How do you develop and differentiate your characters?

Usually I try to do scenes with only two characters since it’s easy to differentiate between two characters, but in Daughter Am I, I ended up with twenty-five-year-old Mary Stuart driving around the country with a busload of funny and heartbreaking octogenarians, including a con artist, a dying hit man, and a gangster’s moll. Because these characters were always together, I had to give each a specific characteristic — a foible — and I had to make sure those foibles became part of the story, otherwise the characters might have turned into caricatures. For example, Happy (an ex-wheelman for the mob) has Parkinson’s disease. He also carries a gun, which terrifies the others since he can’t hold the gun steady. Mary ends up confiscating the gun. The weapon, Happy, and Mary’s relationship to both gun and man become a part of the story. Another character, Crunchy, used to be a mob enforcer, and he becomes Mary’s protector, promising to crunch anyone who does her harm. This promise, too, becomes part of the story, as he learns his limits and she learns to take care of herself.

As for dialogue, each character has a specific way of talking. For example, Happy is prone to gloomy pronouncements, Teach loves to lecture, Crunch speaks in broken sentences, Kid Rags always talks food and drink. Especially drink.

Here are some ways other authors develop and differentiate their characters. The comments are taken from interviews posted at Pat Bertram Introduces . . .

From an interview with Sherrie Hansen, Author of Merry Go Round:

I think my characters have very distinctive personalities, and in Merry Go Round, the differences in the sisters is very apparent when they’re all in the same scene, interacting with one another. I try to get into their heads and consistently think and act like they would.

From an interview with R.M. Doyon, author of Upcountry:

Like most novelists, my characters are based on many real people.  I liked to take one quirk here, one detail there from many different individuals and create a new person.   Once you build a character, particularly a principal player, the most important questions I had to ask myself were: would he or she DO something like this?  Would he or she SAY something like this?  Are they true to themselves?  You must give them a personality, but at the same time a very human element.  Humans are not perfect.  They make mistakes in judgment, and so it was important to keep them true to themselves.

So, how do you develop and differentiate your characters?

(If you’d like me to interview you, please check out my author questionnaire and follow the instruction.)

7 Responses to “How do you develop and differentiate your characters?”

  1. Psychic Witness Says:

    Thanks for sharing this. Creating believable three dimensional characters has to be one of the hardest parts of writing. I still struggle at times with giving each character his or her own individual voice. Your book sounds interesting.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Thank you. Characters are the fun part of writing — it’s like having companions on the journey. The best way to make them real is to keep asking why they do what they did. If everything they do has an underlying basis, rather than simply doing what the author needs them to do, then they will be real.

  2. joylene Says:

    Creative minds think alike. I blogged about this very subject on my blog tonight. And I had to really grab for a topic because I’m sick and my brain’s foggy. But that’s okay. I keep my characters straight by allotting them a face. Once I can study their eyes and their mannerisms, I begin to get a glimpse into their spirit. I’m pretty tricky and soon they can’t hide their true selves. It’s fun and exciting when that happens.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Joylene, I haven’t been able to think of a topic for the same reason as you (so not only are our minds in sync, so are our bodies!), which is why I’ve been relying on my trusty interview blog. But it turned out to be a stroke of creativity. These have been fun posts for everyone.

  3. theRibz Says:

    When I was in university one of my great professor told me once: A writer is also a psychologist, and has to have an extraordinary sense of perception. Observing everyone you meet gives a lot of insight into human behavior. And just like you, I base my characters upon real people and further develop by asking the same question: would he DO that?

  4. Rod Marsden Says:

    Of late I’ve been working on the names of my characters as a way of identifying them to me in terms of what they do and what they are like. Charles Dickens did this sort of thing. Pulp magazines were once full of names that instantly identified the characters. For example, one of Doc Savage’s sidekicks was named Ham. So what did he do for a living? He was a lawyer who dressed dapper. Doc was a genius and an adventurer who got into a lot of punch-ups so I suppose Savage does work as a name for him.

    Sometimes it is also fun to invent a name that goes against or is the opposite of what your character is really like. Petra, for example, is no one’s little petal or flower. She is my dynamic female vampire.

    So start with the name. It doesn’t matter if every reader works out why you picked some particular name for whatever character. It just has to put certain images into your own head. Shakespeare’s Falstaff does it for me. It conjures up an image of a braggart, a liar and a coward. Of course Falstaff can also be humorous, fun and was never meant to be taken seriously. Regardless, the name works.

    My characters, too, are based on real people and that’s another way of telling one from another. Description also helps. For example, a big man who can be a real bone crusher might have the weakness of thinking that most people regard him as dumb because he is big and strong. It may be in his dialogue, especially when he is talking to women his own age.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I name my characters to remind me of who they are. Bob Stark from More Deaths Than One was so named to remind me that he is an every man, and he has stark characteristics. Melanie Gray from the collaborative novel I’m doing with Second Wind authors is so named to remind me that she is sad and under a dark cloud. Mary Stuart was so named to remind me she was both vulnerable and strong like Mary Stuart Masterson in Bed of Roses. And of course, all my gangsters had appropriate monikers — Kid Rags for the dapper old man, Teach for the pontificator, Happy for the morbid one.

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