What goes into creating compelling characters?Erased author Jennifer Rush walks us through her writing process.
Most writers have heard the phrase, “Kill your darlings,” which basically means you must be prepared to delete your most beloved writing if it doesn’t further along the story. With those words echoing through my head, I made sure never to grow too attached to anything I wrote, until my editor suggested I delete a character that was underdeveloped. He was weakening the story, as two-dimensional as he was, and my editor wondered if the story would benefit from omitting him.
I’d killed a lot of darlings in the past, but a darling character? Never. And I wasn’t ready to give up on him. So I set out to make him three-dimensional, richly layered, so real that he popped off the page, and to do that, I had to set him apart from the other characters in the novel, and give him his own two feet to stand on.
Up until that point, I’d done character worksheets for every character I wrote, but I’d never gone further than that. I knew their favorite food, their mother’s name, where they went to school, but those were just basic details, and it wasn’t enough.
I enjoy people watching, and I’m definitely guilty of eavesdropping. People fascinate me, and no two people will say something the same way. One of my favorite exercises, one that I started with this “darling” character, was to write out how a character would say, “The dog walked across the street.” Simple enough, but different people will see different things. My son, for instance, would notice right away what kind of dog it was (he’s the kind of kid that knows random facts about hundreds of different animals). My daughter would say something about the dog’s color, or tail, and she’d most definitely coo about how cute it was. My husband would probably grumble about people letting their dogs run loose.
Just with those facts alone, I can glean even more about those three characters. If the son knows random facts about animals, then most likely that character will spend their free time reading non-fiction, and perhaps because of their fascination with facts, they have little interest in fantasy, or imagination. If the daughter pays attention to the appearance of the dog, then she’ll also notice other vivid details about the world around her, which means she’s a good observer. Because of her cooing at the dog, perhaps it means she’s a nurturer, and loves all animals (and cuddling!). The husband sounds like a complainer (I hope he’s not reading this), but it could also mean he’s fiercely protective of his family, and knows firsthand what a loose dog can do to a child playing in their yard.
These are the beginning layers of your character, and from those layers, you can peel back more and more. I also find it helpful to take a random scenario and write a short scene with a character, to see how they’d react. Perhaps, using the above, we can have each character confront the dog, and let’s say it’s aggressive. What those characters do in that situation will give a writer a good idea of what that character is made of.
So, returning to the darling character---did he get the ax? I’m very happy to report he was saved. You can read that very character, Trev, in Altered and Erased.