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Judy Griffith Gill

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Getting in Character; Keeping in Character
By Judy Griffith Gill   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Friday, February 01, 2008
Posted: Friday, February 01, 2008

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How to write good, solid, memorable characters.

Getting In Character, Keeping in Character


Judy Griffith Gill


Some writers do character studies of their protagonists, some do not.  Neither way is the right way, nor is the other you choose, the wrong way.  But what each writer must do is chose, mentally, or on paper, a set of characteristics that will imbue each character with life and a reality visible to the reader.  We have to know which traits will be dominant, and which, secondary. 


Dominant traits will provide the main guide for each action. Secondary traits will offer counterweights, tug against the powers of the dominant ones as the sun and moon play tug-o-war with the ocean.  We have to write scenes that will show these traits to advantage.


  • Characteristics propel characters the way oars propel a boat. 

A broken oar will leave a boat going around in circles.  A broken, or incomplete, or even a weak character will leave a story going around in circles.  What are characteristics?  They are the distinguishing traits or features—physical, emotional and mental—that make an individual unique.  Some will be dominant—the  ones that drive our protagonists most strongly.


  • Dominant characteristics. 

These traits provide the basis of how our character will speak and act in most situations.  In a character driven story, they are the most important factors in determining what happens to the character and how the plot will develop.


A character-driven story  requires strong characters to keep the reader's interest.  Events must move because the characters move them.  A strong character must have strong characteristics.  This doesn't mean that all heroes must be blustery and forceful at all times, and that all heroines must be feisty and stubborn in every instance.  It does mean that whatever characteristics you chose to embody your character, those traits must be written with authority and stuck to religiously. 

            If she's a powder puff because that's the way she was raised to be, make her a real powder puff.  Demonstrate her as that.  Have her go “eek!” at mice.  You may want her to change and grow, but you'd better give her good reason to do it and ample time to alert the reader that it's happening. 

            If you have a timid heroine  who let herself be bamboozled into marriage with a man she hates and fears, you can't let her turn around the minute the ceremony is over and kick him in the shins, knee him in the jaw, and run off into the night.  Remember, there may be mice out there to go eek at. 

            However, if the man she fears threatens her little sister, she might well overcome her timidity and flee with the child.

            Nor would it do to have a hero who is hateful and fear-inspiring suddenly become Mr. Nice Guy simply because the little twit he's been forced by circumstances to marry, has pretty golden ringlets.  If he's going change his mind and the way he responds to her, she'll need to be convinced—and so will your reader—that he's genuine in his changes, that there are adequate reasons for them, and that everyone, maybe even he, has been wrong about him all along. 

            One way to do this would be to let the reader see his secondary characteristics in action. 


  • Secondary characteristics. 

These provide balance, contrast and, importantly, very often inner conflict, especially when the character must reconcile the differences between what his primary traits ask of him and what his secondary ones suggest he could or should do.


If his secondary characteristics are compassion and kindness, however deeply buried, they may come out under extreme circumstances.  Maybe he can't help grieving when she has a miscarriage (losing his baby) as a result of his forcing her to walk behind his horse for twenty miles after she's tried to run away because of his harshness.  If she sees him shaken by the event, she may revise her opinion of him.  Or maybe she doesn't have a miscarriage, because he sends his men on ahead and goes slower, riding double on his horse with her.  Or possibly she doesn't develop pneumonia because, when no one's looking, he brings her an extra blanket in the night.  There are many ways you could show him to be compassionate somewhere deep down inside his evil soul.  Some of these secondary characteristics might even appear to be contradictory to the primary ones.  What they are, it will turn out, is not so much contradictory as complimentary.  But whatever characteristics we assign our characters, we have to be true to them throughout the story. 

            Characters can and must change, however, and as the plot progresses, we can see our hero's primary characteristics of force and bluster soften and change as love gives him a new outlook.  A heroine who was a wimp in the beginning might become feisty and stubborn when it becomes important enough to her to prove to the hero that she's worthy of him.  Those characteristics everyone considered timidity and listlessness might have been evidence of nothing more than a gentle and loving nature that will provide a perfect foil to the hero's more forceful personality. Or the hero may find himself at fighting with his need to control people when he sees that too strong a hand repels her, rather than draws her close.


