One of the things that makes me happiest as a writer is when I hear that a reader has connected with a character of mine. When I read reviews and see someone comment that my characters feel like people you might know, that they feel real enough that they wonder about them and care about what happens next… that is the absolute best.
I want to stop here before I go any further. As with any of these posts about writing, I’m going to be showing you how I do it. It’s not advice or instruction so much as it’s my personal way of handling things. So this isn’t so much of a “how to do this” post as a “here’s what I do” post.
I almost always have a character before I have a plot. Someone dances into my imagination, and once I spend some time with them, I start to figure out what kind of story he or she needs. Molly, Jolene, Sophie, Shannen… all of them were there before the story I eventually told for them. It might be a flash of something. A jaded, angry vigilante with a secret. A thief who feels no guilt about what she does. A witch who is much stronger than she thinks. A haughty princess with a brain.
I usually have some idea almost immediately about how she looks. (My books always start with a “she.” The heroes come later.) I knew Molly would be tiny and kinda goth. I knew Jolene would look like a cross between Courtney Love and Ronda Rousey. I knew Sophie would look a lot like one of my favorite plus-size fashion bloggers, and I knew that Shannen would be curvy and gorgeous and that she’d use those assets to her advantage without the slightest hesitation.
Oh, look. See what I just wrote there? Personality starts coming in, just by getting an inkling of what they look like.
After that, there’s a lot of sitting around, wondering what my character’s going to do now that she exists, and as a result, the plot ends up developing along with my character. For me, those two things, plot and character, are inseparable.
I knew from the beginning that Molly would save women. And the reason I knew that is because I thought of Molly and the next day I was horrified about a story in which a local man murdered two women, one of whom was his ex-girlfriend. And it pissed me off and I remember thinking how amazing it would be if there was someone who could swoop in and save people before nightmares like this happened, or who could find them before it was too late — in the case of these women, they’d been missing for days before they’d been killed. But how would you know where to find them? It’s not like the bad guys were just out there telling everyone where they had someone stashed or what their plans were. Oh, but if the heroine could hear their thoughts… yeah, that could work. And from there, Molly evolved. I already knew I wanted to do some kind of play on the Greek gods, and once I had Molly with her empath and telepath powers, the rest fell into place. Realizing she’d be a perfect Fury, because empath powers would be really, really helpful in that role, was the final key. But wait, Furies, by their nature, wouldn’t just go around having babies. They’re supposed to be maidens. Ooh. So that’s interesting. What would happen if a Fury had a child, going against what she was supposed to be? And who would a Fury have a child with? Oh! Well, that union wouldn’t be looked on kindly by many…. lots of drama there… and I had my story, which is still going.
I saw a picture of Ronda Rousey at the same time I was seriously thinking about the superhero series I wanted to write, and Jolene was born. Ronda Rousey is a badass, and she has a superhero build. But as I thought about it more, I started to think that my super heroine would be a little… off. I didn’t want a Captain America type. I wanted Deadpool and Harley Quinn’s love child. I wanted someone who never, ever intended to be a hero. Someone who was actually just fine being the opposite in many ways. But I knew, too, that there had to be some good in her. So Jolene developed as a Robin Hood archetype, someone who was on the side of the little guy. When I was developing Jolene, I was also reading a lot about the gentrification of some of Detroit’s neighborhoods and the plights of families who had lived in those neighborhoods for generations, in some cases, and now couldn’t afford to stay. I was reading a lot about distribution of wealth in the U.S.. And, let’s be totally honest… I was remembering my own childhood, growing up occasionally on food stamps and welfare while everyone else I knew seemed to be doing just fine. So what if there was a chick with these kinds of sensibilities, and what if she ended up with superpowers? What would she do with them? Because she could totally go either way. She could be a villain, taking whatever she wanted and giving it to whoever she wanted to, and who the hell would stop her? Or she could continue to be a Robin Hood type, watching over the little guy. How would she feel? What dangers would her life involve? How does someone with so many secrets learn to trust, and is she ever tempted to go bad, because let’s face it, I’d be tempted, I think. If her team knew who she really was, how would they treat her? So I had StrikeForce, which, like Hidden, is still ongoing.
