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Did I dazzle you?

“Did I dazzle you? Did I jump off the page?”

Those two lines are from the movie 21, which my husband and I watched over the weekend. I actually liked it, but what really stuck with me were those two lines.

In the movie, those words are thrown back in the face of a professor looking for scholarship recipients with more than just academic achievements. He wants students with “life experience”. After making hundreds of thousands of dollars by counting cards at blackjack tables in Vegas, the main character definitely has it.

The whole scene reminded me of trying to get into Berkeley (which I didn't even want to attend, but my dad hoped I'd get in so I could live at home). Not only did I not have a 4.5 GPA, but my parents were alive, I'm white, I wasn't an Olympian, I hadn't started my own company, and I didn't want to be an astronaut. Let's just say my dad coughed up some dorm fees elsewhere.

Anyway, here's my point. (I know, finally, right?) Those lines made me think about writing good characters. If we do our job well, shouldn't the characters dazzle our readers? Shouldn't they jump off the page as if they were real?

The challenge for us as writers is imbuing our characters with the qualities that make them unforgettable. The life experience that they would have if they were real people. If I were an expert on this, I think I'd be writing on deadline and too busy to blog almost daily, so I won't claim to have the answer.

I do have a couple of good resources, though. The book I just finished–and I highly recommend–is The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman. He got me thinking about my characters and their circumstances in a way I hadn't before. There are plenty of thought-provoking exercises at the end of each chapter to start you on your journey.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Debra Dixon's Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. Her book was the subject of my very first blog post, and understanding her concepts represented a real turning point in my writing career. More than any one idea, GMC has had the most profound effect on how I write.

Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress is another good primer for character development. Kress also includes end-of-chapter exercises.

I just started reading The Three Dimensions of a Character by Larry Brooks, so I can't speak to it yet, but it looks good so far. Just like with his book Story Structure Demystified, he excels at the “how to” of writing, and I'm looking forward to his forthcoming book from Writer's Digest.

What are some of your tricks for bringing characters to life, and do you have any other must-have books on the subject to recommend?

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  1. Reply

    Aww, more books to pick up and read….~fusses about having to commute now~ Ok…so I’m adding them to my list since i have not read those yet…I’ll check to see if any are audio or Kindle so it can read to me. (ALthough the Kindle voice is kinda creepy.) 😀

    • Reply

      I know, Sybir. The book lists never seem to end. I love audio books, though I like to be able to reference paper copies for “how to” types. I almost miss my CA commute because I plowed through a ton of books on CD! Almost… 😉

  2. Reply

    Well, no tricks on character. They form and become full grown around their name. I simply chant their name like a mantra in my mind. They become more of who they are with the passage of time.

    I have characters that have been with me for years. They are always a “they” and never an it. I never think of them as ideas or talk about them the way you would a car.

    Why? Because I discovered with my first short story that my “characters”, male or female and regardless of age are all bits and pieces of me. I didn’t read this or was never told this. As I worked with the story I experienced it.

    Now don’t you know that was a trip and a half for a thirty something back in the mid 70’s. Especially, when Elizabeth McIntire turned out to be the strong side of the pair. As time marched on and the ” get in touch with your feminine side” became a theme for men,I just laughed. I was way out in front on that one. And, she had names.

    I never have trouble with characters. I do I know them to be people because I know them as I know myself. They may not dazzle you. But, you will never doubt that they are flesh and blood.


    • Reply

      That’s great, Curtis. I agree that all of our characters have at least little pieces of us in them. I think I’ve been struggling with the plotting vs. pantsing thing because of characters. I can’t plot out the story with out knowing them well, but I get to know them by writing about them. So, I need to write about them, but without it being part of the MS.

      Good luck getting your characters through their stories!

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