Since I’ve been discussing archetypes, I’ve been focused on just that aspect of characterization, which can make it sound like that’s all there is to it, but it’s really just a starting point. An important disclaimer goes here: this is what works for me. It is not the absolute, only way to do this. Other people have a lot of success doing things a different way (and I’m not that wildly successful, so you may or may not want to do things the way I do).
First, a little background. I wrote my first five books on pure instinct. I didn’t do much outright character development. I just knew my characters somehow. I don’t think those books are brilliant, by any means, though they did get published, which counts for something (then again, I’m sure we could all name a published clunker or twenty). Then I hit my long dry spell, when I couldn’t give a book away. In a panic, I tended to throw together proposals, just to have something out there, and those were, quite rightfully, rejected because of flat characters. I felt like I’d lost my touch, so I started consciously working on character development. I tried filling out all those character worksheets where you decide what the character’s favorite color and favorite food is, what’s in their refrigerator, etc., and doing the character interviews where you find out what the character’s childhood was like, their first love, their favorite class in school and all that. But that still didn’t work for me. For one thing, I felt like I couldn’t answer those questions until I knew more about the character from the inside, and if I did fill out those forms without knowing the character, my answers were totally arbitrary, with no unifying thread to tie it all together into a cohesive character. The characters I developed this way felt like hollow shells of traits with no soul. Yeah, I knew what was in their refrigerator and how their house was decorated, even who their third-grade best friend was, but I still didn’t feel like I knew them.
My first breakthrough came when I was talking with Connie Willis at a writing conference. After I got over the fangirling and stopped shaking so I could actually talk to her as a human being, we got into a discussion about character development. I talked about how I felt like I knew her characters so well, and how I recognized them from people I knew. She then said that she thought all those character worksheets were a waste of time. Why does it matter what’s in the character’s refrigerator? The only thing that matters is what’s needed in the book. You know who the character is because of the way he reacts to the events in the story and the choices he makes along the way. That was when I realized that although I fell madly in love with Ned, the main character/narrator in To Say Nothing of the Dog, I knew very little of those character worksheet details about him. There’s not even a physical description of him given in the book, other than the detail about the crooked mustache, since the cream they used to grow him a fast mustache so he could blend into the Victorian era was put on quickly and sloppily.
So, that was aha! moment number one. Meanwhile, I had the archetypes book and was playing with it to analyze characters on TV series. On the Angel Usenet group, I did a whole series of posts analyzing those characters. I just hadn’t figured out how to apply that to my own work. Part of the problem was that I was working with existing characters I’d already developed and trying to retrofit archetypes onto them, which didn’t really work. The first totally new thing I started working on was the book that became Enchanted, Inc.
When I got to the point of casting the book, I just knew that the concept was “Bridget Jones Meets Harry Potter” and that it would essentially be a chick-lit book with magic in it. I’d already figured out the stuff about magical immunity, and I knew the story would involve my main character being this normal person immune to magic who gets recruited by the big magical corporation. I also had decided that she would be from a small town, and since I’m from Texas, I went with that, since that was my perspective on New York. The story more or less dictated that the heroine would fit the Spunky Kid archetype. She’d be a bit of an underdog as a small-town girl relatively new to the big city and totally new to the magical world, but because she would be the one needing to help solve the magical world’s problems, she’d need a lot of gumption. She was very much the girl next door. She’d have a slightly sarcastic sense of humor and would be the kind of girl everyone saw as a kind of kid sister. Sometimes she might lack self-confidence, but she’d also be the one to cheer everyone else on. That’s all in the archetype.
