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:
- 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.
- 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?