What Makes Great Characters Outstanding
by Dr. Shirley B. Garrett
I’m a psychologist as well as a writer, so characterization is important to me in both the characters I write and the ones I enjoy reading. My personal goal as a writer is for the psychology of each character to be accurate and provide satisfaction to the reader, without becoming too technical.
The secret to good characterization is to understand each character before you begin writing. My characters are so real to me in my mind; I know how they speak, move, and dress.
One of my favorite characters is Lula in Janet Evanovich’s, Stephanie Plum novels. She was a minor character in, One for the Money and has become an important secondary player, providing comedic relief throughout the series. Everything from her ever-changing hair color down to her too tight, poison green mini skirt says reformed “ho” trying to make a fashion statement in her new straight lifestyle. Janet doesn’t have to tell the reader that this character is anything but subtle. She shows it by having Lula drive a red Firebird, bling everything in sight, and navigate life in four-inch, knock-off, designer heels.
Know what drives each main and supporting character both inside and out. Lula’s internal drive is to heal her past and gain a healthy self-esteem. Like so many, she believes if she puts enough shiny red nail polish over the stinky stuff of her life, that she’ll achieve her external goal of acceptance, respect, and maybe even love. Despite this external focus, (If I look beautiful, I must be fantastic) the writer manages to let the reader understand deep rivers of light and dark run beneath her unique, bedazzled wardrobe.
You relay a good deal of information about a character by the people and places they frequent. Lula made her debut in the series as a prostitute working a corner on Stark Street. She changed her life after a near-death assault and now works for a bail bondsman by assisting Stephanie Plum, an inept, yet persistent bounty hunter. Lula still lives in the same place but operates on the right side of the law.
A character’s coping mechanisms are also revealing. In Sizzling Sixteen Lula stated, “There’s four ways to handle stress. There’s drugs, there’s alcohol, there’s sex, and there’s doughnuts. I go with sex and doughnuts.”
Another coping mechanism, denial about her size, is revealed by her insistence on squeezing her plus-size body into clothes so small they present a ripping hazard. While denying she’s overweight, and rationalizing it with numerous excuses, she reveals the truth by her constant shift from one crazy diet to another.
All of these behaviors are important, but a true craftsman has such a strong voice for each character, the reader knows who’s talking by the way they speak, the pronunciation, word choice, and cadence of the speech.
Bringing main and supporting characters to life in a reader’s mind does take a bit of effort—but it brings much pleasure to them. Happy readers want to revisit their favorite characters again and again.
Dr. Shirley B. Garrett, Psy.D, LPC, DAC, ASG is a writer, professional speaker, a Licensed Professional Counselor, and a nationally certified Doctoral Addictions Counselor. Her self-help book, Stop the Craziness: Simple Life Solutions is an easy to read toolbox of simple solutions to help people improve the quality of their lives, and is available on Amazon in paperback and eBook formats. She has completed her first psychological thriller/mystery, Deadly Compulsions, and her first chick lit novel, Hot Flash Divas. Both are seeking adoption by an agent or publisher.
4 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: Dr. Shirley B. Garrett – What Makes Great Characters Outstanding”
Thank you for your terrific advice about secondary characters and your examples. You’ve inspired me to revisit my manuscript and take a closer look at my secondary characters.
So glad I could help. It’s so easy to get focused on the POV character and forget how secondary characters enrich a novel. I’ve read some books where I actually liked a few of the secondary characters more. Good luck with your book.
Thanks for the insights, Dr. Garrett. I find it easier to know how my characters will react to any situation if I create a profile for them, right down to how they may have gotten a tiny scar on a cheek. I just have to make sure that almost all of that doesn’t end up in an info dump. I want the reader to know who they are by what they say and what they do. I hadn’t given the secondary characters as much attention, but now I will. Thanks again. Marilyn (aka “cj”)
You’re a smart writer C. J. Character profiles are essential. You are also smart not to use it all at once in a boring data dump, because it is sooo tempting. That leaves more to sprinkle in future novels in the series. The same with research. I do all that hard work and use only about a third. I’ve come to think of this type of stuff like salt. Too little and you wonder why you bothered. Too much, and it ruins the outcome. The right amount can make a novel a delectable encounter.