I’ll just say it flat out: Sophie Turner is who I want to be when I grow up. Sweet and soft, but strong as hell. Gardener, herbalist, beekeeper, goat herder, chicken wrangler, living in a little house in the wilds of northern Michigan. And being a witch, with powers that work in tandem with nature? That would be awesome.
So what if there was this witch, and she was hiding from someone terrible? I didn’t know why she was hiding, or who she was hiding from, but I knew that northern Michigan was her safe place, and that she was trying to get her life back (from who or what, again, I had no idea.) I knew the land would be magical, that her powers and it would be entwined. I knew that, once she was there, she would feel safe. She would feel like she was finally becoming what she hoped she would be.
So, what would happen if that land was suddenly threatened? What if she was in danger of losing it? And what if the person she was in danger of losing it to was someone she loved? Ooh! Wait! This is a Beauty and the Beast type of story, maybe. Maybe he’s cursed, and maybe since she’s a witch, she’s the only one he knows who can break the curse. So he’s awful and angry and he doesn’t care, at first, what it takes to break his curse. He wants it broken, and he’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen. Because his time is running out and he needs a witch….
But the only witch he finds, the only one who can break the curse, isn’t all that strong and knows nothing about curses. But because Sophie has to save her land, because it is her safe place and it calls to her in ways she still doesn’t understand, she’ll do whatever it takes to save it. But how’s she going to do that, when she’s a fairly weak witch and it’s an insanely strong curse? And how’s she going to manage it before his time runs out AND before whoever she’s running from catches up with her? That’s when I knew what the story behind Copper Falls would be.
Shannen of House Lyon
I love unlikable heroines. I do. Shannen is my least likable heroine, in my own opinion. She’s haughty and privileged and kind of a bitch. I knew she was a princess from the very beginning.
I should back up. I’ve said before that Exile started out as fan fiction I was writing about one of my World of Warcraft characters.
Yeah, I’m a nerd. Shut up.
Anyway. This character, in my mind, is a member of the Alliance but falls in love with an Orc. Which, if you know the game, you know that the orcs are aliens and also deeply-hated enemies of the heroes of the Alliance. So I was writing this fan fiction as I played this character in the game. I do that sometimes, because it’s fun and I can write smutty scenes between humans and orcs.
Hey, you have fun your way, and I’ll have fun my way.
But… the story started evolving into something else. Soon, the characters had nothing to do with the world of Azeroth. Soon, they became a haughty princess and the alien she was forced to marry. I started over again. It became another take on Beauty and the Beast (can you tell what my favorite fairy tale is?) but with an arranged marriage aspect, which was something I’ve never written before but thought it would work, especially in this situation where the hero and heroine are on opposite sides and their people have been fighting for years.
I should admit now that other than knowing that Shannen was a spoiled princess and a bit of a bitch and also a book lover, I really didn’t have much about her. She evolved as the story did. That happens sometimes, and it’s fun, but I’ll also admit to feeling less sure about Shannen sometimes than I do with my other heroines. But maybe that’s also part of Shannen’s character: she’ll do whatever the hell she wants, because she’s a goddamn princess.
Pinterest and Other Distractions
So there are my four main heroines. I didn’t explain E because E came to life as part of Molly’s story, so when I started her Soulhunter series, her character was already there. Once I have these general ideas for characters, I usually end up going to Pinterest and putting together an inspiration board. Hair, eyes, clothing styles, scenes that, to me, evoke the character’s personality. When I’m writing, I usually have that character or book’s inspiration board up as well, so if I’m feeling less inspired or just need to get into the groove again, I can look through my board and start getting back into it.
Almost always, my characters have a theme song. It’s a song that I end up playing on repeat sometimes when I’m writing. Each book has a playlist, too, but the character having a song that makes me think of them really helps me a lot. Here are the theme songs for my main badasses:
Molly: “Survival” by Eminem
Jolene: “How Dirty Girls Get Clean,” by Courtney Love
Sophie: “Shake It Out,” by Florence + the Machine
Shannen: “Chandelier,” by Sia
E: “Kashmir,” by Led Zeppelin
Shanti: “What Now?” by Rihanna
Meaghan: “Breathe,” by Faith Hill
So, there it is! How I came up with my heroines, and how it generally evolves into a story. I hope you found it interesting!