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Take Your Warrior to Lunch

2002 by Jennifer L. Oberlander
All rights reserved.

I shifted about nervously in my chair as I sat across from the tall, muscular, dark-skinned woman lounging back on the large couch. Her signature crimson cloak danced about her muscular form as she sipped upon a tankard of ale.

"So what is it you want?" she asked, setting down the mug with a bang on the table.

"Always to the point," I remarked.

"That's how you've portrayed me," she replied.

"True," I conceded, offering her a sandwich of roast beef. "I just wanted to chat about what your view is on the world and such."

"You really want to know?" I nodded in the affirmative. Taking a deep breath, she began to relay her feelings about certain matters.

This opening may be a little dramatic for a piece on character creation, but it does demonstrate my own method of developing characters that are memorable and real. That is, one must know the character as if they were your best friend, one who confides in you their deepest darkest secrets.

Most of the time in the guidelines for submission to any periodical or novel, the publisher states that they prefer character-driven stories. I've often found this remark amusing, since with the possible exception of the horror genre, the characters are the focus of any yarn. Consider the mysteries of Sarah Paretsky: it is the wisecracking private detective V.I. Warshawski who is the focus of her tales, not the city of Chicago. We know how V.I. feels about such small matters as housework and that she loves opera. We even have insight into her background: she's the daughter of a Polish beat cop and a former Italian opera singer, and her mother died when she was young. All this added detail makes the character believable and allows us to understand her motivations.

In roughly the same genre, Lori Lake, who recently was chosen as one of the most popular authors through a readers' poll in Lavender Magazine, rises above the rest of her peers by giving the main characters in her tales a background and family history. We know why they act the way they do, and as such we can feel for them as real people.

Most fantasy is the same way as well; Lackey's Tamra and Kethry jump immediately to mind. And of course one must not forget Tolkien's memorable characters of Frodo and Gandalf and, last but by far not least, Sam Wise Gamgee.

Now that we have established that characters make the story, how does one go about creating them in a believable fashion? There is a plethora of personality profile devices used to explain various traits that form a personality. I have never found much use for them. No person can fit into a single set of guidelines. Humans are complex creatures with many facets to their persona. So unless your characters are incredibly shallow, they should also be complicated with many facets.

I usually start creating a new character by writing down a few basic physical traits. What do they like to drink? What is their education? I also might add whether they are single or have a partner-along with sexual orientation- what their favorite color is, and anything else I can think of, including what their parents were like and what kind of childhood they had. Once completed, it should resemble a profile sheet with a few basic traits sketched out. From that, one can build the personality.

Even something as simple as their preferred drink can be important. Why does the woman prefer beer to wine? As an example, a martini tends to be a drink associated with businesspeople. If they are not from this social stratum, they should have a reason for doing this.

A particular preference can also reveal a bit about one's personality. Keeping with the drink theme, James Bond's signature cocktail is a vodka martini, shaken not stirred. This tells us the man is a sophisticated individual, yet because of the unique directions as to how it must be prepared, we know he is someone who likes things his way and usually gets what he wants. We also can discern, even if we aren't familiar with mixology, this is not the normal method of preparation and so he marches to the beat of a different drummer, so to speak.

As you can see, the author may reveal a great deal about a person just from one simple trait. Always have a reason for a character to do or like something. Don't have them prefer wine to beer simply because you do. They are not you, well not exactly; you must let the characters be themselves.

Next part is to simply think about the character a bit, pretend you are having a private chat with them. How do they react to certain situations? You should know your main character intimately.

Is the character a romantic but fears intimacy and falling in love? If so, why? Do they mask the character flaw with bluster, or are they quiet and retiring when the subject arises? Why did they choose this particular defense? As the author, you should know why they act this way.

With these steps, it is not a matter of guessing or figuring out what your character will do in a scene. You know.

Even the most minor characters deserve the same consideration, though perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent. Keep your world populated with living individuals, not two-dimensional figures. Believe me, readers will notice the difference and appreciate the tale much more. Also, don't forget the villains in the piece. The main villain should be as real as the hero. Remember, they have motivations for their selfish actions and may not see themselves as evil at all. Most people don't see themselves as truly bad and are only doing what they rationalize is best.

"Is that all?" The statuesque, dark-hued woman inquired as she rose up from her seat on the couch.

"I think so," I replied, taking a sip from my glass of wine and making a few more notes on my pad. "Thank you for your time." She gave me a quick nod and faded from view, back into my mind.

Refilling my glass, I returned to my keyboard to spin my yarn of derring-do.

Jennifer Oberlander
Author of Turn of the Wheel
Winner of story of the year 2001 in Demensions for "Monsters"
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