How many times have you heard someone say a character in a movie or book felt “flat” or cliché? As writers, we want to create strong characters our readers will fall in love with. We don’t want readers to be bored or roll their eyes at the people we’ve created. Today we’re talking with romance author Callie Sutcliffe on how to develop characters readers care about.
How to Develop Strong Characters
It’s tempting to choose a stereotype and go with it when you’re creating characters. They’re already formed for you. They’re familiar. They’re easy.
They’re also incredibly boring to readers. And honestly, they’re boring to write.
So I reached out to Callie Sutcliffe, author of Love is Messy, to talk about creating strong, realistic characters and relationships using case studies from her book.
Callie D. Sutcliffe received her Education degree from Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas. She lives in Fort Worth with her husband and her daughter who has CHARGE Syndrome. Callie has been writing short stories and entering contests since she was a child. After becoming a mother of a child that needed her at home, she decided to embark on a dream of becoming a published author.
She loves reading mysteries and romance novels in her spare time. When not typing away, she is advocating for special needs families and enjoying time with her family. You can get in touch with Callie through her website or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
Now, here’s how Callie writes strong characters.
You just released your first novel, Love is Messy, which is the first in a series. (Personally, I love the premise of this series!) Tell me a little about the book and the series it opens.
The Finding You Again series walks readers through the lives and journeys of three women, Bridget, Katy, and Natalie. They are best friends and have been through everything with each other since college years over a decade ago. The series is about friendship, family, love, and community.
Love is Messy is the start of a series of trials the three friends walk through together. Tragedy strikes Bridget’s family sending her to the small town of Asbury Hills.
Katy struggles with the realities of becoming the wife of a billionaire will mean in Love is Surprising. When she spends time in Asbury Hills she’s given a glimpse of everything she’s ever dreamed of, but she’s afraid to take the risk.
In Love is Forgiving, Natalie’s world is thrown upside down when a questionable photo circulates the internet of her husband with his publicist. He swears he’s innocent, but she doesn’t believe him.
One of the hardest things to do is to write “real” characters that aren’t cliché. How do you start the process of character development? Do you “interview” your characters or spend a lot of time on character questionnaires?
I definitely interview my characters. When I first tried to create characters I would observe people around me. I even take mental notes on expressions and interactions between my friends when we go out nowadays. (That might freak them out if they knew but it works!)
I talk to friends that work in the professions that I write about as well. Like for Katy and Jake’s story in Love is Surprising, I have many friends that are in the nursing field and also my daughter spent a good portion of her first couple of years in and out of hospitals. I remember conversations with the nurses in those days, their routines, questions they asked, and I talked to a lot of night nurses.
From my friends, I’ve learned a lot about how they handle the emotional tolls the profession takes on them, the ins and outs of their days, and what they find to be rewarding about nursing. When I sit down to write my characters, I take all that with me: what I observe, real relationships I have, and I draw from the experiences in life from myself and others.
How are you planning on keeping your characters fresh and not duplicates of those in a previous book throughout this series?
I give all my characters their own batch of personality traits and demons. One of my biggest pet peeves (especially in the romance genre) is when an author uses the same storyline for every character in a series.
It becomes redundant. Especially if all the males are alpha-males and all the women are damsels in distress. These are cliché characters in romance novels.
I’d like to talk about drawing character traits from real life. I know I put tidbits from people I know into my stories all the time. Is this something you consciously do? Are you ever worried someone might recognize themselves in your characters and get upset?
I have been concerned a couple of times that people might recognize themselves. Especially Katy’s personality in my current work in progress. Her name, the spelling, Katy’s bashfulness, saint-hood-like goodness, and likeability is almost a complete replica of my oldest and very close friend that I’ve known since the first grade.
She was in my subconscious. I even called her and told her about the character.
What I DID do was make Katy’s background and everything else about her nothing at all like my friend. However, the way that Bridget relates to Katy is much like the way I relate to my friend. It made their chemistry as friends pretty special though and I know my friend is fine with it.
That is one example, but I do consciously draw from real life to make my characters relatable.
A trend I’m loving in the romance genre as of late is making the female protagonist strong and avoiding the two-dimensional “damsel in distress” trope like the plague. Taking Love is Messy’s main character, Bridget, specifically, can you talk about how you accomplish this with your female characters?
