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The key to building complex, realistic characters

Ever have one of those “aha” moments in your personal life that just rock your writing world? I love it when this happens.

Recently, while on vacation with my hubby, we were surfing channels late one night and ran across an old rerun of The Odd Couple with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. The Odd Couple, in case you’re too young to remember, was a sit-com about two men Oscar, the slob, and Felix, the neat freak, and how they live together and drive each other crazy. We watched the episode and laughed more at how corny the show was than the jokes (but the jokes were pretty funny too).

The next day, I found myself complaining to hubby about dragging sand into the room and then tracking it everywhere he went. At home, he’s trained to take his shoes off before entering the house but he tends to forget these little things while on vacation. For me, there’s nothing worse than walking barefoot across sand on the hotel room floor and tracking it even into the bedding. It reminds me of cat litter. Ugh.

A few days later, I complained about hubby’s “wires and sh___” everywhere. As I straightened up his mess, he said, “At least one of us is organized. We’re just like The Odd Couple.”

Suddenly, I saw us not as husband and wife but as characters in a TV show or a novel. The charge I’d been feeling about him being messy was gone, and I realized two things: 1) At home, his messiness doesn’t bother me as much because we’re in a larger space and he has his own office that can be as messy as he wants, and 2) We really are like Oscar and Felix (though I’m not as anal-retentive as Felix and he is messier than Oscar. Think Pig-Pen from the Peanuts cartoon strip with wires, cables, electronic parts and Post-It notes swirling about instead of clouds of dirt).

As I stood outside myself, looking in, I started thinking like a writer. I saw myself as character # 1 “She” and hubby as character # 2 “He.” Then I asked questions. What motivates them? Why is he messy? Where does that come from in his childhood or young adulthood? Why does she try to change him? Where does that desire come from? Does it stem from her childhood when she thought she could change an alcoholic parent? Though she eventually realized she couldn’t change anybody but herself is there some of that old pattern left? How does she structure her space or compensate to stay sane? Does she become compulsively clean? Does she set parameters and boundaries? Or does she learn to let go? If so, how does that affect her? Does she let it slide until one day it all comes spewing out like a volcano? Or…. You get the idea.

Discovering motivations is key to building complex, realistic characters that your readers will love or hate. For every trait you give a character, try to figure out what the motivation is behind it.

In my next book, my protagonist is a runner and likes to ride fast motorcycles. Why? What is she running from? What is she trying to outride? Even if I don’t put her motivations in my story, as her creater I still have to know them.

Exercise: Pick something in your life that annoys you or that you wish was different. Now see yourself as a character in one of your stories. Think of yourself in the third person. (You can even give yourself a different name!) Set a timer for 10 minutes and answer these questions: Why does that thing annoy her (him)? Where does that place of annoyance come from in her past? Why does she allow this in her life? What are the trade-offs? What does she get from it? How does it feed her? How would her life change if that annoyance was gone? Does she really want it to be gone? Riff off my questions to find more of your own. Have fun!

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Definitely an intriguing exercise. I’m going to actually do it, not just casually think about it! Thanks. I haven’t read one of your posts that I haven’t benefitted from. Jane

    May 29, 2012
    • Thanks, Jane. I always learn something from your posts, too. Let me know how the exercise goes and if anything unexpected shows up. 🙂

      May 29, 2012

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