Monday, April 11, 2011

Carla Stewart on Inviting Characters to the Party

Hi Wendy! Thanks so much for asking me to talk about my favorite topic – developing characters. Trust me, I’m no expert, and the further into this writing journey I get, the less I know. What I do may not work for you but hopefully it will trigger your own creativity. I nearly always have a main character (protagonist) who pulls up a chair and says, “I have a story for you.” And generally, there is a situation that goes along with this character. I’ve come to think of this character as an extension of myself, one whose experiences interest me. This is important since I’ll be living and breathing her life for a long, long time. That said, there are some key elements I look for in choosing my characters.

Some essentials for a protagonist:

Goals and Motivations – something she would die for or that will alter her life in a negative way if she fails to reach her goal. What motivates her to reach this goal? You MUST do this character work before you begin your novel.

Likable and/or relatable – Who wants to root for a whiny character?

Flawed – Imperfections help make a character relatable

Secondary characters:

Antagonist / Villain – must have a goal that is as strong as that of the protagonist. The antagonist doesn’t have to be a character. It can be a force of nature, but people villains are fun. They must be strong, cunning, and deceitful. They must also have some redeeming quality and not be all bad. Someday I want to write a villain who seems like an angel of light, but is really the bad guy.

Sidekick – Here’s where your quirky characters shine! They bring out the best and worst qualities of the protagonist. This person is often opposite my main character in looks and personality, and they can say things the protagonist can’t.

Mentors – sometimes called advisors or helpers. I like to pick characters who don’t fit the mold for being mentors. Often a stranger or someone who has a questionable reputation. Angels unaware sort of characters who provide wisdom without being overbearing. Mentors often end up being my favorite characters in my books.

Foolish, selfish, or flawed characters – unlikable maybe, but not horrible people. They can also be characters your reader can sympathize with – victims or challenged in some way. I sometimes give them a character arc so that they learn something that reflects the main theme or plot of the story. Some examples would be former boyfriends, nosy or pushy relatives and neighbors, know-it-alls, etc. They add color and texture to the story.

Neutral characters – bystanders, officials, receptionists, children – they, too, can add color to the story without having a character arc.

No matter what role they play, your characters must be unique: speech, pet phrases, clothing style, social status. And quirky! Not in an outrageous way necessarily, but something that sets them apart. The fun thing about quirks is that you can also use them as metaphors or triggers that move the story forward.

Most of my characters are works in progress. None of them come to me fully fleshed out. And they sometimes do surprising things. Not all writers like surprises, but I’ve learned that secondary characters sometimes have a great deal to say.

I’m definitely a character first, plot last writer. The main thing I try to keep in mind is that secondary characters are crucial in advancing the plot and establishing theme, so they have to be chosen carefully. Just because they want to be in the story doesn’t mean they get to stay.

I’m getting ready to brainstorm a new novel, so this was a good review for me. A week ago my mind was blank. Then a male character showed up at my table one day and asked me to help him find someone. The ideas started flying, but I’m saying, “Whoa! I write stories with female protagonists. Who are you?” He’s desperate for my help, so I dunno. Maybe this will be “new ground” for me.

Which leads to my final point. Don’t be afraid of being unique. Just let the ideas flow and invite all the characters to the party. You can always decide who gets to stay and who doesn’t. Efficient? No, but you’ll have a blast writing your story.

Carla, thank you for swinging by to lend your wisdom on characters! To read more about Carla visit her website.

Broken Wings: Onstage, the singing duo of Gabe and Mitzi Steiner captured America’s heart for more than two decades. Offstage, their own hearts have throbbed as one for sixty years. Only now, Gabe has retreated into the tangles of Alzheimer’s leaving Mitzi to ponder her future alone.

Everyone believes Brooke Woodson has found the perfect man—a handsome attorney with sights on becoming Tulsa’s next District Attorney. If only Brooke felt more sure. If only her fiancé could control his rage. If only her last chance at love didn’t come with so many scars.

Brooke and Mitzi’s story is one of an unlikely friendship birthed by providence and bathed in grace as the two women face difficult transitions arm in arm.


  1. Thank you for this post! I am just plotting my latest book and some of your points really make me think:)

  2. Wendy! Thanks so much for having me here. Your blog is like a breath of spring!

    Terri - planning and plotting are some of my favorite parts of writing. You can let your imagination play. I hope the perfect characters step onstage for you! Give them a try.

