Characterization: Like Meeting Your Next-Door Neighbors
By Shelley Gray
I’ve often told people that creating characters is a lot like meeting new next-door neighbors. Whenever new neighbors have moved in near us, I seem to go through a four-step process. At the risk of seeming like a nosy neighbor, I thought it might be fun to compare the process of characterization to starting a relationship with the folks next door.
Step 1: Peek and Greet. When someone new moves in, it’s human nature to take a quick peek at them. You form a first impression. You look to see about how old they are, if they have kids, if they look friendly.
When I begin a new book, I concentrate on physical information such as hair and eye color, ethnicity, age, glasses, scars, etc. I keep track of things in a spiral notebook. I write each character’s name at the top of a page and write down the characters’ basic information as I create it. Sometimes I even cut out magazine pictures and tape them in.
Step 2: Go Visiting. A few days after a someone new moves into our neighborhood, it’s customary to give them some cookies or a loaf of bread. Usually, we end up visiting for a couple of minutes and learn basic information about them—jobs, where they moved from, do they seem warm and friendly? Standoffish? Grumpy?
I ‘visit’ with my characters when I’m done with the first three or four chapters. During this time, I’ll go back over the part I’ve written and add information about each character. Of course, a big part of all that is developing their goals, motivation and conflict. I try to do this with every character in the book, not just the main characters. I figure if someone wanders into my book’s pages, I need to be kind enough to give them a personality and backstory.
Step 3: Bus Stop Talk. When my kids were little, all the moms would usually congregate at the bus stop and visit until the kids hopped on the bus. This was the best way to get to know other moms better. We discovered who got up early and looked like they were ready to conquer anything by eight am. We learned who worked out all the time. Who was patient with their kids. Who kind of wasn’t. You get the idea.
Around the time I’ve written a hundred pages, I revisit my characters to make sure that I’ve gotten to know them pretty well. If the characters seem flat, I spend sometime ‘fleshing’ them out. I give my characters likes and dislikes. People are interesting because they have quirks. Sometimes they’re big quirks, like a fear of some sort. Other times, I create favorite foods, activities that they like or don’t like, favorite sayings or words. Habits, too. For example, maybe a character always checks in with her best friend or mother at nine o’clock every night. Yep, I do my best to add all this in my spiral notebook, too.
Step 4. You Now Know Your Neighbors Next Door! Usually, by the time the new neighbors have lived next door for a couple of months, we’ve sized each other up. Sometimes we’ve clicked. Sometimes not so much. But usually after four or five months, we know each other pretty well. We have a relationship now.
By the time I’m three-fourths of the way through a manuscript, the plot is set, I know my characters, and I know exactly what is going to happen to them by the time I type The End.
This is the time to really check the whole cast of characters to make sure no one seems superficial or forgettable. Little adjustments are made here. Sometimes it’s giving someone a new name, sometimes it’s writing a little bit more of a backstory or giving them a red bike or car or coat. I basically try to give each character the opportunity to shine, even if it’s in a not-so-nice way.
If you’ve never taken the time to really get to know your characters, I hope you’ll give this method a try.
And if you happen to get some new neighbors sometime soon, I hope you’ll enjoy getting to know them as much as your readers will enjoy getting to know the characters in your book.
Shelley Shepard Gray writes Amish romances for Harper Collins inspirational line, Avon Inspire and historical romances as Shelley Gray for Harper Collins Christian Publishers. Her novels have been Holt Medallion winners and Inspirational Readers Choice and Carol finalists. Shelley’s novels have appeared on both the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists.
To date, Shelley has published over fifty novels for a variety of publishers. Her novels have been highlighted in the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washington Post, Time Magazine, and USA Today. She has also been interviewed on NPR as well as numerous regional radio stations.