Tuesday, March 17, 2015

19 Seven Keys to Building Relatable Characters Plus a Giveaway of ROOMS by Lauren Oliver

An aspiring author who attended one of my panels at the NoVA TEEN Book Festival asked about how to approach character development. Kristen Simmons and Melissa Marr both had great responses, and it turned out that our approaches are somewhat similar. We talked about using tools like Meyers/Briggs personality types and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for building protagonists, antagonists and other characters.

I've written about some of these tools before and links for resources are in my Character Traits Worksheet, if you want to get into deep and gritty detail to get yourself started. The personality disorders information isn't in there, but you can find online resources at MerckManuals.com, if you're interested. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi also have a pair of amazing research tools in the POSITIVE TRAITS THESAURUS and the NEGATIVE TRAITS THESAURUS for character traits.

But if you're more of a pantser, and you're looking for a quick jump start as an entry into your story, there are seven key aspects of character that will help you create one that most readers will be able to relate to. (Note the caveat--because there's no such thing as a character who is universally liked.)

Seven Keys To Building Character

  1. An Internal Wound/Need - At the very least, your main character needs a lesson to learn. If you give one to each of your characters, even better. Your work will be richer for it. This is usually tied to your story question in some way, but the wound or internal need is really the fundamental thing that makes your character react the way she does whenever she's pushed to make a choice. This is what ultimately leads her to disaster. A wound can be anything from feeling alone and lost because you've lost your family, which becomes a driving need to find a new family--as in COMPULSION--to feeling loyal to the friends who rescued you, which becomes a driving need to protect them from harm, as in THE ORPHAN QUEEN.
  2. An External Goal/Problem to Solve - In most types of novels, the internal goal is only part of the story. There's also something that needs to be fixed externally, which ties in to what is going on with the characters on the inside. In COMPULSION, there are several interrelated mysteries to solve as Barrie arrives at her new home, and following her gift for finding lost things as she investigates these mysteries leads to danger and conflicts with her need for love and acceptance from the new family members with whom she is desperate to connect. In THE ORPHAN QUEEN, Wilhelmina needs to win her kingdom back, and in order to do that, she has to perform certain dangerous tasks set to her by the boy who rescued her when she was a child, until her experiences away from him begin to make her question whether his orders are the best solution.
  3. Relatable Motivations - At every step of the way as characters follow their goals, and at both the internal and the external portions of the story, the reader needs to understand why the characters make their decisions. Moreover, those decisions have to be relatable in context with their characters and background. Based on her internal needs, my Barrie, who has always desperately wanted a sister, can't help wanting to befriend her cousin and give her the benefit of the doubt even when everyone around her warns her that her cousin is not what she appears to be. Based on her external goals, Barrie has to investigate what's going on at Watson's Landing because various supernatural elements grow more insistent to push her into doing what they want. For Jodi Meadows' Wilhelmina, she needs to protect the ragtag Osprey orphans because she is one of them and they're the only family she knows. But her loyalty conflicts as she begins to realize that what their leader wants won't necessarily be the best for the people of her kingdom, whose queen she needs to become because that is her birthright and her responsibility.
  4. Strengths that Help Solve the Problem - This is your character's toolbox. And once you know what your character needs to do, it's easy to determine what characteristics will help her get there. Barrie has inherited a family gift for finding lost things. This leads her to some of the clues, but she still has to have the intelligence to interpret the clues, the compassion to care about them, and the courage to follow them. Wilhelmina has taught herself to become a master forger, and she can forge virtually any handwriting she needs to copy. She has also become adept at all forms of thievery and spying, which help her when she needs to infiltrate the palace of the enemy king.
  5. Weaknesses that Interfere - These are the chains and anchors that your character wears around her neck. Barrie is too trusting and unwilling to hurt others, too determined to exert her right to an independence she has never had before, and too eager to prove herself. Wilhelmina is blinded by her loyalty and what she thinks she knows so that her prejudice keeps her from seeing the truth of what's going on beneath her nose.
  6. Complete Backstory That Shows How the Wound Occurred - This is the how of why the characters are the way they are. In addition to the basic facts of their lives, this must include a reasonable explanation of how they received their wound as well as the story of how their strengths and weaknesses have served them in the past. In Barrie's case, her backstory all ties to  an ancient spirit who gave one half of her family a wish, which became the gift of finding lost things. And everything that has happened to her and her parents stems from that gift and the curse that the is inherited by members of the other half of her family. In the case of  THE ORPHAN QUEEN, there's a history of the kingdoms and the wars between them, which connects to the background of the terrible thing that threatens to destroy all the kingdoms and everyone in them. 
  7. True Change in the Character as a Result of the Story - This is how the story resolves the character's interior need, which often ties into the character's external goal. The character must end up in a different place both mentally and in her physical circumstances. Barrie, for example, finds that it takes more than blood to make a family, and she simultaneously resolves the mysteries that surround the death of both her parents as well as other family members. Wilhelmina finally sees through her prejudice and takes a risk to protect her people, only to discover that this costs her love, half her friends, and the certainty in the rightness of her cause and methods, which has always been her armor. Physically, she is no longer the unknown orphan she was when the book began.
Hopefully, these quick sketches show you how tightly internal needs and external goals can work together to create the engine for a story a reader will understand. How you choose to balance and prioritize internal needs and external goals in a story will determine whether your manuscript is more character driven (internal) or plot driven (external). There are an infinite number of possibilities.

