I'm going to continue my series of interviews about character development with my sister, novelist Chris Eboch. I thought it might be interesting to see if a novelist approaches character differently than a screenwriter.
Chris Eboch's novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, an ancient Egyptian mystery; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and the Haunted series: The Ghost on the Stairs, The Riverboat Phantom, and The Knight in the Shadows. In Haunted, a brother and sister travel with their parents’ ghost hunter TV show and try to help the ghosts, while keeping their activities secret from meddling grownups. Read samples at www.chriseboch.com.
Chris also writes for adults as Kris Bock. Rattled launches her new romantic suspense series featuring treasure hunting adventures in the Southwest. Read the first three chapters at www.krisbock.com or visit the Chris Eboch author page on Amazon for info about all of her books.
Q. What is required for a compelling character?
I think the best characters are fresh, real, and individual. Writers sometimes try to make a character more "universal" by avoiding specifics about their appearance, background or whatever, but that just makes the character vague and unknowable. Or writers try to make somebody wildly unique, and wind up with a character that doesn't feel real. But some of the best and most beloved characters are fairly ordinary, with perhaps some quirks. They're the kinds of people you would want to have as friends, because they are interesting and fun, but not so crazy that they are exhausting.
Of course, it depends on the genre. A wacky comedy may need wacky characters, while a romance needs characters you can like and care about, maybe even characters who remind you of yourself, so you can imagine you're sharing those adventures.
Q. What is your approach to building a character?
I tend to start with plot, a situation with inherent drama. Then I think about the best character for that plot. It has to be somebody who can handle the situation, but only with difficulty. In other words, the situation cannot be so far beyond the character that their success is unbelievable, but it shouldn't be so easy that we never doubt their ability to succeed.
The character should be someone who will change over the course of the story, who will learn and grow from the challenges. Sometimes the character will just pop into my head and start talking. Other times it's more of a struggle and I may tweak a character a lot before I get her right. I've learned not to start writing until my character feels real to me, or I just get in trouble. If you feel like you're moving your characters around like little action figures, that's probably a bad sign. If your characters occasionally dig in their heels and refuse to do what you want them to do, because it's out of character, you've probably created someone real.
Q. How much back story do you create for your main character before you start writing?
I have a long list of questions you can ask about your character, covering every detail of their childhood, family life, and favorite food, color, etc. But if a character feels real to me, I don't need that list, and if the character doesn't feel real, I'm not sure the list would help. I focus more on a few major events in their background that influence who they are and what they want.
For example, in my romantic suspense novel, Rattled, Erin has always been a "good girl" who studied and worked hard and followed the rules. But she's not satisfied with her life, so she's trying to be more adventurous. That's her basic personality. Her last long-term relationship was with a guy who undermined her self-confidence, so she doesn't see what a catch she is. That affects how she deals with the hero. She's a history professor who started investigating legends of lost treasures for fun. That leads her into this particular adventure, when she find the clue to a great treasure. Those are the big things I needed to know to start the story. All the little things fell into place as I wrote. Because she felt real to me, I knew how she would react in each situation that came up, even if didn't know everything about her past.
Q. What is the most important thing(s) you need to know about your character before you start writing?
You need to know what your character wants and what she needs -- or what she thinks she wants and what she really wants. If that want and need are opposed, you'll have more conflict and a more interesting story. As an example, in my middle grade novel The Eyes of Pharaoh, the main character is a temple dancer in ancient Egypt who wants to win a great dance contest. When one of her best friends disappears, she has to choose between preparing for her contest and finding/saving her friend. Making that choice helps her figure out what's really important to her. At the start of the story, she would have said winning the dance contest was the most important thing in the world. But is it really?
You can write a story where a character wants something without needing anything else, and that can work so long as the struggles to get it are hard enough. (Witness James Bond.) But if you make a character choose between two things, or struggle to get something only to realize it's not what he really needs, you'll have a more complex story and most likely a deeper theme. Plus, there's often an opportunity for comic relief -- in The Eyes of Pharaoh, while the main character is spying on soldiers and princes, some of the other temple dancers are spying on her to find out what she has planned for the contest. The subplot with the dancers adds some levity to the more serious mystery.
Q. Do you base your characters on people you know?
Generally my characters aren't like anyone I know, except perhaps in small details here and there. In Rattled, I did base the best friend on a good friend of mine, but I changed the real-life man to a fictional woman. And once I started writing, I didn't really think of the character as my real-life friend anymore. She became her own person.
Sometimes a friend will read one of my books and say, "Oh, that character is based on so-and-so." Or "That character is like you." Usually I'm surprised by the connection, but I suppose there are parts of me in everything I write. For my Haunted series about a brother and sister traveling with a ghost hunter TV show, I write in the voice of a 13-year-old boy. I don't even know any 13-year-old boys. After the books came out, one of my friends suggested that I could write about the brother/sister relationship because of my own experience growing up with an older brother. Huh, who knew?
Thanks Chris! Next I'll interview Eric Heisserer, writer of A Nightmare on Elm Street and the upcoming Final Destination 5 and The Thing. He'll also soon be directing a film from his own script called Hours.