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Cues from the Coach: Taming Your Characters

Taming your characters? This is not to be confused with making your characters tame. If your story is set in the wild, wild West, on an African safari, or on the trail of a serial killer, you can’t think “tame.” Besides, in the minds of your readers, “tame” is likely to mean boring. “Boring” does not sell books—or manuscripts.

So what does “tame” signify in this context? Suppose you want to tame a wild animal or even a dog or wolf hybrid that has been running free and fending for itself. How would you begin? Some basic rules about safety and training play into the picture, but a less tangible element weighs heavily into the success of any such undertaking. What’s that? Observation.

That makes sense, but we’re talking about “taming,” not “observing.” True, but animals, like people, have unique personalities. By watching their behavior, noting their likes and dislikes, and considering their habits and their heritage, you can often learn more about the critters than you’ll ever find in a book. But how does that relate to “taming your characters”?

Detailed character sketches—pain in the backside that they are to create—teach you everything you need to know about the people who populate your story. Did one or more of the grandparents come from another country? Does the character love tacos and hate sushi? When your protagonist is stressed, does she rub her left elbow or cross her legs and swing her foot? Where did he go to school? How does she feel about marriage and relationships? What events in his childhood shaped his current attitude? What are her sleep patterns, his goals, her taste in clothing? (Note that appearance is not included. Yes, it’s important; but without far more detail, it alone creates flat characters that are soon forgotten.)

Answering the above questions may seem a useless waste of time, but the responses play a major role in the development of your characters’ personalities. Does your reader need to know all this? No. But you do. And you need to know it for all your characters, not just your protagonist(s). Why? That’s a lot of extra work. If you know your characters as well as—or even better than—you know yourself, those characters will never step out of character in your story. They will be real three-dimensional people to your readers—people they can relate to, cheer for, love, or hate. Your readers will laugh or cry, be brave or fearful, feel hope or despair right along with them. This makes your characters memorable because you’ve “tamed” them in the sense that they are true to themselves and to their place in your story. And it makes your audience long to read your next book.

Do you have a question that can be answered with a cue from the coach? Let me know. I may be able to feature that topic in a future post.

Editor Linda Lane coaches writers through rewrites of their manuscripts. By using the writers’ own works rather than a generic text as a basis for the lessons, she individualizes each course to fit the needs of the writer and to enhance the development of a marketable book. Visit her at Watch for the inclusion of a new team member, a movie producer who specializes in working with aspiring screenwriters.

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  1. This is akin to "writing what you know." If you spend time learning about your characters, it will be easier, and clearer when you tell their story. Thank you for this excellent reminder.

  2. Knowing your characters will save you a lot of time and stress later on, might even save you a rewrite.

  3. Thanks for sharing these insights, Linda. I think of characters as new friends, and I am always anxious to know more about them. The more I know, the more fully developed the character becomes.

  4. I am a huge believer in knowing my characters before I embark on that fearsome first draft. Does it take time to know backgrounds, attitudes, etc. Absolutely yes. Does it help later down the line? Let me say this; I'm never at a loss to how each of them reacts to each step of the plot.

  5. Does your reader need to know all this? No. But you do.

    YES! I don't know my characters well at the beginning, but I love learning about them. To the extent that most show up as the protagonists of another book.
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  6. I always outline my characters before I start a book but I have to fill in more details as I go.

  7. When I was putting together my coaching manual, I played with the the idea of character sketches to see what might most effectively create three-dimensional people.

    We all have a history — not just our own, but that of our ancestors. We are the progeny of those who came before us, and we are an outgrowth in one manner or another of who they were.

    As individuals we have likes and dislikes, things that soothe us and things that irritate us, silly habits and little quirks, and the list goes on. We get tipsy on one beer, or we can drink every one of our friends under the table. Rain annoys us, or sunshine makes us sneeze. Etc, etc., etc.

    Silly stuff? Not really. These are the things that lift our characters off the page and into our readers' minds and hearts. These traits don't create clones; they are the makings of believable individuals who could be our next door neighbors — our readers' next door neighbors.

    Starting to write a book without a full-blown picture of our characters in our minds (and on paper/the hard drive) is akin to watching a black and white movie of a gorgeous sunset. The depth is missing. The color is missing. The warmth is missing. And it's a lot harder to envision ourselves there.

    Elspeth nailed it. When we are as familiar with our characters as we should be, we know exactly how they will react in any situation. And the writing is suddenly easier because we don't have to wonder.

  8. Good point about saving ourselves a rewrite, Helen. A little extra time spent on character sketches in the beginning may save us a lot of time later.

    "Writing what you know" — absolutely, Liza! And when we know our characters intimately, they tell us THEIR story. We don't need to pinch and push and prod them into ours.

    You're so right about our characters becoming our friends, Maryann. Funny how that happens. They become as real to us as they do to our readers. Of course, this isn't a bad thing.

    Thank you all for your comments. I love the opportunity to mingle here with fellow writers and fellow editors. In both cases, ours is a solitary existence, so I treasure the interaction on BRP and love being a part of this active and sharing group.

  9. Excellent post, Linda. You are so right about developing your characters. It's so important in helping the reader identify with or at least empathize with them.

  10. knowing your characters very well is one of the basics of good writing for all the reasons mentioned above.

    I'm a planner, I can't start writing without detailed plot and outlines for all the characters, including minor ones. I actually thought this post was going to be about a situation I've heard about from some 'pantsers' - when a character(s) take over their book and how to 'tame' your characters so they don't take over YOUR book.

    But this may be the subject for another post :)

  11. I'm usually too lazy to do a thorough character sketch ahead of time. I find out the hard way what my characters are like. They tend to surprise me!

    Morgan Mandel

  12. Thanks Linda! Your post really helps remind me of the things I need to be doing. Kind of like that little voice of reason in my ear. I know I should do more detailed character sketches (and for me sometimes character sketches are literal sketches drawn in pencil), but when I don't take the time for them I fumble about with how the character will react. It results in so many rewrites!

    People really should take the time to develop their characters before they write.


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