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Want to Sell Your Story? Peel Away the Layers to Create Memorable Characters

In writing, characters should be like artichokes. You don't get to the heart until you do some serious work peeling away the layers. What the reader sees, as well as what other characters see when they meet a character, be it protagonist or a secondary character, will be superficial at first. Perhaps the character was too good to be true, and as time goes on, faults are revealed. Or maybe it's the other way around. An unlikeable character turns out to be golden inside. Terry Odell is an author of several romantic suspense books. Her next book out is Where Danger Hides (June).

When I received the following review from Publishers Weekly for Where Danger Hides(June 2011), my upcoming romantic suspense novel, I was thrilled that the reviewer liked it:

"Odell follows 2010's When Dangers Calls with this sizzling suspense tale. Dalton, "just Dalton," is a sweet-talking Texas black ops contractor equipped with a sharp mind, big muscles, an intriguing background tragedy that makes him cry over babies, and boatloads of sex appeal. Miri Chambers, manager of a shelter for wayward teens, is just his type: "proud, strong, intelligent, compassionate, and one hundred percent female," with a past she'd rather not reveal … "

Terry is excited to give away a free copy of her latest novel to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before. (Update: Diane won.)

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Guest coumn by Terry Odell, author of several
romantic suspense books. Her next book out is
Where Danger Hides (June; see a review above by Publishers
Weekly), which is available for pre-order now. She is a
member of the RWA, MWA, and ITW. Her writing has
garnered awards from The Lories, The Gayle Wilson
Award Of Excellence, Aspen Gold, and the Daphne du
Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense.
See her website here, and her blog here.

And what I liked best about the review? It focused on the characters, and to me, a book is all about the characters. Strong characters can shore up a weak plot, but weak characters won't help even the strongest story.

In writing, characters should be like artichokes. You don't get to the heart until you do some serious work peeling away the layers. What the reader sees, as well as what other characters see when they meet a character, be it protagonist or a secondary character, will be superficial at first. Perhaps the character was too good to be true, and as time goes on, faults are revealed. Or maybe it's the other way around. An unlikeable character turns out to be golden inside.

We spend a lot of time getting to know our characters so we'll know how they'll respond in any situation we subject them to. Or will we?

It's just as important to know how your character will behave when confronted with the unexpected. And, as authors, we need to keep the unexpected happening. After all, "Only Trouble is Interesting."

What happens when your hero finds himself in an unexpected environment? How will he cope? Does he grumble and complain? Does he make the best of it? Go into hiding until it passes? In Where Danger Hides, Dalton is a covert ops specialist. How does he respond when Miri drags him along to her shift as a "baby cuddler" and he's forced to face not only something he's unfamiliar with, but something that calls up memories he's tried to bury. Will he suck it up? Refuse? Explain? Or suddenly remember somewhere else he has to be?

Is your character someone who likes routine? If he walks into a favorite bar, does the bartender know what he's going to order? At our Sunday hangout, the staff likes to get to know its customers and what they order. We throw a monkey wrench into our bartender's evening because we rarely order the same drink two weeks running—but when we do, that throws him.

The best characters are the ones who have to cope with not having their creature comforts, or their professional tools. In a recent read, the hero was a chef renowned for his veal and lamb, and he prepared an exquisite meal to impress the heroine. Who, he discovered too late, was a strict vegetarian.

Or the hero who's a whiz with technology: What happens when he doesn't have any of his fancy equipment? Does he give up? Go into MacGyver mode and create a high-tech gizmo? Or utilize a totally new way to solve his problem, not relying on technology at all?

Maybe it's simple frustration. How does your character deal the little frustrations? What about the big ones? What does he do when he gets a flat? On a winding, muddy, mountain road? In the rain? With no cell phone coverage?

What about changing thinking patterns? Can he (to beat a dead cliché) get "out of the box"? Will he give up an alpha position if circumstances warrant it? Or will he refuse to defer to anyone?

And don't worry if you don't know this before you start writing. Characters develop over the course of the book, and part of the fun of writing is getting to know them.

Peeling away those character layers makes for three-dimensional characters—characters your readers will care about.

Terry is excited to give away a free copy of her latest novel to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before. (Update: Diane won.)

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