Monday, October 19, 2009

Coffee With My Characters!

My guest, Over Coffee, is Glenys O'Connell. She has worn many hats in her career, a journalist covering the crime beat on daily newspapers in the UK and Canada, cognitive behavioral counselor in private practice, writing instructor, and an author. Glenys writes fiction, non-fiction, children's books and is an awarding winning playwright.

Glenys' topic today, is the psychology of building good characters in our writing.

Characters make our books – they're the ones who make us laugh, cry, angry, sad. We root for the hero and heroine, yell mean things at the villain – or maybe even have a sneaking admiration for him – and develop a soft spot of minor characters.

And the characters readers love can surprise you. I just received a really good review of Resort to Murder, and there was no doubt that the reviewer loved one character in particular – Tuesday the Stray Dog. Go figure! In fact, Tuesday seems to have his own little fan base and I'll be putting his story up on my website a little later.

Like many characters, Tuesday was based on a real dog. Most writers base characters' behaviour, voices, habits, mannerisms, etc., on people they have met, worked with, sat on a bus next to, spent time in the airport lounge with, sat in class with, or seen on television or at the movies. Remember that all your friends and relatives will be trying to identify themselves in your work, so disguise your characters well!

You can also use magazines to help build your characters – read interviews with celebs and other people who have been written up.

Often characters spring fully-grown into your mind, so clear you can just about reach out and touch them – or at least call them on the mind-phone. That's great at the beginning of the story, but often the familiarity with the characters starts to fade as we continue along, and other characters join in. How to avoid this?

Get to know your characters.

Build them from the ground up, but do it subtly – let them reveal themselves to you just as a new acquaintance would. You meet someone and they seem really sophisticated and distant. But a couple of meetings later, you realise they have a wicked sense of humour. Maybe that self-assurance isn't more than skin deep. Maybe that cool exterior hides a seething mass of anxieties and neuroses.

That's when you'd also slowly realise that they have a past, a time before you knew them, which has shaped how they are today.

There's an ongoing argument in psychology about nature v nurture – were we born as we are (nature), or did we grow up this way because of our childhood experiences (nurture)?

Most psychologists today tend towards the nurture and nature combination – we are born with certain characteristics, but the way we are treated and the events in our childhoods decides which characteristics come to the front and shape who we are.

For example, a child born with a tendency towards anxiety may well grow to a relaxed, laid back adult if he is reared in a calm, loving atmosphere where his anxieties are soothed and he learns how to control them, and perhaps even more important, that he is in control of his life. The same child reared in a different environment may grow up anxious and insecure, a candidate for compulsive behaviour disorder and numerous other mental health problems, or possibly even grow into a volatile, hostile, domineering and violent character who simply loses his cool if the world around him doesn't fall into line. Because he cannot handle the anxieties that flow in on him and make him feel out of control, he constantly seeks to be in total control, and anything out of the ordinary throws him for a loop.

So, what tendencies does your character have? And how did his life so far shape him? When you're really having difficulty with a character, you may need to think right back to his childhood – where did he come from? What was his family like? His schooling? Even the time in history that we are born in affects who we may become – hence the phrase 'War babies' to describe an entire generation who were a puzzle to their parents.

That can sound quite daunting, but it's not really.

Write down everything you want your character to be – is he an Alpha male? One of those people who have to win at any cost? A company executive at 30, and a heart attack patient at 35? Or is he a laid back character, one of those kids whose teachers always said 'Could do better if he worked harder?' and 'Not working to his potential', Think of the ramifications for your story if your character is either one of these, because these characters will behave quite differently in whatever situations you put them in.

Remember that characters often have minds of their own – trying to force them into behaviours they don’t want to do is a great way to spark Writer's Block. Of course, it's not really your character but your subconscious mind that is objecting to the route your plot is taking. At least, I think so…...

