Have We Met? Creating Characters Your Readers Will Feel They Know

Last semester at school, my daughter made friends with quite a few international students, including several from Mexico. So when one of them invited her to visit Mexico this past summer, my daughter was ecstatic. She had the time of her life, deepened her relationships with the friends she’d made here, and returned home already talking about her next trip.

A few days ago, an earthquake struck Mexico City, where her friends live. They texted her that day as they stood outside their school watching the walls crack and nearby buildings collapse.


She and I watched the news together, glued to scenes of rescue efforts. My daughter studied faces, searching through the throngs of people stumbling over debris as they searched for the missing. Had she passed by some of those collapsed buildings when she’d been in that city just a few weeks earlier? Quite possibly. Did she know any of the people walking by, streaked with dirt, hands scratched from digging through rubble, or shouting with joy when they were reunited with a loved one? She might. People she knew well, friends she loved, were impacted by this disaster. They were afraid, traumatized, comforting friends and strangers, tired, homeless, helping others. So she couldn’t tear her eyes from the screen. And because I knew their names, had heard their stories, had witnessed the love and friendship they shared with my daughter, neither could I.

I watch the news every night. I want to be informed about what is going on in the world. I sometimes see, through the lens of the Bible, end time prophesies unfolding before my eyes. And it helps me to know how to pray.

But I have never watched with the intense interest, concern, and compassion with which I have watched the last few days, with my daughter. What has made the difference? People I have met, people who matter to my family, are involved. And so I am involved. I care deeply about what happens to them, so I am mesmerized. I am emotionally connected to her friends; I know their names and their faces; my chest literally aches for them. And their faith and trust in God in the midst of tragedy humbles and inspires me.

And it strikes me – this is how we, as Christian authors, need to write our characters. When we create the people in our stories, we do so in imitation of the creation of the first man and woman, and our words breathe life into them. We have been charged with the task of taking the dust and mud of an empty page and forming it with our fingers into characters with such depth that they become real to our readers, as though they know them personally.


When that happens, everything changes. Readers become emotionally connected to the people in our stories—relatable because of their strengths and weaknesses, their flaws and their capacity for greatness, their ordinariness and their uniqueness—and intensely interested in what is happening in their lives. They will ache with them when they experience hardship and tragedy, and rejoice with them when they triumph over their circumstances.

And when some of those characters live out their faith on our pages, whether they are stumbling around, scratched and streaked with dirt, or shouting and dancing with joy, our readers too may be humbled and inspired to live out their faith in their own lives.

So this week I pray for Mexico and I pray for all the suffering and the lost in the world, that they may experience God’s mercy, comfort, and love. And I pray that God will, in some small way, use the words, the actions, the faith of the characters we create, to impart that mercy, comfort, and love to those who read their stories and come to know and care deeply about them.

How about you – have you ever connected so deeply with a character you felt as though you knew him or her personally? What was it that drew you in so deeply?

Give Your Characters a Life!

We’ve all been there.

You’re sitting at your desk, fingers flying across your keyboard. Your hero and heroine are in the middle of a conflict and…wait. How does he react when she turns to walk away from him?

Every action our characters make is determined by their background. Their backstory.

Let’s look at the hero in my September release from Love Inspired as an example.

Nate Colby is a Civil War veteran. He had been part of the Union Cavalry during the last couple years of the war. During one campaign, he was ordered to move a wagon load of explosives out of a burning barn. He hitched a team of mules to the wagon, but the mules balked. They refused to pull the wagon out of the barn.

The explosion nearly killed Nate, but more importantly, the experience was the beginning of a series of events that convinced him he lacks something in his makeup that other men possess. Something inside him causes him to fail every time he attempts something important.

It also caused him to hate and distrust mules.

Fast forward twelve years. During the intervening time Nate’s view of his shortcomings has been reinforced over and over. His parents died while he and his brother were in the army. His sister disappeared into the west and became a prostitute. His brother’s children were left orphans when Nate wasn’t able to save his brother and sister-in-law from the 005house fire that killed them.

And his nephew’s favorite friend is his pet mule, Loretta.

Now Nate is left with his nephew and nieces to care for, but the past still haunts him. It affects every move, every decision. And as the story progresses, the reader gets glimpses of Nate’s backstory. It unfolds when it needs to in order to give Nate’s character depth.

But Nate’s backstory is so much more important than to make his character interesting to the reader.

