Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Guest Author Katy Longshore: 8 Steps to Better Characters

By Katy Longshore

My favorite posts are the ones where a writer can take the post and directly apply it to their own work. Today's guest gives us just that. Katy Longshore has a fantastic 8-step program for developing characters, and I love her approach from a simple police-blotter details to a fully fleshed out background.

Katy Longshore earned a B.A. in Cross-Cultural Studies and Communications from Humboldt State University, planning to travel and write. Forever. Four years, six continents and countless pairs of shoes later, she went to England for two weeks, stayed five years and discovered history. She now writes novels for young adults in which the court of Henry VIII bears a strong resemblance to high school, only more dangerous. The first book in the Royal Circle series, GIRL IN A DIAMOND COLLAR, will be published by Viking/Penguin in Fall 2012.

Katy is a member of the YA Muses, The Apocalypsies and the Class of 2k12. She tweets , babbles about history and writing on Facebook and will have a website up soon.

Take it away Katy...

Did you ever play with paper dolls as a child? What about regular dolls? I loved paper dolls, but I also had Barbie–about a dozen. My sons have Action Man (the British version of GI Joe). When I worked at an espresso bar in college, we had a barista action figure next to the cash register.

Dolls are fabulous. You strip them down, dress them up, and then create stories for the characters. Much like what I do now. Creating fictional characters is like playing with paper dolls. If you don’t dress them up (in description, in clothing, in personality, in dialogue) all you have is paper.

I’m going to take you through some of the steps I follow to create a (hopefully) multi-dimensional and believable character. For me, this is all pre-first-draft groundwork. Some of it gets into the text of the novel. Some of it just adds color to the unseen backstory. But I find all of it necessary for me to feel like a tangible, sentient person is living my story.

Because I work from history, I begin by searching my resources for any physical description at all: hair color, eye color, height, body shape, etc. The narrator in GIRL IN A DIAMOND COLLAR, Kitty Tylney, is a girl who shows up in the historical record, but is not described at all, so I get to create her from scratch.

Step 1:
Gender: Female
Age: 16
Hair: blonde-ish
Eyes: green
Height: taller than average
Body shape: on the thin side

Step 2:
I have to dress Kitty up a little. Add the details that will make her a vibrant image in the reader’s mind.

Her hair is the color of straw, and she often feels it has that texture, too. It is rather uncontrollable, and always escapes from whatever she’s done to tame it.

Her green eyes made more vividly so when she wears green.

She is taller than the average Tudor woman, which makes her as tall as a good-sized Tudor man. And her thinness makes her more angles than curves.

Step 3:
But a character is not just what she looks like. She is also her feelings about what she looks like. And how that affects her personality and interactions with others.

Kitty hates her hair. Who wouldn’t? In her mind, it’s unmanageable and ugly.

Kitty thinks her eyes her best feature because of their color. She has a clear, direct gaze. And she studies people frankly when they are speaking. Until her best friend tells her this makes her look judgmental. She feels awkward and tries to keep her eyes averted, to appear more demure. She hides her best feature because of the reactions of others.

Her height and the rapid pace at which she grew makes her not only feel awkward but sometimes move awkwardly as well. She trips over her feet, loses her balance, feels uncomfortable at being eye-to-eye with a man.

Kitty judges herself–hair, eyes, body–by the charismatic physicality of her best friend, Catherine Howard, who gets all the attention and can draw a man’s gaze merely by entering the room. Cat has silky hair, perfect skin and luscious curves. By comparison, Kitty feels even more like the ugly duckling who will never grow into a swan.

Step 4:
Clothes. In a past life (i.e., the first two years of college), I studied to be a costume designer. Costume can make or break a theater-goer’s image of a character. I feel the same applies to fictional characters. If you put your quiet, bookish, straight-A character in hot pants and a tube top, there’s got to be a reason.

Kitty wears gowns that are too short and have to be lengthened by scrap fabric. They are dull-colored and generally unadorned. The sleeves have worn elbows and the cuffs are sometimes frayed.

Which brings us to:

Step 5:
Background. In order to create a fully four-dimensional character (the fourth dimension being time, here), she has to have a life before the action begins. Historically, we’re not sure where Kitty Tylney came from, except that she was distantly related to the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. So she is gentry, but not enough so to merit going to Court or marrying a great man.

In order to create a character’s background, I begin with parents and family. Are the parents alive? Are they loving? Do they have much contact with the character? How many sisters or brothers does she have? What are their relationships like? What about distant relatives?

Kitty Tylney was sent to live as a servant to a distant relative at a young age–a matter of course amongst the Tudor aristocracy. But I invented that Kitty’s parents were pleased to be rid of her. One less drain on their meager resources. So Kitty, the youngest, has to rely on her sisters’ hand-me-downs and no allowance. Thus the frayed cuffs and drab colors. The livery of the unloved.

This background affects the way Kitty interacts with all the people in the present. Can someone who was rejected and marginalized when young ever learn to feel accepted and loved? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

Step 6:
Interactions with others. What is your character’s personality? Is she introverted? Maddening? Manipulative? Does she expect to be seen? Or is she used to being invisible? Does she automatically rank everyone she meets in terms of status? How does this affect her relationships?

Kitty is used to being second. Used to being left behind. She is unlikely to push herself forward, to be argumentative. She is more likely to agree with others’ assessments, even of her. She feels conflict internally, but doesn’t always act on it. Her relationships with others can be one-sided.

Step 7:
Voice. You’ve got your paper doll. You’ve dressed her in the appropriate physical accouterments (hair, body, clothes) and filled in some of her emotional palette (based on her thoughts about her looks, her relationships with others, and her background). Now you have to find a way for her to present all of that to the world.

If she is your narrator, the essence of her character must be carried through the entire novel. If she is a character met by your narrator, then all of this must be illustrated through body language, attitude, the words that are spoken (or not) and how they are spoken. Specific use of dialogue tags (said, retorted, cried, hissed) can say a lot about a person. So can the manner in which she is sitting or standing when she says it. Where she fixes her gaze. And how she reacts to the words of others. All of these things relay buckets of information to your readers.

Step 8:
Loosen the reins. You have given your paper doll–your character–all that she needs. She can go out into the world you create and live in it as a fully realized person. Let her do it. She may surprise you.


  1. What a fun way to build a character! I'm going to go find some paper and scissors now.

  2. Katy is amazingly talented. Can't wait for her book!

  3. Thanks, Caroline! And Andrea, I hope you had fun!

  4. Interesting system, Katy. There are some points of this (and your explanations/examples are excellent) that will help a great deal in my current work. I tend to be very detailed in background and very light on physical description, clothing and the emotions that go with all of those items.

    Great article. Thanks!

  5. Thanks, Gene! I hope it does help -- and I find that adding those details can be a lot of fun.

  6. Love this! I used to be quite sketchy on my characters' appearances until my last book (due out in spring 2013). For that one, I drew sketches of all the major characters and added tags to the pictures (background, character traits, attitudes, language etc) - that was fun! I will try out some of your techniques on the characters in my WIP. Thanks once again.