More Than Skin Deep: Getting to Know Your Characters from the Outside In
by Sarah Sundin
My favorite part of writing is getting to know my characters. Although I was a chemistry major in college, I took quite a few psychology classes for fun. As a student, I loved contemplating the interplay of nature and nurture and life experiences, and as an author, I love it even more.
In my newly released novel, When Tides Turn (March 2017), I enjoyed writing from the point-of-view of Ensign Quintessa Beaumont, a Navy WAVE in World War II. It was also a challenge because Tess is my opposite. I’m an introvert; Tess is an extrovert. I’m a homebody; Tess lives for fun.
Getting to know a character means looking at nature, nurture, and life experiences.
When authors start character development, we usually start with nature. What does she look like? Eyes? Hair? Face? Build? What’s her personality like? What natural talents and gifts does she have? In Tess’s case, she’s sparkling, lively, and fun-loving. These are the types of qualities we notice when we first meet a person, but they only give us a surface knowledge of the character.
Going deeper, we look at the character’s upbringing—the nurture. What was her family like? Rich or poor? Loving or distant or abusive? Harsh or lenient? Was she the oldest, middle, or baby? What was her childhood like?
Tess is the only daughter of an acclaimed artist, much doted on by her parents and in the art community. When her parents noticed her becoming conceited, they moved to a quiet Midwestern town and cracked down on Tess, encouraging compassion. This upbringing contributes to her strengths—her confidence and her care for the outcast. But it also contributes to her weaknesses—a tendency to selfishness and entitlement.
Going even deeper, we can explore the character’s life experiences. What choices has she made—good or bad—that have made her who she is today? What trauma has she endured? What joy has she relished? What difficulty has she faced? Has she overcome adversity and grown stronger—or has life beaten her down?
Because Tess is beautiful, gregarious, and bright, everything comes easily to her. But recent failures have shaken her self-worth. She comes to realize that she puts herself first, and she’s appalled. With World War II raging, women around America are contributing to the war effort—but Tess isn’t. She decides she’s nothing but a pretty face, and she wants to be more. Of course, as an author, I make this very difficult for her.
The interplay of nature and nurture and life experience brings out fears and flaws, strengths and weaknesses, quirks and habits, goals and dreams unique to the character. This is what makes her “human” and relatable.
Just as we get to know our friends slowly over time, from the outside in, as stories and traits are revealed, the author gets to know her characters. Then she figures out the best way to torture them.
In love. Because we care for our characters and want them to grow, to overcome their sins and fears and flaws, and to become the best people they can be.
Read Sarah’s article, “17 Questions to Ask When Researching for Your Historical Novel.“
Registration is still open for the Morning Mentoring Clinics.
Sarah Sundin will be teaching a Fiction Morning Mentoring Clinic and a workshop on “Historical Research Without the Headaches.” She is the author of nine historical novels, including Anchor in the Storm and When Tides Turn (March 2017). Her novel Through Waters Deep was a finalist for the 2016 Carol Award, won the INSPY Award, and was named to Booklist’s “101 Best Romance Novels of the Last 10 Years.” A mother of three, Sarah lives in California. www.sarahsundin.com.