ever regain the strength needed to fight—or worse yet, if he really wanted to. The sword cane gave him something tangible to hold onto when his fears threatened to get the best of him, and a weapon to use when he was attacked. But to me, the sword was a metaphor for Hunter himself—on the surface, he was an ordinary man, but inside he had a core of steel.
My upcoming release, My Lady Mage, is my first ever fantasy romance. To get to know the five Warriors of the Mist, I spent literally hours studying a book called The Beautiful Horse (Langrish & Swinney). In the magical world of these warriors, horses can choose their own riders. Odd as that might seem, I got to know my five heroes through the eyes of the horses who would bond with them. That the lead stallion would choose the captain of the warriors didn’t come as a surprise. But then a second stallion, scarred from a battle early in his life, chose the darkest of the warriors, the two wounded souls a little less lonely because of their unlikely friendship.
Each of the warriors also has an avatar, a gift from their gods. Deciding which animal would best suit each warrior also allowed me to spend a great deal of time in their heads, getting to know them. Captain Gideon, responsible for the big picture, bonded with a gyrfalcon. Through the eyes of the raptor, Gideon can view the world around him in a way that a normal man couldn’t. Murdoch, who always has Gideon’s back, bonded with a mountain cat. Like Murdoch, the cat prefers to lurk in the shadows, but stands ready to attack when those she cares about are threatened.
So the bottom line is that to really know your characters, remember it’s not enough to know the basic components of their life unless you know what those things say about their character. Here are some examples of questions you might ask yourself about the character you are creating:
Why does she drive that particular car?
Do brand names mean everything when it comes to clothing or could he care less?
Does the heroine hold onto a faded old sweatshirt because it’s comfortable or because it’s all she has left of the man she loved?
Does your villain live within his means or at the edge of his credit limit because appearances are everything?
Is there one incident in your hero’s past that formed the man he is today? If so, why did it have such a profound effect on him?
Which has affected your character the most? His successes or his failures?
Finally, I’m always curious about the process other writers use to find their characters. What is the most interesting fact that you’ve learned about one of your characters that helped you understand his/her motivations and goals?
Alexis Morgan loves spending her days writing about strong heroes and gutsy heroines. She has published over twenty-five books, novellas, and short stories, including contemporary romances, American West historicals, and paranormal romances. Next up is the debut of her new venture into fantasy romance with My Lady Mage, the first book in a new series from Signet Eclipse titled Warriors of the Mist. She will also be writing a new contemporary series called Snowberry Creek, which will debut in August 2013. She has been nominated for numerous industry awards, including the RITA© from the Romance Writers of America.
It is whispered in Agathia that the legendary warriors of the mist—cursed by the gods—can be summoned only when a champion is needed and the cause is just. Gideon, their captain, knows this to be the one path that will lead his men to redemption—lest they face an eternity of damnation.
A cursed destiny. A band of warriors. And one troubled kingdom.
Years have passed since anyone has journeyed to the river’s edge, but times are desperate. Oppressed by a cruel guardian whose dark magic threatens to destroy her people, the beautiful and courageous Merewen calls upon the bespelled warriors. In Gideon she finds more than a champion, and in his arms, more than protection. However, their enemies are fighting with a power darker than anything than they imagined, and should Gideon fail, she will lose everything she holds dear—including her heart.