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Emotional Depth 2: Bring Your Characters To Life

Today we’re dealing with working at knowing your characters, so the emotional depth comes, not just from you, (though that’s vital) but also from within them. And if this sounds nuts, it isn’t: if you want your book to live, so must your characters! When you learn your characters, they start to “speak” to you, the emotions and the writing flow. That’s when your characters laugh and you laugh with them, they feel devastated and you have tears in your eyes. Your own gut will tell you when you get this right. This is when characters take on a life of their own, and they can even surprise you! And again, this means creating their emotions. They must belong to the character, becoming his/hers so thoroughly the reader can’t imagine them any other way. Letting these characters be their own people, leading you if necessary (mine do all the time!).

Think about it: isn’t this what we’re supposed to do for our kids — show them the doors to walk through, but let them do the walking? Teaching them lessons for life, then letting them live that life? It can be really scary to let go (my oldest is almost 19, so I know), but what’s the alternative? Controlling their lives until they’re screwed up, and hate us for it? So as it is with our kids, we must let our characters live and breathe apart from us, so that when they go between their cover and blurb (or in rubber bands and envelope) out into the wide, wild world without us, they can stand alone.

A big help in keeping the emotions for the characters separate from your own, to giving them their own breathing space, is to fill in really detailed character sheets, with a page or more for each of the hero or heroine’s backgrounds, ideals and beliefs. Put pictures of him/her in front of us (magazines are great for this); scents that remind us of them; music that “talks” to us for that character alone. Put yourself into his/her mind and emotions and sexuality, and the embarrassment/fear can fade. The deeper you go into the character, the more emotions will flow from them. Not you. And this enlivens the book — and sets you free from all the fears that torture us. And let’s face it: as writers, don’t we already have enough fear and guilt to live with?

Okay, how to do this? A working example at a “detailed” character sheet. Eyes: blue. Okay, so is a quarter of the world’s population. Why are they different? Cerulean? Blazing? Okay, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Here’s an example of how I describe the eyes of Mitch, the hero in Who Do You Trust?:

From the moment they’d met, he’d haunted her with the shadows of unspoken secrets in his eyes — half-shuttered windows to a turbulent soul.

You still don’t know what color his eyes are, but is that point as relevant as what I’ve said? I do mention that they’re dark chocolate, but it’s what’s inside his eyes that makes Mitch unique, his own person. I’ve described his inner self through his eyes, and what the heroine feels. I’ve described him, not just physically, but emotionally, when Lissa sees Mitch for the first time in twelve years.

You can do this in a character analysis, too. For example, here’s a hero’s description that I’ve created just now.

Eyes: dark, stormy, with a thin veneer of calm, like hidden night lightning about to strike.

Height: rangy, almost too tall, like he’d outgrown his skin years ago and filled it in with lean, taut muscle.

Smile: slow to give birth, but when it came, its secrets came with it, as if all he had to hide remained inside that crooked grin, all but daring you to ask the questions.

These don’t give you colors or statistics, but what they do (I hope!) is give you an intense visual of what this man is like inside. It’s an emotive description of this man, taking him apart from all other men and making him stand alone, tense and strong and heroic. He’s no longer two-dimensional — he’s all three, alive and throbbing with vitality!

The same can be done for the heroine. For example, Lissa in Who Do You Trust? is five-four, honey colored hair, gray eyes, delicate. A good basic description, and I could have added lovely and dainty and all those descriptive words. But here is how I chose to describe her:

She held herself with a quaint, unconscious dignity, standing aloof from the hedonistic angst of the world. But she still had the incredible mouth that made men thank God He made women — and she wore that unique scent of sunshine and earth and grass and something wilder, sweeter beneath. Just like Lissa herself — she was a heady mixture of natural, glowing sensuality and sweet, untouchable purity. Lines touched her face, marks of the woman’s rite of passage: the strength and beauty of pain of childbirth and motherhood, the stress of unspoken sorrow and abandonment.

God, she was beyond beautiful now, but in a way that almost hurt him to look. She was a fairy-tale heroine straight from the mind of the brothers Grimm: a shackled maiden lost in the forest. A figurehead carving they put on the bow of old ships, like the Flying Dutchman. Forever sailing on, standing at the front of a boat flying unstoppably through a world and time she had no control over. Beautiful and cold, so untouchably cold. In those eyes of sweet country mist, shadows ran rampant. Shades of fear. Specters of isolation and emptiness. As they did in her heart. The ghosts of the past owned her soul.

From this description, I hope you know something of Lissa herself, from the point of view of a man who’s just returned to her life. Again, the emotive description so you know Lissa, not just what she looks like. You know she has secrets, things she’s hiding from Mitch.