Sometimes having a good chat with your characters can clear the air and clarify what you need to do. It makes them real to you, and that's what we are looking for – real characters. Remember the fun you had with an imaginary friend, or a favourite stuffed animal, when you were a kid? Well, try to bring back that feeling with your characters. Talk to them. Listen to them. Interview them. Just make sure you do this in private. Talking to yourself is acceptable in a writer, but answering yourself back can still make your nearest and dearest wonder. And when you start sending your characters birthday and Christmas presents, you're really in trouble…..

There are a number of books on the market for writers about personality types and there are lots of sites on the Internet if you want to delve deeper. Beware, many of them let you take a personality test, and you can spend a lot of time browsing here! Instead of putting your own personality traits in to the questionnaires, you can insert the answers you think your character would give, and get a Personality Type designation for him or her that will help you develop the character.
  • What methods do you use to build your characters?

Resort to Murder is Glenys O'Connell's third novel. She became interested in crime & criminal psychology when covering the crime beat as a journalist for a large daily newspaper. This led to a degree in psychology and qualifications as a counselor - but writing is her first love and she says romantic suspense satisfies her cravings for both romance and crime! She is published as a children's author, and has written two non-fiction books, one on Irish culture and another on coping with depression. Glenys also has had two one-act plays produced. She also teaches a creative writing course named Naked Writing on

Born in the UK, she has lived and worked in Ireland and Canada - all countries which provide excellent settings for novels. She's currently living in very rural Ontario, Canada, where she can watch bears, deer and raccoons at play and is planning a new novel set in Italy!


~Sia McKye~ said...

Welcome to Over coffee, Glenys.

Interesting tip to use on-line personality quizez to type your characters.

There's plenty of coffee and homemade goodies on the coffee bar, so help yourself. :-)

Other Lisa said...

Oh, man. I do this all wrong. I am random. Basically I feel like I am watching the characters do things and it takes me a while to figure out who they are and what motivates them. And sometimes I don't totally figure it out. It's like I'm watching a movie. And yeah, they talk to me.

Yet another installment in Lisa's "Kids, don't try this at home!" writing school...

Elle J Rossi said...

Good morning.

Wow. After reading this I realized that most of my characters have very similar personalities...Mine. Sarcasm. Humor.

I'm so happy I stopped by today. I need to sit down and evaluate my character profiles and definitely get to know them better.

Great post,

Kat Sheridan said...

Hello, Glenys, and nice to meet you! Interesting idea to have your characters do a personalit profile. Mostly, though I'm like Lisa (without the movie thing). My characters just talk to me. When I begin a WIP I'm lucky to know their names, much less where they're going. They reveal themselves as I write. In one WIP, it was the housekeeper who ended up explaining the hero's upbringing, because he was such a taciturn man he never talked about himself! I always hope that the slow pace of the reveal to me translates as a comfortably paced and interesting reveal to the reader. Anything else can end up feeling like an infodump/backstory mess.

Interesting guest, Sia!

Crystal Clear Proofing said...

This was an incredibly enlightening post. I gain so much insight about the "other side" of the whole "world or words" through sites like yours, Sia!

Great post!

glenys said...

Thanks for the nice input, guys! It's always fascinating to see how other writers work. We can learn a lot from each other, but in the end, we all develope our own styles and ways of putting our stories together.
Thanks to Sia for giving me this opportunity to chat and meet you all.

Lynne Roberts said...


Thanks for a wonderful post! My characters usually come to me in a scene or a situations that I see. I slowly get to know them... if I'm stuck, I have been known to sit down and write his or her's life story. Even if I don't use 1/8 of it, it gives me an insight to that character.

Thank you again!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for bring up the importance of real characters. Characters are one of the most important features of a good novel; if they're not authentic - if the reader doesn't feel any connection with them - the book falls flat.
You asked about how people develop characters. I have to confess that I don't have a "recipe." What often happens with me is that I'll get an idea for a character, e.g. "What sort of a person puts work ahead of everything else, and is driven to achievement?" Then, that idea/question becomes the seed of a character. For instance, I started with exactly that question when I was writing Publish or Perish. That novel focuses on the sudden death of a graduate student, and several of the suspects are work-driven colleagues. Once I have the idea/question about a character, I make notes about his or her appearance, mannerisms and the like, and make him or her a real person. Once the character is real for me, s/he'll be real (I hope) for the reader.

glenys said...