Without knowing his backstory, I would be at a loss whenever he appears in a scene or when there is a plot twist.

For example, the heroine, Sarah, is a crusader, seeking to save the poor lost prostitutes in Deadwood. She is extremely naïve and idealistic at the beginning of the story, and enthusiastically recruits Nate to help her.

How does he respond? We – as readers – already know this part of Nate’s backstory. Remember the sister who disappeared twelve years ago? Nate’s experience with his sister gives him an insight into the life of a saloon girl that Sarah doesn’t have. He not only keeps her enthusiasm grounded in reality, but he agrees to help her, even though he’s afraid the plan is doomed if he has any part in it.

001Nate’s backstory drives his decision to help Sarah and his feelings about that decision. It affects all of his actions as they carry out Sarah’s plans to help one of the soiled doves in the mining camp. And it provides the starting point for the change his character goes through in the course of the story.


Writing my character’s backstory is a major part of getting to know my characters before I ever start writing my stories. It gives them life!

What about you? How far into your characters’ back stories to you go when you’re developing your next book?

The Power of People Watching

“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”
Henry David Thoreau

FFISummer092253Almost four years ago, I stood in an apartment parking lot with twenty-three strangers from all over the country. We made awkward conversation, silently sizing one another up and wondering how people so different would ever survive a semester together.

That summer was the best of my life with some of the most unique personalities I’ve ever had the privilege to know. In class, we studied personalities, strengths and weaknesses, character, opinions, and worldview. I knew how each person reacted in the midst of passion, anger, joy, or grief. I knew struggles and victories. Our common denominator was a desire to lead and a heart for the Lord.

And I had to know my characters the same way.

Through these people and because of that summer, I had ideas to propel me into my first book. My characters took on the physical traits and personality of one of my roommates. My supporting characters share names in common with some of the guys.

The best characters are the ones the reader can relate to as a close friend, soul mate, enemy, or victim. The best stories emerge from the people, places, and experiences around us.FFISummer090523

Spending night and day with these people for two months taught me the beautiful complexity of people’s stories. It also taught me the depth of people. The best stories come from people watching, from intimately engaging in life, and embracing the good and bad.

As I work on my current WIP, I watch the people around me. I study emotional reactions, goofy quirks, language patterns, clothing style, facial expressions, and character. Slowly, my characters take shape on the page. Fair warning: if you are in my vicinity, one of your odd habits may make it into my book.

As writers, we tend to isolate. Or at least some of us do. We are content to people watch without interacting. Big problem. As Thoreau said, writing is flat if the writer has not lived.

Get out of your chair. Abandon your laptop. Spend time with friends and family. Sit at your favorite park or Starbucks. Take a note pad and record people’s conversations. Listen to the words they use, how they form sentences. Interact with the guy behind the counter or the people walking their dogs. Engage them in conversation.

Live and live well. Abundantly and fully. Engage with people intimately, not for the sake of a story or character, but because every person we cross paths with has a story that can teach us something about life and the Lord and yes, even writing.

People are weird and quirky and complex. We all have different personalities and reactions. People are full of surprises and opinions. Fashion your characters that way, too. God created people in His own image. Fall in love with them. Embrace the uniqueness. Embrace your uniqueness. Then write with eyes wide open, heart full, and a mind overflowing with memories to make your stories rich.

Have you people watched lately?

The ‘Real Stuff’ of Character Building

A few years ago, my sister gave me a t-shirt that reads, “Careful or you will end up in my novel.” She meant it as a joke, but the truth is that my t-shirt does not lie: for me, every person I meet is a potential character in my mystery series. Like every writer, my writing is informed by my experiences and that includes experiences of people.

That said, none of my fictional characters are ‘real.’ Though they may be inspired by someone I meet, I usually take my creative license very seriously and make my characters composites of traits that fit the needs of my story lines. For example, I met a charming World War II veteran at a dinner speaking engagement last fall. He kept everyone at the table laughing with his wisecracks and his stories of being an ordnance (explosives expert) officer during his military career. When he noted that he still had all ten original fingers, I knew I had to use that line in a novel, so I began to formulate the character of Vern Metternick in my upcoming release.

What was even more surprising to me – and especially delightful! – was that as I developed the character and his relationships with other characters in the book, I realized his explosives experience could lead to a key, and very funny, scene in the novel that I had not anticipated. So my chance dinner partner unknowingly not only gave me the kernel for a wonderful character, but also actually helped shape the plot of the book. It really is true that authors can create characters, but not always control them, and I say that’s a good thing! Especially when those characters can solve knotty plot problems and make the book even better than I had planned.

