Instead of a single book review this month, I’m going to share a few books that help me with the biggest and best part of my creative writing process—building characters. These are not books to read about writing, or a manual, or step-by-step “how-to,” but tools to pick up and jar your muse when you need a push into unfamiliar territory. These books will help you brainstorm, develop, and grow your characters until they are real and jump off the page. Characters make a book come alive, they are who your reader will connect to, and they do the heavy-work of telling your story. Their development is worth some extra time.
When my characters go from a sketchy idea to someone I can actually see in my mind’s eye and start talking to me, I trust that the rest of the story is going to come. Lots of hard work is ahead, but I have characters on my side, and wow, can they ever drive a book! There are tools to help full character realization come faster. Use these books to brainstorm and build, try some aspects onto your character, toss our or bypass what doesn’t work, but when one does, delve a little deeper to see why. What is the motivation behind the trait? What happened that this character got this particular worldview, fear, desire, set of goals?
Many writing books focus on technique or writing inspiration, but Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, written by psychologist Linda N. Edelstein, PH.D., is something a little different. A look into psychological types and traits, this is also a fascinating read for anyone interested in going beneath the surface to find out what makes people tick. Writer’s Guide to Character Traits isn’t too in-depth to use (as some psychology books can be). The book is presented in a clear, organized manner and is easy to use. And, it’s fun.
What? A book on character traits fun? Yep. In addition to helping with character development, what a great brainstorming tool. Leaf through or blindly choose a page, then write from the character traits and motivations you see there. Use the book to spark ideas or get yourself to write something outside of your comfort range.
Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson is a book based on an ancient system developed to understand the human personality. I discovered this little gem while working in the corporate world. The book’s original intention was to be used for understanding of individuals working within a group dynamic, but in recent years, studying Enneagrams have become the basis for personal growth and understanding. An excellent part of the book is the attention to “The Core Dynamics” which delve into understanding the motivations, pattern of attitudes and behaviors of each of the types. Hmmm, sounds like character building to me! This book comes with a warning: if you use it on yourself, friends, or family, a deeper understanding and better communication may ensue.
Another favorite tool I use is The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease. I got the idea of studying body language from reading a book on acting. Actors develop a vocabulary of gestures for characters, and you can do the same when developing characters on a page. Not only can you increase the level of meaningful gestures and actions in a story, but you can develop a gesture vocabulary for each of your characters and enhance their responses with a big dose of “show don’t tell.” (I wrote an entire blog on the subject you can read here if you missed it.) You can also use The Definitive Book of Body Language to tie gestures into your character’s core fears and feelings.
Take a look at these books and see if they have something to offer your writing process. These aren’t books that will develop characters for you (you and your muse need to do the hard work yourself) but tools to jar loose ideas and different aspects of your characters for you to contemplate and analyze. And look out or you may find yourself analyzing yourself and your friends!
Thanks, Kathy. I love this kind of stuff. Back in my corporate management days, I had workshops on some of this. Little did I know I’d need the info later!
Thanks Ann! Who knew our corporate days would come in so handy for writing? :o)
I appreciate the mini-reviews, Kathy. Will check out all three books ASAP.
I threw my characters together blindly in my WIP, with very little consideration of how they might interact, how strong or weak they might be in many ways, and generally treated them as an afterthought to the plot. Shame on me.
Hi Chris! Thanks! I always just throw stuff together for my first draft too. Hey, that’s what revision is all about, right? 🙂
Julie Tallard Johnson
You are a gold mine. I realize as a therapist for over 30 years I may have much of what I need for character development! Thanks Kathy.
Ha, Julie! How true! I wish I’d had some training myself as that would be more than enough to help build characters 🙂
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