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How to Develop Characters by F.L. Ruby
How to Develop Characters:
by F.L. Ruby
When I did an author meet-and-greet at a small rural library in Eldred, Pennsylvania last February, I was touched by how sincere everyone was and the warm welcome they gave me. I’d go back there any day and love to travel to libraries (big fan of libraries) and/or small bookshops to meet people and talk literature. A few weeks after the Eldred trip I traveled to Olean, New York (just over the PA border) to present a writing workshop at the Olean Public Library and Historical Society, using excerpts from my novel, Sean Roberts, as writing prompts for the participants.
One of the topics we discussed at the Olean workshop was character development. I’ve listed eight strategies I used to help me write my characters for Sean Roberts.
- Organize your characters. Are they lined-up correctly as the story progresses? Do a simple who’s who edit. Make sure the names are accurate as well as the role each character plays. Whether it’s at the beginning of the story or at the end. I often did a word search for names and found a few times where I had used the wrong name for a character in a later chapter. You may also have to reintroduce characters if they haven’t been mentioned in a while. For example, Sean Roberts’ eighty-one-year-old father was ill in Florida and needed home visits from a nurse, Bernice Meyer. She was first introduced in the story on page 213. The next time she was back in the story was on page 306, which prompted my editor to ask me (in bold red font), “Who’s Bernice?” Make it clear to the reader who they are.
- Use past relationships to mold your characters. During the workshop, I asked everyone to write down characters they already knew. People they’ve known for a long time and/or briefly. The end result was a list of the good, the bad, and the ugly. We all know them and we all have them in our memory banks. Not only can you remember their personalities but most likely you can describe how they looked, their mannerisms, and even the clothes they wore. That’s what makes them real on paper. They truly come to life. But not without embellishment!
- Use pictures. Another strategy I’ve used with my fictional characters has been a combination of people I know and either a famous person or a random picture of someone to describe their physical features. For example, in Sean Roberts, I used a combination of the two. One of my good friends holds a doctorate in psychology and was actually a grad assistant to Dr. Seuss at San Diego State University. But I describe my character, James Gould, from a picture of Dr. Seuss. It’s my good friend, Jim’s personality, but Seuss’s image. I even refer to Dr. Seuss a few times in the novel.
- Use multiple voices. Using many voices to tell the story provides the reader with different points of view for each character. I used a variety of voices to develop the characters—from the narrator’s voice to the interactions among the characters as well as each character’s own inner voice—their thoughts—sometimes out loud but mostly silent. I like to use introspection to let the reader know what the characters are thinking but may not want to say out loud, which can say a lot about who they are.
- Put yourself in the story. How would you act/react/respond to the events happening around you? Sean Robertsis a part of me. I wrote it from my head but also from my gut and definitely with my heart. I embellished on some of my own life experiences to create the character, Sean Roberts. For example, I went through a divorce and so did Sean. I knew what he was going through. Writing about feelings, especially during challenging times, can be very cathartic. It bleeds into your characters and ultimately the story.
- Use relationships for and against each other. The love/hate thing. Sean and his fiancée, Phoebe Webb, love each other but at times appear to hate each other, or at least hate where they are as a couple. They have a roller coaster, up/down relationship headed for disaster. But can they figure it out?
- Add the unexpected character. The one person the reader doesn’t see coming. Maybe the desperate one. Desperation causes havoc. “Desperate times cause desperate measures.” Those people who are desperate do things they normally wouldn’t do. Good people respond as if they were bad, right? Or maybe the character changes over time, for good or bad, but the reader still doesn’t see it coming. Surprises add those unexpected twists and turns to the story.
- Leave room for reader interpretation. Keep a bit of mystery in some characters. We don’t need to know everything about them, especially if you plan to write a sequel or a series. I’m currently working on a Sean Robertssequel and have purposely left character information out until next time. Set it up to keep questions open at the end…to be continued in the next story.
The best strategies are the ones that make sense and work with your writing, your style or genre. My list worked for me but you may choose to create your characters differently. Let’s go back to the Olean Library for a bit. When I started the workshop, I asked everyone to read a page from my novel with college English professor Sean Roberts lecturing to his creative writing students.