There is also a flip side to my t-shirt – on occasion, I do use real people in my mystery series. Since my books deal with current conservation issues, and I aim for strong local connections, I use real places in my books, and actual experts in the story. I always ask those folks for permission to write them into the novel and then thank them in my acknowledgments. To put them at ease, I promise not to make them murderers (unless they ask to be!), and I generally give them an overview of how they’ll fit into the story. So far, no one has turned me down, and I get a real-life connection out of it that my readers love…not to mention one more person who is almost as excited as I am when the book debuts!

As a result, I assure my friends who see my shirt that their secrets are safe with me. Besides, they can always take comfort in that lovely disclaimer that prefaces fiction: “Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.”

And if you believe that, I have some ocean-front property in Arizona I’d be happy to sell you.

Where do your characters come from?


Emotional Development of Characters

Image: graur codrin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last year I drew The Emotional Development of Characters as the topic for my speaking engagement at the Tucson Festival of Books. Part of me was delighted; developing characters is one of my favorite parts of writing. The other part was terrified. Character development, like many aspects of writing, is very individual to the writer, and while I knew how I did it, it wasn’t exactly easy to explain, nor was I entirely convinced the majority of what I did wasn’t done subconsciously. Still, I took the challenge and came up with  a few pointers any writer might use as a starting point. Since Tuesday is a day for sharing about writing on the WordServe Water Cooler, I share those tips here with hopes someone might find them useful.

What do you remember most when you finish a really good novel? Are you left in awe at the amazing plot? Or do you have lingering thoughts about the characters? For most readers, it’s the characters they identify with more than anything. That’s because to care about what happens in a story the reader must care about its characters. So, how do you create characters your audience will care about?

One time literary agent, now children’s book author, Nathan Bransford once tweeted: In great novels, every character has their own set of goals, vices, and motivations and no one is purely good or evil.

In other words, they are human. One way to make it easier to connect to your characters emotionally is to give them some flaw. After all, to err is human. You don’t want to give them just any old flaw, though. It should be an important inner flaw, ideally one that plays off their strength. For instance, someone who is self-disciplined and organized (strength) may also be a control freak or inflexible (weakness). A strong and brave character (strength) may be overprotective and overbearing (weakness). Whatever the flaw, it should prevent the character from being the best they can be. It should get in the way of what they want, resulting in some internal struggle they will eventually face to overcome—or not if your story is a tragedy or the character in question a villain.

I like to think about my characters strength and flaws by getting a glimpse into their personality. There are lots of personality profiles available for a writer to tap into, but I use the Myers-Briggs Personality Assessment to sketch my characters’ profiles. It suggests people have different ways of gaining energy (Introversion or Extraversion), being aware of information (Sensing or Intuition), coming to conclusions or decisions about that information (Thinking or Feeling), and ultimately dealing with the world around them (Judging or Perceiving).

If my heroine was Intuitive—trusting interrelationships, theories and future possibilities, her strength might be that she’s aware of others, and she is able to weave together possibilities from bits of information. Her flaw may be that those possibilities are not always based in fact, and therefore she makes decisions using circumstantial evidence. Maybe my hero is Perceiving—adaptable and keeps options open as long as possible. While this allows him to be flexible and go with the flow (strength), it backfires when he adopts a ‘wait and see’ approach when he should be taking affirmative action (flaw).

Once I have my characters’ personalities down, if I’m writing a romance I like to make the hero and heroine as opposite as possible. Those differences are ripe for emotional conflict. Or, maybe the conflict stems from the fact they are too much alike, such as Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. Either way, the process of overcoming and resolving those conflicts requires emotional maturity if the couple ever hopes to be together—and that is one part of their emotional development.

Another tool the personality assessment provides me with is the framework for how my characters would realistically act in any given circumstance. You know that adage about sticks and stones breaking bones but words never hurting? It’s a lie. Words hurt because they are aimed at emotions. How a character reacts (or doesn’t) to internal and external conflict throughout your story should reflect who they are and where they are emotionally at that particular point in time.  More importantly, it should develop as the story progresses, eventually cultivating in some notable change to the character’s emotional self. Understanding your character’s personality, their strength and flaws is a start to making their responses more believable.

What about you? What tips or tools do you use to help readers care about your characters, and by default, their story?

%d bloggers like this: