Tuesday, August 16, 2011

How To Avoid Creating Plastic Characters

By Jody Hedlund

JH: One of my favorite things about the How They Do It column is that I get to host all my favorite writers and bloggers. Today is one of those day as Jody Hedlund visits with tips on creating characters that feel real. If you haven't checked out Jody's blog yet, zip on over when you're done here.

Jody Hedlund is an award-winning historical romance novelist and author of the best-selling book, The Preacher's Bride. She received a bachelor’s degree from Taylor University and a master’s from the University of Wisconsin, both in Social Work. Currently she makes her home in Michigan with her husband and five busy children. Her next book, The Doctor’s Lady releases in September 2011.

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Take it away Jody...

When I was judging a recent contest, some entries captivated me and others didn't. One of the problems I noticed was a feeling of distance, like the characters were the plastic doll house people my daughters play with. Each figure moved around from place to place and scene to scene, but somehow lacked the breath of life that would make them real.

As I thought about the plastic-feel of the characters, I wondered what makes the difference between real, life-size characters and ones that are small and stiff. How can we move beyond doll-house characters to having ones that feel so alive we’d like to meet them?

I have to admit, I don’t write (or often read) character driven stories. My books, The Preacher’s Bride and The Doctor’s Lady, are full of action and drama. But . . . that doesn’t mean I’ve neglected my characters. In fact, I worked really hard to breathe life into them before I began the writing process. Here are just a few of the techniques I employ:

Fill out a character worksheet.
Over the years I’ve developed a worksheet that helps me figure out everything I need to know about my main characters—everything from their size underwear to the type of deodorant they use. Okay. Not really. I write historicals and they didn’t have underwear or deodorant during the 1600’s. But you get my point! My questionnaire isn’t anything special, but if you’d like to use it as a springboard for your own, I’ve made it available on my blog: Character Worksheet

Understand the character’s past.
I may not need to know when they had their first scraped knee or lost tooth. But I look for those defining incidents in their past that have molded them into the characters they are in the present. These are usually the painful, life-shaping events (big or little) that provide the impetus behind their motivations in the story.

Define the strengths.
I try to narrow down the qualities that will help my readers care about the characters. Some refer to these as the “heroic” qualities. I brainstorm a list, then try to pull out a top strength. In the first chapter, I try to have my character display this quality by doing something that can get my readers caring right away. I also pick out a few other traits that form the backbone of the character.

Define the weaknesses.
I carefully decide a main inner struggle or conflict that my character will need to work through. This is sometimes called the internal plot which is separate from but still woven together with the external plot (and the relationship plot in a romance). The weakness needs to arise organically in the story out of those past motivations that we know but won’t divulge until later to our readers.

My Summary: For me, the KEY to avoiding plastic characters is that I don’t start writing the story until my characters are already alive. I usually spend many weeks getting to know them. Finally, I reach a point when they’re living and breathing in my mind. In some ways, I’ve become that person—I’m playing his or her part with my body, heart, and soul. It’s at that point I know I’m ready to start the actual writing.

Yes, I realize I won’t know everything about my characters, that I’ll understand them even better as the story unfolds. But it’s like a marriage relationship. Before marriage we take time to get to know our partner—all their secrets, their past, their strengths and weaknesses. The growing doesn’t stop when we say “I do.” We change and always give our partners new things to discover about us. The same is true of our fiction characters and perhaps even more so.

When we take the time to stoke the passion with our characters and understand them intimately before committing them to paper, then we have a much greater chance of bringing them out of the doll house and onto the stage of life.

How do you keep your characters from being plastic? What are the techniques you employ to bring yours to life?

©Jody Hedlund, 2010

About The Doctor's Lady

Priscilla White knows she'll never be a wife or mother and feels God's call to the mission field in India. Dr. Eli Ernest is back from Oregon Country only long enough to raise awareness of missions to the natives before heading out West once more. But then Priscilla and Eli both receive news from the mission board: No longer will they send unmarried men and women into the field.

Left scrambling for options, the two realize the other might be the answer to their needs. Priscilla and Eli agree to a partnership, a marriage in name only that will allow them to follow God's leading into the mission field. But as they journey west, this decision will be tested by the hardships of the trip and by the unexpected turnings of their hearts.


  1. Nice post.... and now I'm going to read your books to see how you do it. Good luck with the new book.


  2. I'm Jody's critique partner and began working with her during the writing of her second book, The Doctor's Lady. I can attest to how much work she puts into developing likable characters. Hers are great!

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  4. I fill out character worksheets. I also do a technique James Scott Bell recommends: the character voice journal. You write in the voice of your character, anything that comes to mind. It helps discover things I didn't even though were in my subconscious about my characters!

  5. Great post! Characters are my weakness when writing- the novel that I'm currently revising has very plastic characters. I've read articles about making sure that your characters aren't just props to carry out your high-concept plot, and I never thought that that's what I was doing, but I've realized that I am.

    The most recent novel I wrote is a bit better- the main character has a history and is it a little more lifelike.

    One of my tips is to make sure that the character already has a life before the story begins- do they have family, friends, and enemies? Where do they live? What is their life like? What are their goals?