For instance, if we've chosen to make our hero a newly crowned king who is loyal and brave and has great moral strength, (primary characteristics) and compassionate and caring, (secondary characteristics), we can choose to motivate him by having an enemy kill his entire family.  Since we know he's strong, we're not going to show him weeping in public.  (We may show him doing so in private, because he is, after all, caring and does have his gentle side).  Since he's brave, he's not going to sneak off and catch the first ship to the new world because he fears the same fate as his family—he’s  going to stand and fight, win back his rightful place in his world.  He's loyal, so he's going to swear an oath of vengeance and go after the SOB who harmed those he loved. 


A battle in which he acquits himself fearlessly would show bravery.  His determination to avenge his families' murders further illustrates his loyalty.  His knights’' attitudes toward him could also be used to reinforce the reader's perceptions of his character.  If his men follow him willingly, rallying round him and his cause, we know he's well-loved and that there must be reasons for this.  People who aren't loyal to their friends and colleagues, seldom receive loyalty in return.


If his secondary characteristics make him kind and gentle, we could show him in this light when he finds a woman and child broken and bleeding in a ditch, victim of a runaway carriage.  Then, when he learns that they are the daughter and grandson of the man he has just killed, and that they had almost escaped his army, he can remember his loyalty to his dead family, and be torn between vengeance and compassion. 


Vengeance may win out, so may compassion.  If he has to fight a great inner, moral battle before he decides, it will give him more texture than if we merely had him wipe out the pair with a swing of his sword. Before he can decide, we'll likely learn a great deal more of what motivates him.  Did he have a son or a nephew who was killed by the enemy, a child about the same age as the injured boy?  Was his wife or his sister killed?  How does he feel about that?  Did the enemy forces rape his womenfolk?  Did he expect to be king, or was his elder brother also wiped out in the massacre, bumping him up the line of succession before he felt ready for the task?  Why was he spared?  Was he goofing off in a meadow with a country wench, thereby being given a whole load of guilt to help motivate him?  Was he away learning how to be a strong knight and feels obliged to prove that his learning was not in vain? 


  • Along with characterization, must go motivation.  The two are inextricably linked.


If our story of the new king and his mission of revenge were purely an adventure story, characterization of that depth would not be so necessary.  An adventure story, which is often action-oriented rather than character-driven, requires the writer to know and impart far less about the characters.  For instance, while James Bond is a fine and well-drawn character, the stories he appears in are far more about what he does, than who he is.  He's a charming, brave womanizer.  He was a charming, brave womanizer when the story began; he was exactly the same when the story ended.  We neither know, nor much care, who his parents were, whether he has siblings, how well he did in school.  We may not even know what motivated him to become a superspy.  What we know about him is how he likes his martinis.  That is why the line “shaken, not stirred” is so often used to characterize him.  Because Fleming's Bond stories are more about actions than relationships, that's all we really need to know.


But it's just not good enough for a romance.  We want our hero and heroine to be fully developed characters, with pasts, futures, hopes, dreams, frustrations, resentments, and any number of other unfulfilled desires that motivate them to reach the end of the story changed in some way for the better, more able to function effectively in their community. The reader wants to care about our characters, want to know why she feels the need to change herself or her environment.  We must answer the question:


  • What matters to our character?


This doesn't mean that at the outset of the story we need to lay before the reader the full set-up of what motivates our character.  We risk boring her if we try to do that.  A character's story should begin at the point in her life where she's had enough of the way things are going, and has come to the conclusion that things must change, one way or another.

            Like this:

            Christa railed inwardly against a fate that had allowed her to reach the age of thirty-five still a virgin.  Maybe it was time to challenge fate.  Instead, at 10:35 on a hot Friday morning, fate challenged her.  He had a hard, naked chest, broad, sweat-slicked shoulders, and wore a full beard.”


Now, we don't know who Christa is, or why she's a virgin at thirty-five.  We don't even know who embodies “fate” as it applies to her.  But we do know that she has a reason to want to change herself.  One, she doesn't want to be a virgin.  Two, it looks as if the means of her changing that has just presented itself.  If we'd spent twenty pages explaining that Christa had stayed home because she was loyal, dutiful, loving, filial and a few more characteristics to look after aging parents, we'd have lost a lot of readers by page five if not in the first paragraph.


For this reason, we often jump into a story with a character fully drawn in our minds, but not yet in the reader's mind.  By showing their dominant traits clearly, we bring the characters alive in the reader's mind.