“I’m reluctant to ‘tell’ anyone how to write,” said Sean. “My hesitancy stems from the possibility of tainting your own creativity, your own unique style, with a set of rules you must follow. Other than basic grammatical rules of language in general, I struggle to find the value in adding any more constraints to your own individual style and creativity. The beauty of creative writing begins without boundaries or rules. In fact, do not read ‘how to write a novel’ advice or websites with that title. Craft your work first. Write whatever comes to you. Trust me; you may have to go against the rules. Go with your head or go with your gut. Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in twenty days. He wrote it on a one hundred-twenty-foot-long scroll…a loop of a giant piece of paper. Not exactly a proper rule was it? That scroll recently sold for $2.3 million…so there you go. Once you have everything on your scroll, then go to the ‘how to’ books if you want to see how you fit.”
After we finished reading the excerpt, we talked about what motivated Sean to start his class off that way. Why would a college English professor advise his creative writing students to avoid rules? What was his point, or better yet, what was my point to have the main character say this? Or believe this? Sounds like a good book study question, doesn’t it? As you get to know Sean Roberts, my main character, you realize he struggles with many things, including rules he considers minor or unimportant. His preference is a “seat-of-the-pants” approach. Maybe that’s why he has a fondness for Mozart or Picasso, or even Kerouac. They created their own art by rewriting and reinventing. Sean Roberts is a character who leads with his heart and his gut. He’s a flawed, self-doubting man who has failed often throughout his life but especially in his relationships with others. Sean has a bit of me in him, but more importantly, maybe a bit of all of us too.
Sean’s character develops through the narrator, who obviously knows him well and through Sean’s own introspection about himself. What he says to himself, either under his breath or in his deep thoughts, portrays him as he sees himself—that flawed, self-doubting man. He also explains himself during his regular visits with his psychologist as well as his interactions with other characters. So, why then, did Sean lecture his students on a seat-of-the-pants approach to writing? Perhaps that’s something left for reader interpretation!
When I began writing Sean Roberts, I tried hard not to read much of anything—from writing advice to actual novels. It worked well for the creative writing part until the flipside kicked in. There’s always a flipside. Mine was editing. While I’m glad I didn’t get caught up in rules and “how-tos” at first, I could’ve saved valuable writing time if I had paid more attention to the writing tips available to me. Whether it was from a writer’s blog, writer’s workshop, or books on writing, I’m certain all my re-writing wouldn’t have taken as long as it did. Good advice is invaluable. However, I also had a no-nonsense editor who read my manuscript in a mechanical way. She was all matter-of-fact and ripped into it with a vengeance. It was exactly what I needed and I recommend using an editor who questions you and forces you to rethink and rewrite. A good editor is a brutally honest, no-nonsense editor.
The bottom-line, in my opinion, and my point for using the Sean Roberts prompt in the Olean workshop—besides the slight tongue-in-cheek—is to find a balance between recommended writing techniques and your own creativity. Try it without rules a few times. Let it go. Be a Kerouac! Some of the very best writers take chances all the time and break rules. We know who they are. Maybe you’re the next one.
I hope the eight simple strategies I’ve shared with you get you to think more about the characters you plan to use in your stories. Most importantly, though, use what works best for you and adds value to your writing. Good luck and get writing!
F.L. Ruby was born in Freeport, New York and briefly lived on Long Island before moving to Ramsey, New Jersey, eventually moving to Upstate New York. Sean Roberts is F.L. Ruby’s breakout debut novel. Since its release, Mr. Ruby has been actively involved in book club meetings, as well as book signings and meet-and-greet author nights. He’s been interviewed on WMAP Radio on Long Island to discuss Sean Roberts, as well as interviews with several media outlets.
He lives in Pittsford, New York with his three children: Mack, Sophie, and Tori.
Follow F.L. Ruby on Twitter @FLRuby2 and on Facebook.
https://flruby.com/ is the official website of F.L. Ruby.
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Check out Leonard Tillerman’s book review of Sean Roberts and his author spotlight of F.L. Ruby at leonardtillerman.com/