Continuing with the character analysis, let’s go a step deeper. I want to create a hero, with no name, no background — you’ll never know if he’s rich, bad boy, whatever. So together, let’s analyze it!

Let’s say the hero’s favorite music is John Denver’s Annie’s Song and Country Road. Why? Maybe “he likes country music for its foot-tapping fun” — but how about because “Denver has the ability to say what he feels, what most men feel, if only they could say it”.

What does this say about him? Not just that he’s a boot-scootin’ boy (though he might be), but an intensely-feeling man who can’t articulate it. A man who loves his home and family and all the traditional values. A man who maybe can’t say what the heroine would like to hear, but will he be there if she needs him? You bet! So what I said about having his/her music playing while you write should make sense now — it can bring all this emotion to the forefront of your mind while you work, and make it genuine, heartfelt — with all the depth it needs. You can also do the same with scents — colors of his clothes/home/car — the possibilities are endless. Keeping visuals of what your characters are and, most importantly, feel, can inspire you without you even knowing it.

His star sign: He doesn’t believe in it. Why? Because it’s crap? Might be, but again, is that good enough? Maybe the girl of his dreams got into astrology and decided because he was Aries and she Cancer, they were incompatible. Or his Mama spent all their money calling astrology help lines. Or maybe he believes we all control our own destiny and doesn’t like to think far-off suns can do anything but give light at night.

Favorite clothes: Jeans and T-shirt, boots and hat. What do we have? A workin’ man, a man of the land — or a billionaire with deep-seated insecurities about what people think of him, so he eschews Armani? Or maybe he’s a self-made man whose daddy was a cowboy or jackaroo, as we say here? Or is he just a contempo casual guy? There are so many possibilities with clothes to let a hero’s character speak. Or a heroine’s. Not just in designer clothes or showing her perfect body, either. In Winning Lucy, the book I hope Silhouette Romance contracts (soon), Lucy shows up at the hero’s house in lime-green culottes and a pink cardigan, a bundled-up bun and horrendous sunglasses. Is she a fashion disaster — a stuck-in-time librarian — or not? Why does she wear a silky, see-through teddy beneath? And when she lets her hair down — boy, does she! There’s so much to explore for characterization, and therefore emotional depth, even in clothes.

But one of the most important points in this emotionally based character analysis, is what actions they do when under stress: what do they do when they laugh, cry, trip over, cook, sing, dance, walk into a car or plane, listen to music or watch the TV or critique art, or look at the person they’re not ready to love yet? This is a fascinating study, and one that reaps rich rewards for a writer on the hunt for unique characters. The most tempting is, of course (as Kim Cardascia of St Martin’s Press says) the “raking a hand through his hair” thing. Many writers do this one, and yes, it’s a telling male trait. But what we need to do, is not just find the classics, but their own actions, and why they do it and when! If you can do really deep, detailed analysis of their actions, facial expressions and favorite sentences, then you’ll know when to put them in. Telling character traits so strong (including words they might use at that time), you won’t have to explain them.

All this devolves character, and many of these points may seem useless, since you might never even use them your book — but the point is, you know it. You know this man/woman — and the more you know them, the better you’ll know their reactions when a crisis comes, when the heroine seduces him, when she falls pregnant or his mother dies, or anything else you want to throw at him/her. In other words, you’ll be able to reveal the character by showing as much as possible without a word of “telling”. And the best way to find this skill if emotion doesn’t come naturally to your writing style, is to fill out an emotionally based character analysis. This can take hours, or even days to get it right — but how much time do we spend being stuck, playing solitaire, pinball or on email? This is more than worth it for the benefits it can bring.


Melissa James
Melissa has an avid desire to find out all things historical and medical. Research is the stuff of life! Reading, learning and doing field research (such as finding out how to fly a plane in a monsoon storm, or how it feels to be smothered with a pillow or almost fall off a cliff) all comprises part of her day, as does walking at her local beach with her husband or with friends or the kids -- even the dog sometimes! Watching movies, especially suspense or romantic comedy, and shows like Alias or 24 is always terrific for imaginative inspiration. Falling into writing through her husband, who thought it would be a good way to keep her out of trouble while the kids were little, Melissa was soon hooked. Using inspiration from university readers or journalists' articles and photos for her books is common for her. Vivid, real-life stories or graphic, painful pictures bring a fire and passion to her books -- though writing the occasional loopy comedy is a great way to stretch the imaginative muscles. Melissa loves to hear from her readers via email at melissaj@bigpond.net.au or through the Silhouette New York or Harlequin Sydney office. Visit Melissa at MelissaJames.net

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