The Rayne Tour
Brandilyn Collins

Brandilyn Collins is a best-selling novelist known for her trademark Seatbelt Suspense™. These harrowing crime thrillers have earned her the tagline “Don’t forget to b r e a t h e …®”. She writes for Zondervan, the Christian division of HarperCollins Publishers, and is currently at work on her 19th book. Her first, A Question of Innocence, was a true crime published by Avon in 1995 and landed her on local and national TV and radio, including the Phil Donahue and Leeza talk shows. She’s also known for her distinctive book on fiction-writing techniques, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors (John Wiley & Sons), and often teaches at writers conferences.
Visit her blog at Forensics and Faith, and her website at Brandilyn to read the first chapters of all her books.

Personalizing Your Characters - Part III

Creating Three-Dimensional Characters

Last month we continued looking at my process for characterization I call Personalizing. If you haven’t read  Part I, and Part II, please do it before you proceed.

This month we take up the discussion of our young character who wants to pursue a career in the military. We left him last month with the discovery of an inner value (Personalizing step #2): proving himself to his father and grandfather (both military men) is more important than even his own integrity.

If this were your character, you could now probe further to find what trait will result from this inner value (step #3). Perhaps the young man will appear overly zealous in all he does, even to the point of being foolhardy, in order to achieve. Or perhaps he’ll be just the opposite— reluctant and cautious due to fear of failure.

Once you discover the trait, continue with the questioning to see if you can “hit bottom” again and reveal a specific mannerism (steps #4 and 5). If the trait is that the character borders on foolhardiness in order to prove himself, you might ask: How does he handle nervous energy when he faces a challenge? Does he try to hide it so he can appear calm, cool, and collected? If so, how well does he manage this? Even if he hides his nervousness well, is there a vulnerable part of his body to which the energy naturally flows? Perhaps he broke an arm by falling off a bicycle when he was too young to ride a two-wheeler—one of those early failures at trying to achieve for the sake of his father’s approval. The memory still eats at him, and as a result, he unconsciously flexes that arm when he’s nervous.

For any character, once you’ve gone through all five personalizing steps with one line of questioning, start the process all over again by going back to Level B and picking up another line of questioning until you again “hit bottom” and discover another inner value. Then probe your character until you discover the resulting trait and mannerism(s). Continue your questioning in this way until you have discovered all the inner values, traits, and mannerisms of your character that you possibly can. Your character will then be a unique, personalized individual.

We’ve now looked at two very different characters going through the Personalizing process: a newly rich woman and a young man wanting a career in the military. They are merely examples, and the questioning could have gone far differently if these were your characters. Now take your protagonist through the Personalizing process. And any other important character in your book—perhaps a second protagonist or a list of supporting characters. Each important character in your novel should be well-defined and unique—and so deserves Personalizing.

As you go through the Personalizing process with your characters, keep these three important points in mind:

1. The personalizing process is not a “one-shot deal.”

You will find yourself returning to its steps again and again. No matter how diligently you follow the process, characters just don’t tend to reveal themselves all at once. As you write your novel, they’ll hint at new facts about themselves, opening up new lines of questioning for you to follow. Take the time to go through the process again. No doubt you’ll discover new truths about your character.

2. Your character’s inner values are not separate entities.

Sometimes they work together to produce resulting traits. Sometimes they mitigate each other. As an example, let’s return to the newly rich woman with the inner value that her self-worth is tied to her money. This inner value could result in the trait of acting proud or even flaunting her wealth. However, as you pursue other lines of questioning, you might discover that she also possesses the inner value of placing the utmost importance on other people’s approval. What will be the result of these two inner values working together? It depends on which one is stronger. If the need for approval is stronger, when this woman is with others who don’t value or possess money as she does, she may tone down her flaunting in order to gain their approval. Or if she’s with others who are wealthy, she may flaunt all the more to be accepted.

3. The personalizing process can work backward.

Let’s say right off the bat your character tells you that he doesn’t walk; he strides like a superhero on a mission. Don’t respond, “No, no, I’m not supposed to know that yet.” Instead, ask him why. Work your way up a line of questioning from step #4 to 3 to 2 and 1. When you do this, one of two things will happen. Either you will find the inner value that supports that superhero stride or you will discover that you’ve misheard your character, for the truths you uncover will not support that manner of walking. In the latter case, be ruthless about tossing that stride aside, for if you insist on keeping it, you won’t be true to the character.

Important Tip: If your character ever surprises you by doing something you wouldn’t have expected—you have just stumbled upon an inner trait you didn’t know the character had. Don’t stop the creative flow—write until the scene is done. But then stop and explore this inner value. See where else it might lead.

Second tip: Try Personalizing yourself. I guarantee you’ll learn something about yourself.


Excerpted from Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors by Brandilyn Collins.