Monday, December 04, 2006

RLH: Knowing My Characters by Heart

When I start a new novel, I don't always have one of those wonderful full-blown ideas waiting in the wings. Or sometimes I have nothing more concrete than, “I want to tell the story of four women friends on the homefront during WWII.” (That was where I began with The Victory Club.) If that's the situation, usually I go to my baby name books and start looking for the names of my characters. I don’t know why this works for me, but it does. When I come across just the right names – I know them when I see them – I envision them in my mind, and little by little, they tell me who they are and what's about to happen to them.

After my story idea begins to gel and expand – and sometimes after I’ve written a few chapters – I stop to write the first person autobiographies of my main characters, telling their history from birth to the time my novel opens. These autobiographies are written in stream-of-consciousness mode, meaning I don’t stop to edit or think or analyze. Thinking and analyzing get in the way at this point. This is a time for my creativity to come out and play. No rules apply. I have fun with them.

An opening might begin something like this:
My name is Sarah Johnson and I was born in Denver in 1892. My mother was just a girl of sixteen and unmarried. She was in love, but the man who fathered me didn’t feel the same way. When she got pregnant, her parents threw her out on the street. She never saw them again.

My mother found work as an actress with a traveling theater company, and my early years were spent sitting backstage, watching shows while sitting on big wooden trunks. Sometimes I napped in piles of old costumes or curtains.

I write these autobiographies in long hand rather than on the computer. It seems to work better for me. I keep going like that for about five pages or so. Some are much longer, some shorter. It all depends upon the character. I listen for the particular voice of the character, too, hearing their perfect diction or their atrocious accents or other speech patterns.

Most of what I write will never make it into my novel. Some of it will have to be modified. Perhaps my story must take place in 1925 for some reason, but I need Sarah to be younger than 33. So I will change the year she was born.

However, the main purpose of writing these autobiographies is to create the back story of my characters. We are all the sum total of what has happened to us in the past. We behave as we do because of what happened to us last month, last year, and when we were children. If I know my characters intimately, if I know that when Sarah was five she was in a runaway wagon and that when she was nine she saw an actor fall of the stage and die, then I will know how she will react when certain things happen to her in my novel. Her actions will ring true because she will not behave out of character. I am aware of her history and her motivations.

Of all the tools that I use as a novelist, writing first person autobiographies of my characters is the most vital. When I come to know my characters intimately, then my readers can know them that way, too.

It can be tricky to create deep characterization in novellas, which is why a couple of the reviews I’ve received for A Carol for Christmas pleased me so much. Dale Lewis of Hope to Home said, "Hatcher builds deep characters within a limited number of pages." Ane Mulligan of Novel Reviews said, "I'm in awe at how Hatcher can build such deep characterization into a short novella." It's hard to express just how good those comments made me feel.

That's the same sort of thing I am looking for when I pick up a book to read. I want the writer to make the characters real to me, to let me see their world through their eyes. If they succeed, I learn from them. I develop empathy, and then I am changed myself.

Robin Lee Hatcher began writing her first novel in 1981 and saw it published, with all its imperfections intact, in 1984. Fifteen years and thirty books later, she followed God's call on her heart to write Christian fiction. In October 2006, her 50th book was released. A Carol for Christmas is a story about the desires of the heart and how God wants to change and use them for His glory. Visit her web site at and her blog at


At 2:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Robin,

A character autobiography in first person is something I've felt for a little while I needed to do for my WIP. For my main characters, but also for several non-viewpoint but important secondary characters whose motivations have been a little shifty. I've the idea that if I hear their first person voice I'll have a much better grasp on who they are and what they want now. Nothing--or very little--that need be told the reader, perhaps, but which nevertheless will come bleeding through their dialogue and actions. I'm glad to know this technique works so well for you. Hope it does as well for me.

At 3:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, what a great idea. I'll have to give that a try.


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