The Importance of Character seems to have come out on top! During the month of May, several authors have been invited to help kick off my mystery-trivia book tour by writing about setting, plot, or character. Today my guest is romance writer, Eleanor Sullo. Read what Eleanor has to say about the importance of character in a novel. Welcome, Eleanor.
Who are your favorite characters in literature? Mary in The Secret Garden ? Scout in To Kill a Mocking Bird? Or maybe someone you’ve met more recently? I personally am always delighted to read private eye Elvis Cole’s antics in Robert Crais’ mysteries. And recently I’m intrigued by Jane Whitefield in Thomas Perry’s thrillers.
What makes a character memorable? And how should we writers approach character building in our stories?
Of my favorites, I’d say each is likable but not perfect, basically ordinary and down to earth, but always developing into a better persons. Elvis Cole, for example, is a clever detective, but not able to solve every case without the help of a former police friend. He’s never flashy or egotistical. If he’s watching a residence to see if a suspect comes or goes, he eats a baloney sandwich for lunch, not two martinis and caviar on filet mignon. The ordinary details of his life, his style, his dialogue, tell me this is an guy I could trust with my life—wholesome, smart, and warm-hearted enough to pamper his pretty vicious cat. He’s got a heart.
It’s my delight in such believable characters that guides my own hand in putting such folks into my novels. In my mystery series, Menopause Murders, the six women who take on the solving of vicious crimes are ordinary, yet different. One is wealthy, one dirt poor, one a former nun, another a restaurateur. Their characteristics are those of some of your own women friends, and together they are a close knit, dependable, but different, parts of one kick-butt team.
What makes them special is their ordinariness, but also their willingness to grow and develop. Without such motivation evident in a character I think readers lose interest in them early on. And although my gals are ordinary, like people we meet every day, they’re extraordinary in how they learn new detecting skills, keep romance on the back burner glowing, and raise each other up with support and humor.
When I come up with a vague image of a character for one of my books, I fill out a character information sheet, clip pictures from magazines to suggest to myself what they might look like, and when I’m stuck not knowing how they’ll handle a certain situation, I interview them. In other words, I ask questions in my voice then listen to what the character tells me in her or his voice. For me this kind of child’s play works.
Another little process I use in the interview is the Meyers-Briggs Personal Inventory, in which I happen to be trained. With a paper-and-pencil instrument, I act out my character to see if she’s introverted or extroverted, a thinker or a feeler, and so on. From the results I can tell just how she will act in new or unusual situations. You may have done the Inventory for yourself to check out your tendencies—maybe your characters will grow from the process, too, or you could use archetypes to sort them out.
When we know our characters inside out, it’s exciting to put them in situations that will move the story forward. And that, truly is what building characters is all about. Love ‘em, and don’t leave ‘em!
Eleanor Sullo, a former English instructor and pastoral minister, is the author of four romances, Moonrakers, Emerald Eye, A Year in Poughkeepsie and Too Damned Hot, as well as the Menopause Murders Series, so far with four of the six planned books available, Hostage, Harem, Hurdles, and Hot Pursuit, all in paper or e-book at Wings-press.com and Amazon.com, and at B&N for the digital format. Visit her at www.eleanorsullo.com.
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