Ask BHP: How do Authors Make Characters Unique?

This month’s question from our Ask BHP mailbag has to do with the process of writing a book. A reader asks, “When authors are planning characters, how do they make sure that their leads feel like individuals? Put another way, what methods do authors use to keep their protagonists distinct, especially if they’ve written lots of books?”

Clearly, this is not one that I’d be able to answer as a marketing employee, so I went to authors of our August releases. Combined, they have written over 90 novels and novellas, which means they have experience with a lot of characters. Here’s how each of them approaches the process of making their lead roles stand out.

Jen Turano: When I’m plotting out a series, I only have a smidgen of an idea who the characters truly want to be. It’s not until I start writing the story that their character traits really come out, and that happens when I settle on what their quirk might be. For example, Mr. Harrison Sinclair is colorblind. Well, that right there led to all sorts of amusing scenes because he’s just a hot mess when it comes to fashion. And then take Miss Temperance Flowerdew. When I started the Apart from the Crowd series, she was incredibly timid, so much so that she rarely spoke. However, but the time I got around to writing her story in Caught by Surprise, she’d changed into this outspoken, adventure-seeking heroine. I hadn’t planned on her turning into that, she simply wouldn’t cooperate as a timid sort, so, as I do with every book, I just let her have her way.

Ronie Kendig: Characterization is one of the most vital steps to drawing compelling, unique characters. When I go into a book or new series, I make sure I’ve spent dozens of hours exploring who that character is, what has formed them as an individual, and what they want out of life. Then I upend all that with the plot. Ultimately, the “skeleton” I use to flesh out a hero might be the same (they may all be a Messiah archetype for example), but his background, his heritage, his wounds and goals will be unique to him. I mean, after all, most of us out there can fit into one of a handful or two of basic personality types, but our experiences, our lives, make us unique. The same is true of characters in a book.

Leslie Gould: In my mind, my characters are as distinct as my family and friends, but I do put a lot of thought into their development so that they’ll feel like originals to my readers too. I do online personality tests for my characters, map out their major life experiences, and carefully choose physical appearances and mannerisms that don’t duplicate past characters I’ve created. Once I know their basic characteristics, I can figure out their wounds, goals, and motivations. By that point, they’ve come alive to me and are on their way to being characters my readers will love too!

Judith Miller: When I begin a new book, I “interview” my main characters, and as I come to know them and what has influenced them throughout their lives, I discover more of their personality and what makes them distinct. I think we must go beyond eye and hair color. For instance, I may have a female character who is very flamboyant, but as the reader gets to know her, they discover she’s using her flashy behavior to hide her insecurity or self-loathing. Of course, I do enjoy physical descriptions that are a little unique, as well. For instance, a male character who is thought to be good-looking except for his clumsy gait. I think the key is knowing your character and what makes him/her tick.

Great answers! Okay, readers, describe a quirk, habit, or hobby of someone you know that would be perfect for a fictional character.

6 thoughts on “Ask BHP: How do Authors Make Characters Unique?

  1. Wow, those comments are so interesting. I never gave a thought to how characters come to life! And come to life they do. One time I even found myself thanking God for how He worked things out for some characters LOL (Leslie, I think they were yours!) Thank you for sharing!

  2. My college roommates were an endless source of quirks worthy of fiction, among my favorites being:

    1. Cleaning the apartment as a form of procrastination (mostly to avoid schoolwork). We could always tell when a big paper was coming up by how spotless the apartment miraculously became.

    2. Anger Cake. When something made her really angry, another of my roommates would come home and bake Anger Cake or Anger Brownies (differing from traditional cake and brownies by the addition of ‘anger’ in the ingredients list). One would almost want to tick her off just to get the baked goods . . . Almost.

  3. I love all the ways different authors make their characters unique. I have a particular fondness for Jen Turano’s Apart From The Crowd series characters.
    When my mom is stressed or in deep thought she makes a fist but with her thumbs tucked in. We call it “holding her thumbs”

  4. My dad hummed as he worked. It was an endearing thing I remember about him. Not many people hum anymore, but I know some who often sing under their breath. And maybe we *should* write a character who hums.

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