Darynda Jones — How I Make My Characters Unfogettable

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This’s kind of a trick title, because I’m not really certain how I make my characters unforgettable, I just know from reader feedback and comments that they are. Everyone wants to be Charley Davidson’s BFF, or they want a BFF like Cookie Kowalski. On the flip side, I usually have more than one to-die-for male character in my books just to keep it interesting, and the scrumptious Reyes Farrow fits the bill for most. Of course, I also have the sexy skip tracer Garrett Swopes and the humble and heroic Uncle Bob, not to mention the fan favorites, the bikers Donovan, Eric, and Michael who we will be seeing again in the future.

And as if that weren’t enough, coming in SIXTH GRAVE ON THE EDGE I have a splendid new treat for us girls in the form of a slave demon who escaped from hell and is now living as a human on Earth. He is currently known only as The Dealer and he will play a very big role in the coming days.

But what makes them so unforgettable (aside from the dark and sexy)?

Well, um, I don’t know. I just know that if I am going to write a character, I’m damned sure going to make her sizzle with personality. Who wants to read a cardboard cereal box? I don’t. I want my characters to have depth and charm, to shine and sparkle, to practically jump off the page into my readers’ laps.

So, while I’m not really certain HOW I do all that, I have done lots of research on how to create characters that your readers can root for. Here is the down-low from a master writer: Michael Hauge. He suggests creating empathy for your main characters, make your reader really root for your protagonist. We don’t read to observe the character from a distance. We read to become the character and experience the conflicts and rewards they are experiencing.

*Must create empathy BEFORE introducing any negative flaws in your character, anything that will distance us from the reader.

There are five ways to create empathy: (Need to use AT LEAST two of these.)

  • Sympathy
  • Jeopardy
  • Likeability
  • Power
  • Humor

Empathy can be accomplished in several ways, and you should utilize at least two of these, like using sympathy to create a connection between the reader and the character. Perhaps something happened to your hero in the past that still plagues him, still causes him pain.

Examples:

  • The Duke and I
    • Simon’s father celebrates his birth with church bells and champagne only to find out Simon is flawed in his eyes. His father never fully accepts him.
    • Titanic
      • Rose has a domineering mother and jerk fiancé.

Jeopardy is another way. If your heroine is in jeopardy, your readers will feel an instant connection. They will want her to persevere, to be okay. *NOTE: This does not have to be physical danger. Could be the loss of anything that is of vital importance to the hero.

Examples:

  • Physical:
    • Raiders of the Lost Arc; Hunger Games
    • Non-physical:
      • Rainman: Charley has a shipment of exotic cars but the EPA is holding them up and a buyer on the phone is threatening to pull out of the deal. Charley is in danger of losing his business.

Just making the character likeable will also create a bond. We like nice people, as long as they are not boring. Spunk is always a plus. Michael Hauge says one trick to show that your hero is likeable is to show him being liked by other characters. Show them doing something nice.

And there is something naturally appealing about power. Powerful people who are nice are a draw. Power doesn’t necessarily mean money or a superpower. If someone is very, very good at something, that is a form of power. A sniper who can make a shot that only half a dozen people in the world can make is a power.  (Remember Riggs in Lethal Weapon?

  • Two Forms of Power:
    • Superpower
      • Superheroes and Action Heroes
        • Iron Man, Superman
        • Indiana Jones and John McClain from Die Hard: Even though they are everyday guys, they are adventurous and put themselves into perilous situations.
  • Everyday Hero:
    • More likely to be thrust into situations.
    • Don’t consider themselves anything special
      • Frankie from M$B (“I only know one guy I’d be afraid to fight.”) Very good at what he does.
      • Katniss from Hunger Games

Last, humor. While humor is subjective, it’s still a great way to form that connection between reader and character we are seeking.

  • Van Wilder: Prime example of nice guy w/ humor
  • Don’t have to be nice:
    • Jack Nicholson in As Good as it Gets
    • Logan in Veronica Mars
    • Damon in Vampire Diaries
    • Boyd Crowder in Justified
      • Humor makes us like these guys

I hope that helps with the conundrum of character development. I think that one mistake writers will make is introducing negative flaws before creating empathy. I recently read a book with a teenaged heroine who was in a counselor’s office complaining about this and that and refusing to cooperate. Turns out she had good cause, but the opening made her seem petulant and self-centered. I never connected with her and I never finished the book as a result.

Good luck with your own characters, even the ornery ones! And we all know how ornery they can be.

Darynda Cover   NYTimes and USA Today Bestselling Author Darynda Jones has won numerous awards for her work, including a prestigious Golden Heart®, a Rebecca, two Hold Medallions, a RITA ®, and a Daphne du Maurier, and she has received stellar reviews from dozens of publications including starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and the Library Journal. As a born storyteller, Darynda grew up spinning tales of dashing damsels and heroes in distress for any unfortunate soul who happened by, annoying man and beast alike, and she is ever so grateful for the opportunity to carry on that tradition. She currently has two series with St. Martin’s Press: The Charley Davidson Series and the Darklight Trilogy. She lives in the Land of Enchantment, also known as New Mexico, with her husband of almost 30 years and two beautiful sons, the Mighty, Mighty Jones Boys. She can be found at www.daryndajones.com.

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4 comments to Darynda Jones — How I Make My Characters Unfogettable

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for this super helpful post!
    I’m doing another slog of revisions and have one character that all of my beta readers want to strangle. She *is* somewhat strangle-able, and while I don’t necessarily want my readers to feel sorry for her (which she would resent), I would at least like to get it to the point where they’re rooting for her to improve herself. Having five tactics to choose from gives great food for thought, and you’re point about using at least two is *excellent*. I’m definitely going to have to keep that metric in mind for all my writing in the future! :-D

  • Razziecat

    Hmm, thank you! This gives me a lot to think about. I have something I put on hold for a while and one of its problems is that I don’t like my main female character, despite her good qualities, and I think I know why–She wasn’t introduced in a way that makes her likeable. So it even works on the author! ;) I can see how this would apply with a couple of other characters in another story/series. Although I’ve written a bunch of stories about them, I’ve never written the story of how they first met (and clashed); I’ll have to keep this in mind when I do.

  • quillet

    Thank you for this! It’s absolutely fascinating, and there’s so much food for thought here. *takes notes* I find it especially fascinating that likeability is just one way to create empathy, and so is sympathy. Neither one is synonymous with reader-empathy, and either could be missing yet empathy could still be created with the other three… *takes more notes*

  • Delayed response, but I also wanted to thank you for this post. Great topic, and I hadn’t seen a good piece on it previously. I have already downloaded Michael Hauge’s book (hopefully the right one) and have saved your post as well, for future mulling. Thanks! :)

    Adrian.