Friday, June 06, 2008

Developing Characters

by Wilfred Bereswill

First of all, my thanks to Jennie Bentley for asking if I’d be interested in guest blogging for her while she is out gallivanting around the European countryside, no doubt in search of her long lost Swedish Stripper, Freddy.

Speaking of Freddy, while Jennie is without internet access, I’d like to address the rumor that I may be Jennie’s Freddy. A while ago, she tagged me to post 6 truths about myself. I’ve been a bit remiss in answering that post, so real quickly here are my truths:

1. I’ve been to a strip club.

2. I won a sexy legs contest.

3. I’ve hung upside down from a pole.

4. I’ve undressed in front of a group.

5. I danced in a dress in front of over 400 people to the tune of “Feel Like A Woman” while on a cruise.

6. I won a beauty contest.

I hope that clears things up.

I have another confession to make. I’m an engineer, a true left brainer. By the way, do any of my truths seem in character for the stereotypical engineer? Well, most of us left brainers are better at plotting than character development. When I first took on the task of writing, I believed that plot alone could drive a novel. I no longer believe that. Even when my publisher first evaluated my manuscript, the feedback suggested I do a little more to develop the characters. So, like the maniac researcher I am, I learned all I could about developing characters.

A writer creates characters and then lives with them for a while. In some cases, months or even years. You'd think we'd get to know them well. And then someone asks a question that throws you for a complete loop.

Let me explain. I've been working on A Reason For Dying since the end of 2004 - 3+ years. The characters in the novel seem like acquaintances, some of them seem like family. Over the course of time, you get to know these fictitious folk. You know what they look like, what they act like, what they like to eat, even how they make out (that’s “make love” for all you ladies out there). As a writer, you absolutely need to know everything about your characters. After all, you are controlling their world, making their decisions, setting the course of their actions. They need to be, well, their own person. They need to be consistent. Otherwise they won’t come alive on paper.

When I first started writing, I never would have believed that I would be hearing my characters in my head or dominating my dreams. But it happens. Just like a mother seems to know what her newborn child wants, an author should know what their characters want and what they will do to get it. I took the advice of other authors and prepared backgrounds on my major characters. I know plenty about my protagonist Laura Daniels that isn’t revealed in the 1st novel. Some of it I use in the second novel, but a lot of it will likely never to be written about, ever. But it’s that stuff that defines her character and makes her act like Laura Daniels and not Wilfred Bereswill. God help her if she acted like me.

By the way, she looks a lot like Evangeline Lilly in Lost, only her hair is lighter.

Some of my characters are so well defined, my wife, who is invaluable to me as a critique reader, knows when they do something out of place and she let’s me know it. She also gets a little jealous when I spend too much time with Laura.

Here’s a real life example: Your 15 year old daughter who has never in her life done yard work, comes up to you and says, “Dad, if you show me how to start the lawnmower, I’ll mow the lawn.” Or your wonderful wife insists that you go out and buy that fifty-eight inch LCD flat panel, 1080p television with a new 7.1 surround sound receiver and Blu-Ray disc player. The hair on the back of your neck stands up with alarms and whistles sounding and your mind immediately stops thinking about whatever it was thinking about. Something is amiss. Something is terribly wrong with the universe.

It’s the same thing when your character does something completely out of sync. The reader is immediately taken out of the story.

So there I was, content that I really knew my characters and then somebody asked me some interesting questions about Laura Daniels...

What is the arc of her "hero's journey" story — what internal demons is she facing as she confronts these external terrorists?

Who's on her side, and who's going to take her by surprise?

What are her greatest strengths and weaknesses?

What does she personally stand to lose?

And what's at stake in the larger picture — what does the world stand to lose if she doesn't succeed?

These are questions I was asked when I sought help on writing the back cover copy. These are questions an experienced writer asks if they need to know about your characters. I was able to respond, but I had to really think about them first, which surprised me.