Back now, after a Real Life morning :-( Glad to see so many great comments!

Lisa - that's not doing it wrong, it's doing it the way it works for you. If it doesn't work, only then is it time to tweak!

Elle - knowing your characters so that you know how they'd authentically react does help with the flow of your writing. And yes, they do tend to take on some of the writer's traits - all good, of course :-)

glenys said...

Kat - definitely, information that's revealed organically as the story flows is way better than dumping it all on the reader at once - and having lesser characters make observations is neat. Great point!

Crystal Clear (love that name!) I think we all learn a lot from each other about this strange vocation of writing :-)

glenys said...

Lynne - yep, I sometimes have stacks of research and character info, too, and only a smidgeon of it makes it into the book, but it's all good for building the story and characters.

Margot - I don't think there is a recipe for bulding characters, because they're all different. How nice it would be if there was!Wise words, that if the character is real for the writer, he/she will be real for the reader, and I think it's really the characters as much as the story that keep readers turning pages. Publish Or Perish sounds like a good read!

glenys said...

Off now to get some of Sia's virtual coffee and cookies - Back soon!

Judi Fennell said...

I wish I knew how I built my characters. They just sort of start talking to me, start relaying their stories and I start writing. Eventually they'll show me something to tell me why they are the way they are and the whole thing will just "click" into place. And that's such a magical feeling that, when I tried to form the character before the story came out, that character didn't work. I didn't like her, my editor didn't like her and the story didn't work. So now I listen to them. I like to think my subconscious has the whole thing planned out and is just playing with me and my conscious mind. LOL

Sheila Deeth said...

Lovely article. My characters go on walks with me, or sit next to me in the car. Now it's getting cold I'm going to try drinking coffee with them.

glenys said...

Judi - writers are the only folk who can get away with hearing voices in their heads and not be labelled as multiple personality disorder :-) Good for you that you listen to them and accept them!

Sheila - just don't order two lattes and chat aloud to your invisible friends in Starbucks :-) Seriously though, as Margot said earlier, the more real your characters are to you, the more real they'll be to your readers.Yours sound real!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

A very interesting discussion. Realistic characters aren't easy to create but certainly worth the effort.

Jacqueline Seewald
THE DROWNING POOL, Five Star/Gale 2009

~Sia McKye~ said...


The more I'm around writers, the more variations I see to building characters.

I don't consciously spend a lot of time initially *building* a character(s).

For me, they come in flash, a snippet, or as an idea. They tend to live in my head awhile as I mentally build them and the story. They don't have names most of the time.

It's like I have a section of my brain running like a computer, working on the “what where how” sort of things, while dealing with life. Sometimes I write out a scene that grabs the essence of the story and file it on my computer (especially if I'm creating a world, I'll jot notes on the environment, the culture, laws, etc)

When I finally sit down to write the story, most of it's there and I see it almost like a movie. I’m definitely a pantzer.

Our characters are what drive the story. They have to be realistic and they have to react to situations realistically. Nothing ticks me off more when reading a story than cardboard characters and not reacting true to the situation based on what you’ve shown me of the character.

I do a profiling, if you will, most of it mental, but I do at times write it out. That's my counseling background coming into play.

Everyone has different methods, some very complicated, some not.

glenys said...

It's interesting that, while our methods may be different, we all agree that we want our characters to be authentic and we work towards that.

Once again, thanks to Sia for this opportunity to chat, and to everyone who dropped by - hope you enjoyed this as much as I did!

Caroline Clemmons said...

Glenys, How nice to find you again. You probably don't remember, but years ago you helped me with Irish wording for a novel. I loved your blog and am impressed by your credentials. Continued good luck!