Characters and Making Conversation

HarperColorSmall~ By Cheryl Harper

I hope I’m not alone in a group of writers when I confess that I am not great at cocktail party mingling. If I can’t find a knot of friends and insert myself, I find another person with invisible hives brought on by crowds and the unfamiliar so we can bond. By the end of that long conversation, I might know more about that kindred spirit than either one of us is really comfortable with. I think I must have one of those faces.  In the time it takes a cashier to check me out at the grocery store, I can name her children and what they’re having for dinner. Because I like people. I like talking to people, but one on one.

I think this influences how I see characters too. The more I write, the harder I wish I was a natural-born plotter. But I’m just not. I have to accept that in the same way that I accept that some people navigate a party like magic, making friends and networking connections like pros, and I…well, I just have to work with what I’ve got. For me, the story always starts with a scene, usually something disastrously funny that’s happened to me or one that pops into my head and I’m ready to inflict on completely fictional characters.

From that point, I have two jobs.

1. Answer “And then what?” over and over. Because I’m a pantser aspiring to be a plotter someday, this can also be called The First Draft. Sometimes there are long fits of frenzy and inspiration. Other days there’s more starting and starting and starting with Candy Crush in between. With experience, this process has changed from a roller-coaster ride of terrifying exhilaration to more of bumper-car ride of terrifying exhilaration.  There’s less a sense of falling and more strategy now.

2. Really get to know my characters. I like character-driven stories. What I enjoy reading and what I write are less about tricky plot twists and more about spending time with people I like. While I’m working on The First Draft, I’m obviously filling in the “And then…” slots. At this point, what I know about my character is networking conversation. I have a good idea of what he or she looks like, what kind of job keeps her busy, who his friends are, but then it’s time to get real. And the kinds of things I learn about characters can vary as much as my conversations with cashiers. Sometimes I learn about college majors or older sisters or least favorite songs. Are these part of a standard questionnaire I have for each character? No. These are things that pop up when I’m following the story, trying to understand what matters most to the character, what hurts the most, and what makes them laugh. These are the things that I’m looking for in books, and whether I’m looking for it or not, I can see glimpses in most conversations I have with people in the bright, real world.

I can’t really separate the two pieces. For me, the story starts first with a scene, but from there, the characters take the lead.  By the time the book’s finished, I hate to say good-bye. And completing a series of four stories linked by a really strong secondary character is a sad, sad day. When I finished Santa, Bring My Baby Back, I’d spent a year getting to know Willodean Jackson. I know all her favorites (color, song, drink, food, movie). I’ve met her son and her ex-husband and her employees and her beautiful dog, Misty. She’s not the heroine but she’s critical to the story. And even after one book, I’m sorry to say good-bye to Mark, the hero of A Minute on the Lips, mainly because he’s exactly the kind of flirty, handsome guy who’s a blast at a party. Instead of shaking a hand and passing a business card, I’ve gotten to know and love them—just like I hope my readers do.

What about you? Do you have one of those “tell me everything” faces too? How does your story unfold?

Cheryl Harper, author of “Love Me Tender” in the Kiss Me anthology, Stuck on You, Can’t Help Falling in Love, and Santa, Bring My Baby Back for Avon Impulse and A Minute on the Lips for Harlequin Heartwarming, discovered her love for books and words as a little girl, thanks to a mother who made countless library trips and an introduction to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House stories. Now she spends her days searching for the right words while she stares out the window and her dog snoozes beside her. For more information (and giveaways!), please visit

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