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 I

In my book Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors, I introduce a process of characterization I call Personalizing. I created this technique of “interviewing” your character based on the three levels of characterization named by Constantin Stanislavsky, known as the father of method acting. In each of these levels a deeper probing of the character gives rise to more personalized traits, which in turn reveal specific mannerisms. Stanislavsky’s disappointment lay in that many actors stopped at the first or second level. Yet only at the third is true individualization reached.

We novelists often have a similar problem. We tend to slap mannerisms and traits onto our characters with no real understanding of the characters’ core values—the deep beliefs that make them the people they are. The results are stereotypical, cardboard characters. True characterization results from starting on the inside and working out.

In a nutshell, here are the steps to the Personalizing. We’ll go through each one to fully explain the process.

1. Begin a line of questioning with your character and pursue it until you “hit bottom.” Hitting bottom means you arrive at the “So what?”—or logical conclusion—of that line of questioning.

2. The final “So what?” question will reveal a core truth or “inner value” about your character.

3. In turn, this inner value will give rise to a trait.

4. Then pursue this line of questioning even further to see if you can “hit bottom” a second time.

5. If you can “hit bottom” again, you will discover a specific mannerism based on the inner value.

Now, to explain this process.

Level A: Division of characters into general categories such as socio-economic level, age, gender, and career

Imagine the quick introduction of a game-show contestant, and you’ve got level A. “An English professor from Omaha with three children,” or “A retired dog-trainer who loves to fish.” Getting your character to answer Level A’s basic question of “Who are you?” is easy enough. Your character is a military man, a beautiful and wealthy woman, a homeless person, or an elderly gentleman. Any such category automatically brings to mind an array of potential mannerisms. In walking, for example, someone in the military may tend to march, while a beautiful and rich woman may strut, a homeless person listlessly ambles, and an elderly gentleman shuffles. Or in eating, the military man may clear his plate with a quick deliberateness, while the rich woman revels in the ambiance of fine food and etiquette. This level of characterization is, of course, necessary, and it’s true that major divisions such as career and socio-economics begin to define a person. But we can easily imagine the stereotypical disasters we’ll create by stopping here:

• An abused, abandoned romantic heroine = fearful, feels unworthy
• A detective who’s clawed his way out of the slums = chip on his shoulder
• An elderly man with unrealized dreams = bitter, sour-faced

Let me hasten to add that the above aren’t bad in themselves. Your detective from the slums may indeed have a chip on his shoulder. The question is, how to move him from mere stereotype to a unique persona?

Level B: Sub-category of the first level, moving toward specifics

At this level we can begin to imagine some distinctions within a main category as we further define the character and how he or she fits into our story. You most likely will already know the answers to basic questions in Level B. For example, is your military man a private, a major, a general? Or is he in a specialized unit such as the Navy SEALs? Is the homeless person new to the streets, or someone who’s lived there a long time? In his working days, was the elderly gentleman employed in a factory, or was he a high-level executive?

Answers to these queries will lead you to numerous lines of specific questioning. Let’s say your story involving the military is about a young man who has just enlisted in the Marines. Perhaps this young man is following in the footsteps of both his father and grandfather. How will this family history affect his attitude toward the rigorous demands of the Marines? Obviously, this young man’s actions and outlook will not be based on the years of military training inherent to a general. But what if his grandfather was a general? After growing up hearing his grandfather’s stories and learning at the old man’s knee, might your character think he knows more than other new recruits? Might he approach his peers with a bit of a cocky attitude? Or might he have placed his grandfather on such a pedestal that he feels he can never begin to measure up?

Or let’s say your character is that beautiful and wealthy woman. Is she newly rich, or was she born into money? A character with newfound wealth may harbor a different attitude toward money than a woman who was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. If your story is about the homeless man, exactly how long has he been homeless? A man who’s recently lost his job won’t view the streets with the familiarity of a person who’s been homeless for years.

Although at this level we are beginning to see some of the attitudes of our characters, the questioning up to this point only begins to scratch the surface. Therefore, any mannerisms or traits attached now will remain too generic. But it’s just so tempting to stop here. We figure we know the basic information on our characters, some of their perceptions of life, and we know the story or at least have a general idea of the story. Time to assign a few personality quirks and gestures and get on with the writing.

Not so fast. The fun begins at Level C.

We’ll explore that next month.


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