From Seeds to Blooms: Developing Characters

Field with the blossoming lavender in the sunny summer day

When I read a book, I like to get to know the characters, but when I think about the story later, I rarely remember what they looked like. I tend to focus more on how they handle the central problem. After taking a few online courses about using the conflict to drive the plot, I started to write by focusing on the main problem in the story, rather than who is involved in it. Before I even start writing, I need to know what my characters are dealing with. I know that might sound backwards to some, so let me show you how my mind works by telling you what happened with my last release, Lost in Lavender:

As I said, I start with a problem, or conflict. Last year, Dingbat Publishing put out a call for regency stories called Christmas Bouquet. The guidelines for the proposed stories were:

  1. Stories needed to include something about the Grand Opening of the Winter Gardens at Nettlebloom Estate at a fête during the Christmas season in 1816.
  2. Each story needed to feature flowers somehow.

The callout listed several proposed characters, most of them noble. I don’t like to write about nobility – so I chose the landscape gardener as my main character. I chose him because he had an obvious problem – he needed to complete the garden in time, according to demands of the rather eccentric members of the Royal Horticultural Society. His inner conflict was more difficult to come up with. I finally decided that James Benton had come from a noble family, and his parents were disappointed in him for choosing to take on a trade.

Once I had my hero, I needed a heroine. I write romance, after all. I wanted her to have something in common with the hero, but have a difference that could possibly stand in the way of them becoming a couple. Eventually, Selina Davison started to take shape in my mind. She also loves flowers, and she creates beautiful blossoms out of silk and wire, and then attaches them to the hats that she sells in her millinery shop. The flowers are so realistic that they catch the attention of Mr. Benton as he’s walking through the streets of Highgate.

So now I had two names, but I needed to know more about them. Again, I used conflict to figure out their personalities and what makes them tick. This is when I had to create their backstory. As I mentioned, James is the son of an earl, but he’s the second son, which gives him a little more freedom than if he were the heir. But he’s chosen to work, and he actually does manual labor at times, which infuriates his mother. He tries to appease her by attending a few social events here and there. Selina, on the other hand, came from working stock, but married an earl, so she spent several years as a countess. But when her husband died and they had no children, she was left with only her widow’s dowry. She took that and built her millinery business. Selina has good reason for her polite but cool regard for nobility.

Once I had my characters fleshed out, I needed to get them together. I had a way for them to meet (he notices her handmade flowers on a hat and follows her to her shop), but I needed a reason for them to meet again – and again. This dilemma plagued me for a long time, until my friend author Elizabeth Meyette did a presentation on writer’s block and offered this solution: write the problem with your dominant hand, and then put the pen in your other hand and start writing. I did that, and the answer was – James has a poor sense of direction! He gets lost several times and keeps ending up in her shop.

I’ve always envied those who simply start writing and end up with a story. When I first started writing I had a vague story about a samurai soldier. I wrote about 10,000 words before I realized I had a bunch of scenes that went nowhere. Pantsing (writing by the seat of your pants) just doesn’t work for me, although sometimes my characters take a slightly different route to get to the happily-ever-after than what I planned!

How do you get to know your characters?

About Patricia Kiyono

During her first career, Patricia Kiyono taught elementary music, computer classes, elementary classrooms, and junior high social studies. She now teaches music education at the university level. She lives in southwest Michigan with her husband, not far from her five children, nine grandchildren (so far), and great-granddaughters. Current interests, aside from writing, include sewing, crocheting, scrapbooking, and music. A love of travel and an interest in faraway people inspires her to create stories about different cultures. Check out her sweet historical contemporary romances at her Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/Patricia-Kiyono/e/B0067PSM5C/
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18 Responses to From Seeds to Blooms: Developing Characters

  1. pamelasthibodeaux says:

    Great advice!
    Thank for sharing
    PamT

    Like

  2. I love this! ANd I love how you got to the story and the premise of the story itself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Patricia Kiyono says:

      Thanks, Tonette. I know it doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s how I operate. Looking forward to seeing what everyone else shares.

      Like

  3. It’s really interesting to see the processes for different authors, Patricia. Yours and mine are alike in that I also need to know quite a bit about my characters and their conflicts before I begin. I’ve used various tools for getting to know them, but the ‘snowflake’ method worked the best so far.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Patricia Kiyono says:

      Thanks for stopping in, Alice! I’m not familiar with the Snowflake Method. I found a few articles on it and will have to check it out.

      Like

  4. diana-lloyd says:

    As someone who is directionally disadvantaged (I get lost all the time) I think your solution was brilliant! Elizabeth M’s advice is usually sound, I’m so glad it worked out for you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Patricia Kiyono says:

      Ha! It really amazed me when the answer just appeared like that. My hubby is also directionally challenged, so he thinks I modeled the character after him.

      Like

  5. Kara O'Neal says:

    That was interesting. I never thought of writing my story in my dominant hand. When I build a character, I start with the traits I want him/her to have. They have to be different from my previous books. Once I have one set of traits for one of my main characters, I balance that out with similar, and a few different, traits for the opposite character. It works for me most of the time. I love dreaming up characters. It’s my second favorite thing of writing a book.Thank you for sharing! Your story sounds great!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Patricia Kiyono says:

      Thank you, Kara! I like to meet my characters, too, but sometimes they don’t cooperate when I’m trying to tell their stories.

      Like

  6. Jeff Salter says:

    well, I do most of my writing by the seat of my pants.
    Usually begin with an image or a concept and work out the primary plotline from there.
    As I move along, the secondary story arcs usually pop up.
    As far as characters, like you, I start with the heroine and hero. Then I figure out who they know, where they live / work / etc… and who they confide in. After that, i mainly follow them around and listen to what they say. WAtch what they do.

    Like

    • Patricia Kiyono says:

      Pantsing works for a lot of people, including the incomparable Nora Roberts. You’re lucky that it works for you. I tried, and I didn’t like what I produced, so I had to find another method.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Diane Burton says:

    I love your approach to coming up with a story. Very logical. Since I’m stuck on my wip, I’m going to take Betty Meyette’s suggestion with the hands. I’d forgotten that advice. I’m glad it worked for you.

    Like

  8. I like your approach to your stories. I can’t work that way, each time I try it just doesn’t work out.

    Like

  9. Interesting process. I usually have a seed of an idea for a plot that grows as I imagine scenes while I lie awake when I should be sleeping. The hero and heroine emerge and from there it’s pretty much pantsing.

    Like

  10. Elaine Cantrell says:

    Your process is very interesting. In spite of the fact that I’m a pantser I do know in general what kind of character I want to write, and as we go along I flesh them out.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Diana Stout says:

    In the beginning, I created physical characters without real conflicts, thus they were shallow as was the story. Now, I rarely know what they look like, but I sure do know how they sound, how they react, and what their deep wounds and goals are. I do character journals to discover backstory so that by the time the story starts, the conflict is immediate. Your process is equally interesting in seeing how you’ve evolved in developing your characters.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Patricia Kiyono says:

      The physical characteristics are where my editors always catch me! As you say, I know my characters’ backstory, which reveals their wounds and goals. But their eyes and hair color often change color, and sometimes even their names!

      Liked by 2 people

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