Monday, July 2, 2012

Guest Blogger: Author Shirley Jump

My next blog guest is the fabulous award winning author, Shirley Jump, whose tasty novels often feature delicious foods. Take it away, Shirley!

Start with Character

Thanks so much, Libby, for having me here! I thought I’d talk about character today, because I get asked about creating characters all the time.

Lots of writers come up with an idea for a book but then aren’t quite sure where to go from there. I always start with character, and by doing that, the book becomes character driven, rather than plot driven. Character driven books are more emotional, connect more, than plot-driven stories.

For me, I have often have a What-If situation—What if a jaded workaholic woman needs a husband overnight? Ooh, a challenge to write in contemporary.

Then I decide on WHO my character is. Is she a murderer? An actor? A chef? Is she the protagonist or antagonist? Is he the father of the murder victim? The doctor who diagnoses a life-threatening disease? A lot of times this vocation will come from the plot. If you’re writing a murder mystery, obviously you need a killer, a victim and a hero. If you’re writing a romance, you need a hero and a heroine who have a few conflicts between them but not so many that they can’t get together. If you’re working on a children’s story, then you need a child protagonist who goes through a life-changing event.

            With One Day to Find a Husband, I chose a hero and a heroine who were both architects, but at different firms. Check. I have my What-If. I have my vocation or role for the characters to play. Now the next step is to figure out who each of these people are and why they are who they are.

            Many things help you make these decisions. What kind of person would be thrust into this situation? And why? This can send your plotting into a 100 different directions so brainstorm on this. One of the best ways to brainstorm, and something I teach in my class on my “Brainmap” method, is the spoke and wheel. Draw one word in the center of the page (protagonist, murderer, and antagonist) then draw out lines that lead to all kinds of possibilities. Maybe the murderer is an innocent framed for the crime. Maybe it’s a desperate woman backed into a corner. Maybe it’s an accident. Maybe it’s a serial killer. Feel free to let yourself go, even if you end up with 100 ideas on the page, and come up with as many ideas as you can. Even if you don’t use all these ideas, hold on to the paper. When you get stuck later in the plot, pull this out and see where it leads you.

            With One Day to Find a Husband, I created a really strong motivation for my heroine. After all, this is 2012. Marriages of convenience aren’t that common anymore. So I had her adopting a child, and all of a sudden, the country she’d adopting from requires adoptive parents to be married. She needs a husband STAT to make the adoption go through. Bingo—my what, who and why.

            Third, you need to name your character. For me, I like names that have meaning. I have a baby name book I use to look up meanings, derivatives and nicknames. In One Day to Find a Husband, I had the hero, Finn McKenna, set early on because I was doing three linked books of brothers—but the heroine was a bit more challenging. I started with one name, felt like it didn’t fit, and as I wrote, the name Ellie came to me, and became the perfect one for the heroine I created.

            Fourth, create a character “bible.” This can come from a character interview, from your own thoughts, however you want to develop it. The character bible is comprised of the simple stuff - eye color, hair color, etc. But also tackle the bigger issues -- what happened to this character as a child? What is he or she afraid of? What’s his worst habit? Greatest trait? Biggest weakness? How does he feel about his parents/ pets? Last girlfriend? All of these things become fodder for great, well-developed characters.

            These are the kids of details that give characters life. One of my first rejection letters praised my writing up and down but aid that my characters didn’t breathe and live on the page. I had no idea what this meant at the time, but learned later how to pump life into people on a page.

            How do I do it? I filter EVERYTHING through that character’s past. When my character looks out the window at a tree, there is a memory associated with that tree, a memory that impacts on the plot, and that makes the tree and the moment with the character have ten times more meaning.

Characters shouldn’t be static -- they should have past habits, annoying traits, likes and dislikes, etc. Those are the little details that make them as real as the neighbor you don’t like or the favorite aunt you love.
            One of the things that will affect who your characters are and what they do is your setting. Think about that for a sec. Would a book set in a haunted castle be different than one set in a busy subway? Of course they would. Character reactions, actions and events would all differ based on the setting. And based on the characters’ pasts. A claustrophobic would be freaked out by a narrow hallway. A nomadic character would be antsy on a remote island.

            So now you have the basic elements for a character. The bare outline of who they are, the situation that they’re in and where that situation takes place. For some writers, that’s enough of a launching pad to write a whole book. For others, more planning and development is needed. Here are some questions to ask your character:

1)  Why did your parents name you (fill in character's name)? Does it have any special meaning?
2)  What is your problem? What are you trying to achieve?
3)  How are you going to overcome this problem?
4)  What weaknesses make it hard for you to achieve your goals and get past your problems?
5)  What in your background makes this harder for you than for anyone else?

            Those are just a few to get you started. Develop your own list, or just keep asking Why. In my opinion, the WHY question leads to lots and lots of discovery with characters. For every answer you get, ask WHY again.

If you’re writing a romance, think about secrets the characters can keep from each other; things that would touch their hearts; things that would make them work together. In a mystery, you’ll want elements that will center around the dead body and how it got there; what clues will lead to the suspect; who will find the clues; what motivations the murderer has.

By asking questions -- as many questions as you can -- you create better, more well-rounded characters. Ask them aloud, ask them on paper. Just ask them. Your characters will thank you by coming alive on the page!

            And hopefully, my hero and heroine in One Day to Find a Husband are thanking me! Their story was a challenge to write, as every book is, but it was fun to think outside the box for this Marriage of Convenience romance, book one in the McKenna Brothers series!

You can connect with Shirley and find out more at her website.


  1. Thanks so much for this enlightening and informative post, Shirley! Definitely one to print out and tape to the wall.

  2. Great advice! I always think that one of the greatest compliments we can get as writers is when a reader says they could really relate to the characters and feel their emotions. Thinking about their past as their filter for how they see the world is a great idea too!

  3. Thanks so much! Thank you for having me here, too, Libby!

  4. I love these in depth tips and questions to ask.

    The whys, the noticing - that's where the good stuff always lie, isn't it?

  5. My pleasure, Shirley. Thanks for coming!

    Characters certainly are the key to a great book. You can have the most amazing, most unique plot in the world, but if you don't have characters to connect with - to love or to hate - the story just won't resonate.