  3. How fun to arrive at Wendy's blog and find you here, Carla, talking about one of my favorite aspects of writing. I love getting to know my characters, both the main characters as well as the secondary characters.

    In my debut novel, two of my secondary characters play a big part in the main characters' story, and I was thrilled when I received the marketing copy from my publisher and saw that they included these two secondary characters in the blurbs. Somehow that made me feel like I must have done a decent job of creating them and weaving them into the story.

  4. Very helpful list, Carla! Thanks for sharing it.

  5. What a great post! Thanks for sharing, Carla, and thanks for hosting, Wendy. I'm still in the character development stage for my next wip, so I'll refer to these insights often. :)

  6. Love Carla!!!

    I can't wait to read your new book. :)

    Characters...I can usually think up plots fairly easily, it's peopling them with interesting folks that comes with more difficulty.

  7. what a beautiful novel cover! and, this is a great summation - it matters that our characters are well considered.

  8. That is a breathtaking cover!! I'm bookmarking this. What a great thing to come back to during my first round of revisions.

  9. Thank you, Carla and Wendy, for sharing this great info. There's so much to learn and implement. I'm thankful for good resources such as this post.
    Karen :)

  10. I love this! Such a helpful list. Thanks! :)

  11. What wonderful information on characters! Her book sounds fantastic!

  12. How exciting to come back from lunch and see all these wonderful comments.

    Keli, secondary characters are not only fun but give resonance to the story's theme. Sounds like you did a great job, so good show.

    Roslyn, thank you! Certainly not the end all of developing characters, but good to plan with some of these in mind.

    Sarah, best of luck with your next project. I'm right there myself so I'll be thinking of you.

    Erica, you do have great plots. I really struggle in that area. I can make up people all day long, I just don't know what to do with them - ha!

  13. Loree, thanks for coming by.

    Tess, thanks for the compliment on the cover. My publisher's art dept does a fabulous job.

    Katie, thanks! During revisions is a great place to make sure that the secondary characters do their job in advancing the story and holding up the main characters' story arcs. I should have added that secodnaries are also good for comic relief when the tension get too high or you need to lighten up a little.

    Karen, there is a LOT to learn. I doubt if I've even touched the tip of the iceberg (sorry, a cliche). Fun to keep on learning.

    Danyelle, I'm glad this was helpful to you. Best with your writing!

    Jennifer, thanks. Oh, I hope you'll read Broken Wings. I'm still in the nervous stage wondering if people will like it since it doesn't come out until June.

    Thanks, everyone! So fun to be on my good friend, Wendy's blog!

  14. Oh, I've been wanting to read Chasing Lilacs and this new book now too! I love the idea of inviting all the characters to the party. Some great advice here. I loved your take on the antagonist and the mentor.

  15. What great tips Carla! Villains are some of my favorite people. ;) LOVE your cover!!!!!!

  16. Hi Margo - I'm always thrilled when someone wants to read Chasing Lilacs - would love to hear how you like it.

    Tana - yes, villains are fun to write. I'm still learning how to make them more subtle (and dangerous). Thanks for the cover compliment - certainly not my gift - I'm blessed to have a great publisher with wonderful art people.

    Blessings, all!

  17. Thank you for a clear, succinct post on this subject. I love the premise of your book.

    Susan :)

  18. Thanks Wendy and Carla!

    I love sidekicks! They enrich a novel so much when created wisely!!!

  19. Thanks for that info. Great stuff to think on.
    the book looks wonderful too.

  20. This is a fantastic post. Just what I needed as I'm getting ready to jump into actually writing and developing my characters.

  21. Such great advice, especially since I've thought of a new idea.

  22. Your advice has me thinking of more possibilities. I can't help but wonder if there were characters you sent home in "Chasing Lilacs?" I know it is necessary to eliminate what doesn't carry the plot, but I sometimes feel it's a bit painful. When you send characters home do they get invited to another party?

  23. Wendy, thanks for hosting Carla today! And Carla, I appreciate your breakdown of characters and the roles they play. For me, characters ARE the book!

  24. Love what you said Carla about just writing and deciding later who gets to stay and who goes. Some of my favorite characters to write have been the villan or a secondary character - maybe because I feel less pressure with them than I do the MCs.


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