Monday, February 4, 2013

Three Insights for Creating Pop-Up Characters

Remember opening a book as a child and experiencing that ‘whoa cool’ feeling whenever you the entire thing sprung to life before you?

We can do that with our novels—with our characters.

I’m providing the equivalent of three unique crafting scissors today to help as you work to cut out and build irresistible, can’t-stop-reading characters. (Or if you love to read, I’m hoping this will help increase your appreciation for what goes into creating such characters.)

As authors, we’re wise to understand and explore each of these three interwoven components in order to shape believable 3-D characters.

In order to make a character come off the page we must know:

Her Fears
Not just what makes her afraid, but what drives fear into her. Physical fears as well as emotional ones. What’s the monster from the past that keeps following her into her future? Discovering this can take the form of an archeological dig as we carefully brush away the outer layers of dirt until we get to the real deal.

It’s also important to know fear’s counterpart, which brings me to…

Her Hopes
This goes way beyond wishing for a sunny day or wanting to get a certain birthday gift. What charges her, excites her, makes her believe in tomorrow? What form does her faith take when things go smoothly, when they take a turn for the worst? Does she share this hope or is she alone in it? Does it inspire or frustrate her—or both? Does her understanding of hope change, taking on different forms throughout the course of the novel?

And the sad counterpart to hope—despair, when does she feel that most?

Her Self-concept
This is one of my favorite explorations. It’s amazing how our perceptions can differ from how the world sees us. What is her self-concept and how did she establish it? Perceiving her self-concept in relation to how others react and respond to her is one of the best tools for designing a pop-up character. Is she self-aware or completely ignorant of her inconsistencies? Is her thoughtfulness and altruism rooted in the desire to people please? Is she desperate or secure? How does each of these answers influence her actions?

Finally, as you can guess all three of these bleed together constantly. Her hopes, fears, and self-concept play off each other in a complex network that mimics that of a DNA double-helix (remember those twisted ladders from middle school science class?). Forever going on behind the scenes. Until, after the author has done her job, the character leaps from the page and thrills the reader.

Do you think it’s essential to understand a character’s hopes, fears, and self-concept in order to craft a pop-up character? Why, or why not?


  1. Yes, that's important. I think in order to care about a character I have to understand a character.
    I just a read a few books for a contest and I'm really trying to figure out why I didn't care for them. The writing was good. The storyline was good. But for some reason I couldn't care less about the characters and found myself skimming the book. :(

  2. Yep, definitely! I sympathize so much when a character sees herself one way and her actions show how strong she really is. I want to root for her to not only accomplish her external goals, but to realize the treasure that's inside her! Great post today, Wendy!

  3. Definitely important! It's through these three concepts that we view, and respond, to life. I need to know her greatest fear so that when the black moment comes her fear can feel bigger, and truer, than ever before. I need to know her greatest hope, so that when she's mucking around in the mire of her life, she can still hold her head up and fight another day. And I need to know how she views herself, and her place in the world, so that when someone attacks her, or invites her to change, she can respond from the depths of her soul. One of my favorite parts of the writing process is discovering these three things about a new character.

  4. Sure I do. I think those things drive the novel just as much as an outer plot would.

  5. I totally agree with you, Wendy. In order to relate to someone, we have to know what makes her tick. And to know what makes her tick, we have to know what she wants, what she's afraid of, and how she sees herself.

  6. Wendy, I'm bookmarking this post! So helpful. And yes, I believe knowing a character's hopes and fears makes me care.


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