Many authors (myself included!) are stronger in either plot or character, and find the second skill to be very tricky to master. I’ve always been a plot girl: coming up with a big premise and hook comes naturally to me, whereas it’s taken me longer to get a handle on character development. I think a big reason for that is that I usually come up with the story first, characters second.
With my debut novel, Timeless, I knew I wanted to write a love story about a boy and girl who live one hundred years apart, and who fall in love when one of them is able to travel back in time. The excitement of that idea propelled me to write the proposal that eventually became the novel—but it wasn’t until my second draft that I came up with the characteristics that made my two leads, Philip and Michele, uniquely them. In a lot of ways, my characters reveal themselves to me over time, over the course of the plots I put them through. However, after three genre novels, I wanted to try something different. I wanted to push myself to write a character-driven story, and that’s how The Girl in the Picture was born.
The plot came to me first with Girl, as usual, but this time the characters took center stage. I think the reason this book was different is because I made the choice to imbue my two leads, Nicole and Lana, with the light and dark sides of myself.
Nicole is a virtuoso violinist who lives and breathes music, whereas I started writing and recording songs at age fourteen and pursued music for years, before I decided to follow my other passion (writing books!). So creating Nicole was like getting to write an alternate version of my younger self, whereas Lana represents and portrays those feelings so many of us have but don’t want to admit to: envy, insecurity, the need to be number one. By putting a little piece of me into her—the girl with such high expectations of herself, who battles the deep-down fear that she may not be enough—I turned a character who was planned to be the nemesis into something so much more. In the process, I learned that the best way to create authentic, memorable characters is to look within and pull things from yourself—even for a character who seems far removed from you.
Over the course of writing this book, I discovered that finding a common ground on a deeper level with each of my characters helped them become so much more authentic. Similarly, by incorporating aspects of yourself into a character that risks falling into “stock villain” territory, you can create a much more three-dimensional antagonist—someone that readers might end up surprised to actually be rooting for!
When you’re stumped on a character, try asking a few key questions: What is it about myself that makes me uncomfortable, or on edge? What am I avoiding in my life? What am I afraid of? What do I want the most?
Chances are, those questions will lead you to the story you’re meant to tell—and to the characters who will bring it to life.