How do you like your fiction? Which do you prefer to read: character driven or plot driven stories?


I loved that a reviewer said that COMPULSION was like BEAUTIFUL CREATURES meets Lauren Oliver's ROOMS, so I'll giveaway a copy of ROOMS to one lucky winner.

Lauren Oliver

The New York Times bestselling author of Before I Fall and the Deliriumtrilogy makes her brilliant adult debut with this mesmerizing story in the tradition of The Lovely Bones, Her Fearful Symmetry, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane—a tale of family, ghosts, secrets, and mystery, in which the lives of the living and the dead intersect in shocking, surprising, and moving ways 

Wealthy Richard Walker has just died, leaving behind his country house full of rooms packed with the detritus of a lifetime. His estranged family—bitter ex-wife Caroline, troubled teenage son Trenton, and unforgiving daughter Minna—have arrived for their inheritance. 

But the Walkers are not alone. Prim Alice and the cynical Sandra, long dead former residents bound to the house, linger within its claustrophobic walls. Jostling for space, memory, and supremacy, they observe the family, trading barbs and reminiscences about their past lives. Though their voices cannot be heard, Alice and Sandra speak through the house itself—in the hiss of the radiator, a creak in the stairs, the dimming of a light bulb. 

The living and dead are each haunted by painful truths that will soon surface with explosive force. When a new ghost appears, and Trenton begins to communicate with her, the spirit and human worlds collide—with cataclysmic results.

Elegantly constructed and brilliantly paced, Rooms is an enticing and imaginative ghost story and a searing family drama that is as haunting as it is resonant.

a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. The mark of a favorite book/character are the ones that linger with me long after the last page is turned!

  2. When I find myself putting a book aside for breaks because I can't bear the thought of not spending time with the character, I know I'm reading a truly exceptional book. So, I guess character driven is my answer. Rooms sounds spectacular. Thanks for giving a copy away and giving me a chance to win it.

  3. I would vote for plot. I don't need to like the main character to enjoy the book. Many of the best books I've read had main characters that were horrible people but the story was awesome and I'm fine with that!

  4. Definitely a good plot. Characters don't stand a chance with me if I can't get into their story.

  5. An awesome plot would make me want to read a book.

  6. Both; plot can't stand without a well crafted character and the characters cannot be developed without the plot. Thank you for the giveaway!

  7. This is interesting. I'm a bit surprised how many of you like plot over character, and how many enjoy both. I definitely team both! : )

    Hugging you all!

  8. Plot is people doing stuff. Characters are the people doing the stuff. You gotta have both. I love wounded characters who desperately want something. And if they can be funny, too, it's a win-win for me. :-)

  9. characters and writing

  10. Definitely the plot. A good plot can make an otherwise average character seem great, but a good character rarely can rescue a poor plot.

  11. I have to love both the plot and the character to love a book, otherwise it's either a dud, to me, or just plain dry or something, lol. And inconsistent, to the point where I don't even feel like finishing or reading the book.

  12. I have to have both plot and character however I think there are times when one can sustain the other. For instance if the character is changing and intriguing but essentially little is happening externally. These books I still enjoy but take a little longer for me to get into and vice versa. If the plot is strong I can get into the story quickly but lose interest if the characters are cookie cutters or cliche. This was a great post. So excited about Lauren Oliver's book Rooms! Thanks so much for the giveaway!

  13. Either plot or character can make me enjoy a book; depends on the book. Characters I connect with or who make me feel understood can make me adore a book, whereas a whipcrack plot, even with cardboard characters, can keep me reading when I feel like something not too serious.

    I liked the Delirium trilogy, and Rooms sounds eerie and atmospheric - right up my alley!

  14. The character's voice. I know almost immediately if this book is for me.

  15. Characters!! Because they are the ones who make the plot of the story! They are the story. A book without characters, wouldn't be a story.

  16. Ultimately, it is the character that drives me to love a book. You can suspend belief with a plot, but not with the main character.

  17. Can I choose both?
    A book with a good plot but flat characters, and vice versa, isn't really interesting to read.

    A book with both a tightly written plot and well-developed characters keeps me reading until the sun comes up!


  18. I think both are important to me as a reader. Without well-developed characters and an interesting plot, I won't like the book as much. I can't really imagine one without the other in a "good book."


Tell us what you think. We'd love to hear from you! :)