Let’s say our heroine is a gutsy person who bungee jumps, sky-dives, flies ultra-lights and parasails.  She is not a physical coward.  When the hero, who is mad as hell at her, at himself, and at the world, decides he's going to kiss her into submission (an action I personally abhor, but which seems to fit some stories some of the time) she doesn't  cry or swoon.  She doesn't pound his chest ineffectually with her fists or even throw a tantrum.  Nor does she submit.

            Here's what happens:

            Groaning, he dragged her against him, buried his hands in her hair and kissed her, his tongue driving between her lips and staking a claim, making a demand, forcing a response. He got one.            She lifted her knee and jabbed it toward his groin and he instinctively twisted, blocking her.  He didn't realize until it was all over and he was flat on his back on the floor, that she'd anticipated exactly that move on his part, counted on it, used it as the basis for hers.

            “She stood over him, fists clenched, her eyes ablaze, her chest heaving.

            “You want to kiss me, mister, you ask.  You don't grab.  You don't take.  You don't make any sudden moves that might frighten me.  Got it?”

            Lithely, hiding the wince that would have told her she'd done more damage than he was willing to admit, he got to his feet.  “Got it,” he said, and moved in close again, and grinned. “Lady, I want to kiss you.”

            “That,” she said, “was a statement, not a request.” She stood her ground, waiting.


            In that scene, from one of my earlier books, I used her dominant traits of feistiness, self-assurance and physical courage.  It would have been terribly out of character for her to cry or pound or throw a temper tantrum. It would have been even more out of character for her to submit.  When she walks into a man's embrace, she does it as a full and equal partner, which is the way she insists on facing life.  Past events have motivated her to grow into this kind of character, but they are events the reader doesn't learn about until near the end of the story.

            It would have been equally out of character for the man in question to go off in a huff because she surprised him and bested him in a physical contest.  He's a strong, self-confident man with a healthy ego and a good sense of humor.  He's also man enough to admit he was wrong and deserved what he got.  Those characteristics stay with those two for the length of the story.  In fact, on the last page of the manuscript, he ends up flat on his back again, for the very same reason—he grabbed, she was startled, and her reaction remained true to form.


  • Characteristics, once we've decided what they are, must be shown. 


Take Christa's:  She's loyal, and she's dutiful.  She is not, because Mr. Fate has a bare chest, going to suddenly say "So long, Ma and Pa, rot in your sick-beds."  She is going to agonize over how she can rearrange her life to include that bare chest.  She clearly has other characteristics:  she's steadfast, not a quitter.  If she'd been weak-willed, she wouldn't have stuck with her parents all these years.  So, because of those other characteristics, she's going to be willing fight to have the man she wants, even if it's her own dominant characteristics (loyalty and duty), she has to fight in order to do it.  And because she's steadfast, she'll win.

            There is another aspect to characterization that is too extensive to be included here; it’s the subject of another lecture, but you should all be aware of it.  Every writer, especially those of us write in both male and female point of view, should be recognize that it is a basic fact of life that this planet is peopled by two distinct races.  Females, and these aliens with whom we form our most frustrating and rewarding relationships.  It is another basic fact of life that we real earthlings and the extraterrestrials among us don't truly speak the same language. We might say the same words, but we mean widely differing things by them. And, in responding to the same question, we might give essentially the same answer, but our phrasing and choice of words will be so different, that someone from yet another race might be forgiven for thinking we disagreed. In essence, when you have a male character speaking, make sure he speaks like a man. And when you have a woman say something, be certain she uses a woman’s voice.

            There are several  fascinating books available on the subject. Two of my favorites are HE SAYS, SHE SAYS, by Lillian Glass, Ph.D., and YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND, by Debra Tannin, MD. Others you might find helpful are MEN ARE FROM, WOMEN ARE FROM VENUS, by John Gray.
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Reviewed by Gwendolyn Thomas Gath 5/11/2009

Great information Judy
appreciate it kindly.

All the best to you,
Reviewed by Ken Chartrand 7/23/2008
Hi Judy! I read the excerpt from "Getting in Character;Keeping in Character". I found that,even that little bit of info was quite helpful especially to a fellow writer. Thanks for this. I will look for your other writng. Please feel free to visit my site here in the "Den"

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