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 II

Creating Three-Dimensional Characters

Last month we began a look at my process for characterization I call Personalizing. If you haven’t read part one yet, please do so here before you proceed.

This month we take up the discussion with Level C of characterizing:

Level C: Personalizing the Character.

At this level the character becomes a unique person, with inner values and a resulting set of traits and mannerisms. You can now get to know your character by asking questions that naturally follow the answers you’ve received in Levels A and B.

For example, let’s return to one of the characters mentioned in Part I: the newly rich woman. Continuing the line of questioning you began in Level B, you might ask: Would she view money as less or more important than a woman who was born to it? The trick is to play out each line of questioning until you “hit bottom.” Say you continue questioning your newly rich woman to find out just how important money is to her. The answer: very important. Probe further. Is the money more important than friends? Family? How differently would she feel about herself if she didn’t have the money? Very differently, she admits; my self-identity would be gone. Aha! You’ve just “hit bottom”—the “So what?”—with this line of questioning (step #2 in the Personalizing process). You’ve discovered one of the core truths, or inner values, of your character: her self-worth is based not on who she is or what she’s done but what she has. This “inner value” lies at the very heart of your character and will drive many of her actions and desires.

Now, how will this inner value translate into outward attitudes (step #3)? Question your character further until a resulting trait is revealed. You may discover she is proud and bragging about her wealth. Or maybe she’s tightfisted, for if she ever lost her money, what would she be? The key here is not to leave this step until you understand how the inner value will directly affect your character’s outward personality.

Once you’ve discovered the trait linked to your character’s inner value, continue questioning to see if you can “hit bottom” a second time (step #4). If you do, you’ll discover one or more mannerisms tied to the inner value. For example, you might ask: With a self-worth based on money, what has she spent her money on? Let’s say you discover she’s bought herself a large diamond ring that she always wears. This information has singled out her hands. What else do you know about her hands? Is she proud of them? Perhaps she tells you they’re not as attractive as she’d like, even though the nails are groomed and polished. If it weren’t for the ring—a sign of the wealth by which she defines herself—she wouldn’t draw attention to her hands. But she wants to show off that ring.

This is the second and final bottom of this line of questioning. At this point, you can proceed to personalizing step #5. Your knowledge of this character can now translate into specifics of how she will use her hands. She may talk with them, spread her fingers in graceful poses, rest them on the table at dinner rather than in her lap. Or she may have the mannerism of tapping a nail against her cheek as she’s pondering something, or on a table when she’s frustrated.

For another example, let’s return to the young Marine recruit we left in Level B. Say you discover this young man feels he can never measure up to his father’s and grandfather’s expectations. So: What’s his definition of “measuring up”? Perhaps he says measuring up means a lifetime career in which he attains the rank

of general, and it means upholding honor and integrity as expected of a strong Marine. That’s a mighty lofty definition. Probe further. What part of this definition came from his father? His grandfather? The character’s responses might surprise you. For instance, attaining the rank of general may not necessarily have come from the grandfather.

Let’s say you discover your character has a difficult relationship with both men because of their constant pushing him to achieve. The grandfather has always been dissatisfied with the performance of his own son, your character’s father. And the grandfather has now placed high expectations regarding honor and integrity firmly upon your character’s shoulders. Further, your character’s father seeks his own redemption in the old man’s eyes through his son’s accomplishments. The father is the one who has decided that the young man must become a general.

Now you are at the bottom of this line of questioning (step #1). Time for a “So what?” question: Which is more important: integrity or becoming a general? What if telling the truth about a certain situation meant that he would be passed over for a promotion? Which would he choose? Let’s say the character answers: If I knew I would not be discovered, I’d lie rather than lose the chance for promotion, because if I can reach the rank of general, I’ll prove myself to both my father and my grandfather.

Aha! Once again a major discovery! The character’s answer has revealed an inner value (step #2): Proving himself to his father and grandfather is more important even than personal integrity. This inner value will drive the character’s emotions and choices.

Now, what traits and mannerisms might this inner value give rise to? We’ll discuss that in Part III next month.


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