Do you have a Polly Anna friend who is always happy and smiling and you secretly wonder if she is a serial killer, because nobody is that damn happy all of the time. And then there is Debbie Downer who can find the cloud under every silver lining. And what about Francis Two Face, always armed with her knife just waiting for you to turn your back. And then there is Courageous Karen caring for aging parents and Sweet Susie the PTA mom and Silent Sandy the quite observer and cautious Kay who overthinks everything and Impulsive Imogene putting both feet in her mouth at every opportunity.
We label our friends and family and most of the people we interact with – The Front Pew Family, The Complaining Connie, Always Late Elizabeth and Ten Minute Early Erin.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could put these labels on the characters we create in our novels and be done with it – Polly Anna is always happy and finds the silver lining before Debbie Downer finds the cloud? But, the characters we write must be more complicated, more three-dimensional. Polly is going to be smiling to your face while silently screaming about the twenty items you have in the express line. Debbie secretly smiles at the twins playing in the park because they remind her of her own childhood.
To create three-dimensional characters, writers must understand that a character’s response to a certain circumstance was influenced by this ‘thing’ that happened in their past. Each character must have a full backstory that explains why they are afraid of storms or panic when a dog gets close. Why does Over Emotional Opal cry at the drop of a hat?
Backstory – all that ‘stuff’ that never makes an appearance on the page is necessary to create well-rounded, believable characters. Every person you meet (character you create) has a different set of experiences that will influence their reactions. Even siblings who grew up together with shared experiences will remember the same event in totally different ways because of the emotional baggage each carries.
And then, we need to go one step further and help our character grow – a character arc. During the course of the story, not only do readers want to understand why Debbie Downer is always so negative, we also want to see her overcome her backstory so she deserves her happily ever after.
For example: Debbie Downer is a divorced mother of a troubled teenage boy. Her son hates her and wants to live with his father. The ex-husband is a jerk, who ruined Debbie’s life and is trying to destroy their son’s life as well. Three-hundred pages later, Debbie Downer realizes she is responsible for creating, or at minimum complicating, her son’s problems and promises to do better, thereby earning and deserving her happy ending.
It’s never easy, but these complicated, complex, convoluted characters are the ones who resonate with readers and those are the books that end up on the keeper shelves.
In my opinion, an excellent example of this type of character is Sugar Beth, in Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ novel, Ain’t She Sweet. Sugar Beth is a spoiled ‘mean-girl’ who isn’t very likable as the story opens, but before the book ends we are rooting for her and are glad that she finds her happy ending.
Terri Richison (writing as Terri Rich) lives in Clear Lake City, TX with her husband and a giant Great Dane (giant even by Great Dane standards). She is working on self-publishing women’s fiction and avoiding getting a pie in the face if she doesn’t produce pages for every critique session! PIES OR PAGES! Terri started telling stories almost as soon as she could talk – she learned everything she needed to know about storytelling at her grandmother’s knee. Craft however, is something she is still learning – those damn commas give me nightmares!