Our stories begin with characters. They may start out as ink on a page, but it is our job to breathe them life, make them stimulate emotion in our reader.
Our character has to stimulate our own emotions first. In order to do that we have to know them and we have to know where they’ve been, where they are now, and where they’re going.
Why are we writing this story about this character? What’s her lesson going to be? What are her obstacles, tragedies, triumphs, pitfalls?
I start out with a blank page in a notebook that I call my “bible.” Each book that I write has one. On the cover of the notebook I write the title of the novel and that notebook stays with me for the duration of the manuscript.
On the pages of my “bible” that I use for my main character, I begin with her name.
Coming up with the name hits me in a number of ways. With my first book, “Summer Iris,” I met a young woman by the name of "Iris" and the name struck me. It seemed ideal for a stunted woman at a crossroads, one that needed to “blossom” (if you will) in her life.
That’s how Iris Stanton was born. And, with her came the idea to make her story the first in a series, all women linked by the fact that they each have the name of a perennial flower. The metaphor of transformation and sustainability was perfect.
I envision a character. What does she look like? What’s her ethnicity? Her education? Her religious affiliation? What’s the scoop on how she grew up? What did her parents do? Does she have brothers and sisters? If so, what are those relationships like? What’s her livelihood? Where does she live, what’s that like? How about friends, lovers, enemies?
After I get the personal profile down, I go deeper. What makes her happy or sad, mad or anxious? What does she yearn for, strive for? Has she tried but failed at anything? Essentially, what makes her tick?
Habits or traits can be used as symbols. In my second book in the series, “Moonlight & Violet,” which just this past weekend garnered the prestigious 2011 Golden Leaf Award for Best Long Contemporary Romance sponsored by New Jersey Romance Writers, main character Violet Terhune bites her lower lip when she’s upset. She eats peanut butter when she’s nervous. She uses sarcasm to mask vulnerability. These symbols of Violet’s personality are evident throughout the story, ones that help the reader know what she’s feeling inside in regard to a particular situation.
Most importantly, how does your character change? By story’s end she must transform in some way as a result of what you’ve put her through. Remember, in order for your readers to believe the growth in your character they must first understand her.
I urge all of you perched at the edge of beginning a work of fiction, to get yourself a notebook, whether it’s one you buy in Staples or one you create on your computer screen. Take the time when constructing the “who,” and the “what,” “when,” “where,” and “why,” will have the stable foundation it needs.
Good luck and good writing.