So, how well do you know your characters? What methods do you use to develop your characters? Does your significant other get jealous of you spending all that time with them?

I feel a need to clear up a few of my truths. The pole I hung upside down was on the swing set in my back yard and I undressed in the locker room after gym class. The rest is up to you all to figure out. A guy has to keep some secrets.

Is the natural gas you use to heat your home and cook your food really safe?

Is it possible that viruses ravaged prehistoric life millions of years ago and lie dormant in oil and gas reserves, waiting to be released once again to lay waste to yet another species?

It has happened before.

Is it about to happen again?


Debuts Summer 2008

Hilliard and Harris


Tory said...

Welcome, Wilfred, and thanks for clearing that up about hanging upside-down from a pole!

Thanks for clearing up something else for me, too. You mentioned left-brained types are better with plot than character. I'm definitely better with character than plot (my 11 revisions of my current WIP attest to that.) While some people who meet me may mistake me for a left-brain type, my true friends all know that I'm most certainly stronger with the right side of my brain than the left.

And I also notice that I'm willing to watch TV shows that have other major flaws if they get the characters right. But if I don't like the characters, what's the point?

Now, about that beauty contest . . .

Joyce said...

I can see why your wife gets jealous if you spend so much time with someone who looks like Evangeline Lilly.

I know my characters very well, especially my protagonist. I know exactly how she'll act no matter what situation she's in. And if I try to force her to act the way I think she should, she refuses to budge. She won't let me write the next scene until I fix it.

I'm probably better at character development than plot development. The plot is a lot more work for me.

Forget the beauty contest, I want to hear about you dancing in a dress!

Annette said...

I'm sorry, Will, I'm having a hard timing getting a vision of Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire booging to "Dude Looks Like a Lady" out of my mind right now.

I'm in the process of meeting and getting to know a whole new cast of characters at the moment. I've found that writing out their story in narrative form rather than doing character charts, etc, works for me. I have pages and pages of stuff that no one else will ever see, but it helps me get a sense of who the character is, how they speak, and why they act like they do.

Good luck with the new release!

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Guest blogging now for less than an hour and I've already started a scandel. It's a long story, but I was captured on a cruise by a group of women on a scavenger hunt. They told me it would only take a minute. Well... An hour later, I was in a short sundress that wouldn't zip up the back with makeup and bow in my hair.

The other four dudes looked exactly like Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire, which is why I won the beauty contest.

Tory, I consider myself fairly balanced in my thinking. I'm pretty good at the creative things. I mean Engineers are creative, right? "You send them into the wilderness with a pocket knife and a Q-tip and they build you a shopping mall.."

The first person that can tell me what movie that quote is from gets a copy of my book when it comes out.

Annette said...

Six Days, Seven Nights!

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Annette wins. I thought it might be harder than that. Annette, if you'll e-mail me your address I'll get that in the mail when I get my copies.

Joyce, I use the trick of walking up to someone, telling them to put their mindset of their charatcter and then I draw a fake pistol and tell them to slide over, I'm carjacking them. What do they do?

Joyce said...

I can tell you what my character would do: She'd say, "Like hell you are," and before the carjacker knew what happened, he'd be disarmed and on his ass. Probably in excruciating pain, too.

Janet Grace Riehl said...


You are too funny! I think you've just created both character and plot in this post and in this set of comments.

I'll watch TV shows with gigantic flaws if they have an interesting character on a mission and it's plotted compellingly...and I can turn away during the icky bits.

You all might want to look at a guestpost Wilfred did on which you'll find in the archives of Read On! (or google Bereswill Riehlife to find both posts).

Best of luck on your book launch!

Janet Riehl

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Janet, you are too kind.

I think in extreme cases, you can get by on just plot, or just character.

I found that writing a thriller didn't leave the space to develop character as much as in other genres. It was difficult trying to maintain pace and flesh out my characters.

Angie Fox said...

Great post! Perhaps we can have you do an encore "dress" performance at the next SinC get together.

