Monday, January 14, 2013

Creating Characters That Jump Off the Page by JoAnn Durgin

What do you consider the most effective components in your writing? You know, those elements that grab your reader and won’t let him or her go until they’ve devoured one more chapter? Hearing that someone can’t put down your book is thrilling for an author—writing so fresh and compelling the reader won’t want to stop. They’ll want to pick up a book and sneak in a paragraph or two whenever and wherever they can. 

I understand the question posed can have variable answers, and I think it also goes hand-in-hand with our personal writing strengths. For instance, my strongest points are deep internal POV and natural dialogue. One of the biggest compliments I ever received from a reader is this: “I feel as though I know your characters so well that if they walked down the street, I’d recognize them and would want to talk with them.” You see, they’ve become real in that reader’s mind and more than a “person” on the page. They've made the jump from the page in a book into the heart and mind of the reader. This is exactly the type of response you want to evoke. Why? Because it means she cares and if she cares, then she’ll most likely want to read everything I write about them and she’ll tell her friends.  

This month, I’d like to focus on developing and writing deep POV. Mind you, it’s not for everyone, but it works for me and I like to employ it in my books. Through this particular method, you are giving your reader access to your character’s deepest inner thoughts. This includes their motivations, their wants, what hurts them or causes them pain, the elements of their past that have shaped their present, their desires, their needs and their reactions to others. In this way, the reader gains a unique entrance into their thought process and—even if they don’t understand or even particularly like the character—they’ll feel as if they know them. 

Let’s face it, not every reader is going to like every character you create. But again, if you can evoke a response, then you’ve accomplished effective writing. All your characters can’t be sweet, fun, godly and perfect. Of course, no one but our precious Savior is perfect. In fiction, writing about perfect people is boring—for both the author and the reader. And then there's the fact that nothing could be more sad than reading a review or comment that says something like this: “The characters felt like cardboard cutouts. I simply didn’t care about them, so I lost interest.” Thankfully, no one has ever said this about my characters, and it’s my intent they never will.

How do you go about writing such deep POV? Number one, you as the author need to know the character from the inside out. In other words, flesh them out. Expose their frailties and vulnerabilities as well as know their strengths and goals. You need to understand and appreciate them in order to write them so your reader will, too. Love them in their imperfections—even your villains. Actors often say they love playing the bad guy because they’re “more fun” than playing a good one. Similarly, I think sometimes authors enjoy writing the scenes with their bad guys more often than not. Why? Because they stir the emotions and the passion and keep the interest level high. I know confrontational scenes are among my favorite to write. Readers also identify with those scenes because who hasn’t gone through life without conflict? 

Creating and shaping characters is perhaps one of my favorite aspects of writing because it draws upon my deepest sense of creativity. As an author, you are the one in control because you create them. You alone know their childhood background (what events shaped them?), history (the where, when, what and how of their growing up years), family (are mom and dad in the picture? grandparents? what siblings, cousins and people shaped their lives in terms of death and life?), and everything else that is that character. Embrace the challenge of getting to know your characters and take their journey with them. 

Making character charts can also help, if you’re so inclined. Simply start a page for each character in your book, or one chart for all your characters. You can create columns or not; set it up however it works best for you. On this chart, list all those things previously mentioned about your character. Spend some time on it and refer back to it as often as needed. Sometimes you have to start the actual writing first and then your characters will evolve. You’ll come to understand them better as they respond to others throughout the course of your unfolding story. Don’t be afraid to change or alter something in their background to suit your purposes. You’ll know what works or doesn’t work as you continue on in your writing. Write, write, edit, and then do it all over again to refine and hone in on the finer points of your characters and their unique stories.

If you choose not to write deep POV, you still need to know your characters from the inside out to create fully-developed characters your reader will care about. After all, isn’t that one of our primary goals? 

What are your strengths as a writer and how can you use them to your best advantage? I’d love to hear from you, so please feel free to share with us. Blessings, friends. Matthew 5:16


  1. I'm not sure yet what my strongest skill set is as a writer yet. I do desire to create characters people care about and who become "real" to the reader. Thanks for the great info in this post.

  2. Thanks for your G-R-R-REAT (Trying to do my Tony the Tiger impersonation) blog, JoAnn. This is so good I've recommended it to my crit partners and fellow bloggers.

    Somebody correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe dialog is one good suit in my writing. I also do detailed character sheets. If you look at the archives for November 2012, you'll see my blog "Ye Shall Know Them By Their T-Shirts", where I mention things like T-shirts and bumper stickers being used for character development as well (though this doesn't relate to deep POV).

    Thanks again.

  3. Karla, I think you're doing just fine from what I know. Keep at it. If your writing is anything like your blogs, it's superb! Jeff, you are such an encouragement to me, I can't even tell you. I'm going to have to look up that November blog because you've intrigued me. Character development and POV go hand-in-hand, so it all relates! Many thanks and blessings.

  4. I'm so glad Jeff pointed out your blog to me.

    I look forward to more.

  5. Thanks, Jackie. We have a lot of very talented writers here in the Hoosier state, I have to say. Come back often! Thanks again, Jeff, for helping to promote Hoosier Ink. Blessings all.

  6. The art of POV is not an easy one to master. Good job, JoAnn!

    I also see characters and deep POV as one of my strengths. Plot? I'm working on it!