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Layering in Depth of Character

Photobucket [1]I’m about to dig into the revisions my editor and agent have suggested for my next book, (How To Bake A Perfect Life [2], out in January). It’s a complex story with a fairly large cast of characters and a complicated time structure. The tale is set in a bakery, more specifically a boulangerie, which is breads rather than pastries, so I spent the entire winter growing and testing various methods of sourdough starters, Old World and New, and testing the recipes I will include. Two other threads required tremendous amounts of research in areas I sort of thought I understood, meth addition (horrific) and the journey of a wounded soldier from Afghanistan to home.

90% of all that worked pretty well. The giant color-coded post-it notes seem to have done their job, as well as the giant pieces of butcher paper stuck to every wall and door available.

What does need work is a thread that I should have been able to write in my sleep: the characterization of one main character. Because I’ve spent the past few days rereading the (bland) arc of her character and deciding how to layer in her true journey, it seemed a good discussion topic for the day.

Most of the arc is there, buried or only mentioned or simply still in my head instead of on the page. (That can happen when you’ve lived with a book for a year or better—you think you wrote something that isn’t there.) My job is to uncover and bring forward the things that will make this character as compelling for you as she is for me.

I’ll begin with a character bio, third person, interviewing her, but not in the usual ways. Alison Hart (Jennifer Greene) once posted a trick she uses, which is to look inside the purse or glove box of a character, or both. I do both. I also like to see the inside of the car—is it messy or tidy? My car usually looks like someone is moving—books and canvas grocery bags and change scattered all over the floors. My partner has tools and running clothes of various weights and dog clutter from his side business.

Next, with this character who is so tangled with her family, I’ll ask her to talk about her relationship with each family member. Mother, father, sisters, brother, aunts, grandmother, etc. I’ll ask for a memory of each person.

When that is finished, I’ll write her timeline—what are the 5 most important events in her life? The five that should have been important but turned out not to be? If nothing new is revealed, I’ll ask for the next five most important moments and memories.

Then I will ask her what her secret is—I can’t remember where Jenny Crusie picked this up, but I took it from a craft post she put somewhere: What is your secret? No, what is your real secret? And then again, No, what is your REAL secret?

When I have all these notes written, I’ll go for a long walk and let it all simmer, then come back and consult my battered copy of 45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. [3] I like the female archetypes, the suggestions she makes for each type, and the model of the 9 Step Female Journey (which I taught at Pikes Peak Writers Conference last weekend, if any of you were there) to see how to fit my vision of my character into an arc that makes sense.

I will ask, at some point, “What does she want? Why can’t she have it?” but that’s usually a culminating question, to help me pull it all together.

Detail is everything in depth of character. What I will really be doing on this pass is living like my character, in a version of method acting. Method character development. When I fix a meal, I’ll ask myself how she would do it. What would she have for lunch? When I pick up a magazine, I’ll know what she chooses.

So, when I make this pass, I will be thinking about her routines and what she wears and what she likes to eat and what is in her cupboards and medicine chest and drawers. Maybe 1% of that information will be on the page, but I will know, and it will give her the depth she currently lacks.

Building memorable characters is both an art and a craft. Do you have tricks for building good characters? Tell us about them.

Creative Commons Photo by Christi Nielson

About Barbara O'Neal [4]

Barbara O'Neal [5] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [6], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [7].