It's so interesting to see how each author brings plot and characters together. I'm just the opposite, having to wrestle my characters into the plot.

I'm loking forward to reading your book!

Gina said...

Wilfred -

My characters control me, not vice versa. They don't actually talk to me (thank goodness), but they have other ways of making sure I know their limits.

Do you know the joke that proves God is a civil engineer?

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Angie, Even though I was completely sober, I have no plans for an encore. My daughters still turn red when they hear that song.

Here is the honest truth: Three years later, on a different Carnival Ship, the assistant cruise director stopped me in the repeat cruisers reception line. She ran the scavenger hunt and exploited me pretty badly on stage.

Anyway, she stopped me and said that I looked familiar. Two sentences into the story and she remembered me.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Yes, Gina, while true, I can't repeat it in mixed company.

jennieb said...

Freddy, my love...!

I hijacked a friend's PC for the occasion, a little belatedly, I guess, since you've logged 13 comments already! Good for you, buddy. Great post.

I'm definitely with Angie, we have to have a repeat performance of the performance at some point. Bouchercon sounds good. Who's with me?

Greetings from the Land of the Midnight Sun, by the way, where there's no sign of Freddy the Swede. But then how could there be, when he's clearly in St. Louis, blogging...

Joyce said...

I'll second the repeat performance at Bouchercon! Anyone up for a Working Stiffs party?

Will, I had no luck retrieving Laura's comment. Blogger is being stupid, as usual.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Jennie, you showed up after all. There better be plenty of alcohol at Bouchercon. Otherwise, neither Wil nor Fred(dy) will be putting on a dress.

Wilfred Bereswill said...


Too bad, Laura Bradford is now on her way up to Chicago to Printer's Row. Anybody up in the area, stop by the Big Sleep Books booth and say hi to her. Better yet, buy one of her books, you won't regret it.

jennieb said...

We'll make sure to keep the beer coming, Wilfred. Whatever it takes.

I'm sorry to hear that Laura - AKA Elizabeth Lynne Someone - posted and got lost in the ether. Let me second Freddy and say that Laura Bradford is a great writer, and is now officially my sister Berkley-babe, since she just inked a deal to write a series of Southern Sewing mysteries for Prime Crime. I'm not entirely sure what Southern Sewing is, in spite of living in the South, but I'm sure I'll find out. May they all have a wonderful time in Chicago, and Laura - if you read this - give Tasha a hug for me and tell her I'll see her when I get back to TN.

Annette said...

Wow, I step out for a couple of hours and come back to find I've won a prize! Cool! I emailed you my mailing address, as requested. Thanks!

As for Bouchercon, I'm in. I say we take up a collection to either bribe Will or, if that fails, to buy a large quantity of booze and get him drunk. Either way, I want a front row seat.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Ladies, ladies,

Be careful what you wish for...

Harvey Stanbrough said...

Hey Will,

I just wish I'd been there with a camera during almost any of your "truth" antics. Great post.


Laura said...

Back from Chicago. Gonna try posting this comment again (see if your blog likes me better this go-round).

Anyhoo, what I *think* I said last time is that your character questions are really good. There's no doubt that the more you know about your characters, the more alive you can make them for the reader!

I can't wait to meet Laura Daniels!!!

A side note for Jennie. It's not really sewing. It's the sewing CIRCLE (as in that's how this particular group of characters get together/know each other). Think Steel Magnolias in terms of region, ages, etc. So psyched!

Laura said...

Oh. And the dress.

You know I want to see it too. I mean, really, Will Bereswill in a dress?!?! How could you not?

Though, I'm wondering, do you shave?

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Harvey, it's always good to hear from you. Looking forward to your visit in July.


If you need to do wome research, I have some things that need sewing.

About the dress. There IS s video tape. It's buried in a vault somewhere.

Joyce said...

Welcome, Laura and sorry your comment got lost the first time around. I'm glad you came back!