What a character: How to develop your cast – Brenda Janowitz

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By Brenda Janowitz

Some writers start with plot — that one idea that an entire book is built around. But me? I’ve always started with character. The idea for a character just pops into my mind and once she’s there, I can’t get her out.

But not every character can simply come to you out of thin air. Sometimes you have to work for it. So, how do you create character? It’s easier than you think:

Look around you

We get ideas for character from everywhere: from the people we know, from the people we don’t know (but maybe wish we did), from our own families, from ourselves. Sometimes I’ll meet someone with a name so delicious, I’ll just have to ask: Do you mind if I use that in a book one day? Or I’ll be at a lunch and someone will tell me a crazy story, one of those stories that I’m thinking about days later, and I’ll take off from there. Inspiration is all around you, you just have to be open to it. (And keep a notebook handy to write it down!)

Walk around with your character

Once I’ve got an idea for a character, then the hard work starts. I want to know how she thinks, how she feels. As a writer, we need to know everything about our characters — past, present, and future. We may not tell the readers everything we know, but we’ve got to know it.
Take your character along with you as you go about your day. Massive traffic? How would your character deal with that? The meal you ordered without cheese come with a heaping pile of feta? Would your character say something or just eat around it? Could your character talk herself out of a speeding ticket?

Set her free

Now that you’ve got a sense of your character, it’s time to set her free. Create a character study where you learn even more about her — what are her biggest fears? What is her biggest secret? Then, get started. Put her into the action and see what happens.

Go deeper

I always say that the first draft is where you get everything out. You should free write, write without editing, and see what happens. The second, third, fourth (you get the idea) drafts are where you refine. Where you think about the bigger picture, themes, and how to layer these things on to create a richer novel. So, now that you’re comfortable with your characters, go deeper. Can her name be symbolic of something more meaningful? Is there something physical that she always does that reveals her deeper motivations? Does she have a particular way of speaking so that the reader always knows when it’s her doing the talking? Does she change?

Character is the heart of fiction. It’s the emotional core of your work. So, keep going deeper. Take your character out for lunch. You never know what you may find.

Brenda Janowitz is the author of five novels, including The Dinner Party (St. Martin’s April 2016). Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, the New York Post, Publisher’s Weekly, PopSugar, Mom.me, Hello Giggles, Writer’s Digest Magazine, WritersDigest.com, and xojane.


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