Then I was able to start adding on details specific to the character using that archetype as a core. Everything I added needed to be consistent with that archetype, though not necessarily stereotypical. I needed to figure out what her internal and external story goals were. There’s a great book on this subject called Goal, Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon that explains how that works in a story, but for what I use to determine those goals, what I really like is going to sound strange. I use Dr. Phil. Self-help books may be too simplistic to really work with real people, but they’re perfect for developing characters. In his Life Strategies book, he’s got all these charts and worksheets for figuring out where you are in life, what you want, and how to go about getting it. He’s got a great worksheet on figuring out what you really want by working through why you want what you think you want — usually what you want isn’t so much that thing, but rather the feeling the thing gives you or even the feeling you get from doing what it takes to get that thing. This is perfect for starting with a character’s external goal and working through to find an internal goal.
So, Katie’s external goal was that she wanted to be some kind of success in New York so she wouldn’t have to admit to failure and go back home. Her internal goal was that she wanted to be special in some way, unique enough to be valuable and not blend into the crowd. So far, this isn’t exactly groundbreaking characterization. That’s your standard set-up for just about every girl-in-the-city story — spunky kid archetype, wants to make something of herself. But since I was also throwing in the twist about her being immune to magic and working with magical people, I figured I could get away with it — in fact, I might even need her to be kind of typical to make it work. If I’d been writing the standard chick lit novel, she’d have been a boring heroine because she’d have been the typical chick lit character reacting to typical chick lit things. But throwing her into this wacky situation, I needed her to be that ordinary and typical in order to get a strong reaction from her. Put a more extraordinary character in that situation and there’s no contrast or conflict. I think part of what makes this book work is the fact that she’s kind of an everywoman, she’s a type everyone instantly recognizes from all those other girl-in-the-city books, so people have a sense of what to expect from her, yet then there’s also the fun of seeing this familiar character type in such an unfamiliar setting, since this is NOT a typical fantasy heroine, by any means. Throwing her into a fantasy environment takes her out of her comfort zone and puts her into conflict with her environment.
Then I worked through some of those other charts about where she stood with her friends, romantically, financially, spiritually, etc. To keep with the Spunky Kid theme, I had her be kind of struggling financially, living with several roommates as a way of cutting expenses (again, since everything else in the book was going to have magic, that aspect of her life needed to be realistic and grounded — she couldn’t be living in that fabulous New York sitcom apartment that in real life would be worth a few million dollars). That led to the idea that she would be practical and frugal, but also showed she was a good enough friend that she’d held onto her college friendships and followed her friends across the country. I knew then that she’d be a younger sister (looking at birth order stuff), but I don’t think I gave her three older brothers until later. Growing up in the country and having worked in a small business meant she had a lot of practical skills. On one level, she had a lot of confidence from having grown up surrounded by a big, loving family and knowing how to take care of herself, but her relationship background was a lot rockier, so she wasn’t too confident there. With three overprotective big brothers, boys in school would have been reluctant to date her, and she’d have fallen into the “like a sister” trap. She also would have felt a bit out of it in the freewheeling New York dating scene because of her more traditional values. That was the aspect of her life where she had the greatest weakness and lack of confidence (which means that the end of book three was actually kind of a personal triumph for her because she was able to get past her insecurity in that area and not cling. I know a lot of people were upset by what happened — vaguing it up here to avoid bad spoilers — but I was rather proud of her, and her willingness to do that means she’ll be more deserving of whatever comes her way in the future, plus on a more equal footing rather than feeling constantly like she isn’t really worthy of that relationship).
So you can kind of see how the archetype is in there, and how it, plus the character background, plus the situation all dictate who she is as a person, and from there you can already get a sense of how she’ll react to situations. In fact, just knowing that much about the character dictated some of the plot the way it shaped up because it was about throwing her into situations that would bring out these aspects of her character — like the crucial point of getting the help they needed to deal with the situation involved her going on a date, and dating was her biggest weakness and the one area where she really lacked confidence. Those of you who’ve read Damsel Under Stress can also probably see why it had to end the way it did, based on that initial external goal — she had to face that fear to be able to move past it. If there’s one thing your character really does not want to do and dreads doing, you have to find a way to make her choose to do it. There’s no way past it if you want your character to reach her full potential.