I completely agree! I’ve read too many romance novels that make women almost annoyingly plastic or weak and needy. Bridget is anything but that. In fact, she runs away from her husband for treating her that way. His hero complex is what drives a wedge in their relationship. At one point she makes this declaration to her husband:
“My life is being a mom by day, which I love, but that’s all I am anymore. And I’m a nightlife friend by night and shopping companion at Saks and Neiman Marcus on the weekends. I feel like I’m living in everyone else’s world’s and have no identity of my own. It’s like everyone else is living their dreams and passions, lives that suit them. And I’m just stuck going through the motions with no real purpose.”
That is essentially her biggest problem. Aside from the grief and tragedy that she’s running from, she has no identity of her own. At least that’s the way she feels.
These days I have seen this problem more and more with stay-at-home-moms, even myself at one point. It can become suffocating and lots of moms fall into a state of depression for years at times, because they have no real identity outside of being a wife and mom.
Bridget wants balance. She doesn’t want to leave her family and she is torn apart with this need for purpose and her love for her family. The tragedy is the thing that lights the fire under her to find that balance. But her husband’s need to smother her and worry about her constantly makes it impossible to achieve that goal at home — which is why she ran away.
The idea of the book isn’t to get women to run away from home, because essentially she couldn’t run away. Everyone and everything follows her to Asbury Hills. Her kids visit, her friends come to her, and even her mother-in-law pays her a visit. Bridget couldn’t run away from her demons any more than anyone else could ever do in her shoes.
But she does find a place to breathe in Asbury Hills and she does find her answers.
How do you keep your character relationships real and relatable?
I make them my friends and family. I ask myself, would these people exist in my world? I have a lot of quirky people in my life, so I do like to make quirky characters.
My moms tend to fall into two categories: overly involved and generous to a fault (like my own mother) or critical and demanding (I’ve seen these all too often). My dads tend to be similar. They are either their kids’ best friend or their kids’ worst enemy.
Families are generally dysfunctional or all over the place. No families are all perfect or all awful.
Friendships are the same way. Best friends want what’s best for us most of the time. Yet, they also disappoint, let us down, disagree with us at times. They also will cry with us and eat a pint of ice cream when we need one. A few of them will walk us through the fire and pick us up when we are down.
I like to create “real” people with “real” problems that have “real” relationships.
Can you tell me what inspires you to write romance?
Romance, real romance, inspires people. I like to see how two people from completely different worlds can come together and bring out parts of their hearts that have been hidden or dead for too long.
Pride and Prejudice did this with Darcy having felt lonely and hardened for so long that he didn’t know how to relate to a woman he was falling in love with. And Elizabeth had her prejudices against him and other men as well and she had to learn about herself and how to let the walls of her heart down in order to fall in love with Darcy.
In the end, it was more than just falling in love. They became whole people. They became the best versions of themselves.
I believe real love does this to people. Not just in a romance, although that is on the deepest level, but also in friendships and in family relationships. Relationships change us, either for the better or for the worse. I like to write about relationships, especially the most intimate kinds, where two people have to search the deepest parts of their soul to let go and believe in the scariest kind of love.
That’s real romance to me. Not just the hot and steamy stuff, but the molding of the hearts together.
Do you think you have to be romantic by nature to write romance?
Not at all. I actually am not a hopeless romantic. In fact, before I met my husband, I never even wanted to get married myself.
Not because I had some bitterness toward it, but I was just a very practical person that didn’t want to “need” a man. I liked my independence and had my own identity. Of course, I met my husband when I was twenty-four, so that may have changed if I was still single now at age thirty-six!
But that drive of mine at a young age fuels my passion to write about strong female leads that need their own identity. My motto has always been a woman needs to be a whole person before falling in love and getting married. Just like Bridget, in Love is Messy, she longs to find her own identity.
In fact, the title of my series, Finding You Again, is essentially about these three women finding themselves all over again in the midst of their relationships to each other and the men in their lives. I think I identify with Bridget the most out of my three leading women in this series.
I am more about building meaningful trust and connection between my characters. I love all relationships, especially romantic love. But I like other genres too; mysteries and thrillers are equally exciting to me as a romance novel. Romance to me is more than just flowers, chocolates, and sex. Those things are nice, but romance is about sacrifice and connection.
I will say, though, that you do need to be passionate about relationships to write about them. I used to say “let’s do life deeply, together” to all my friends back in the day. And that’s still pretty much the way I am. I may not be a hopeless romantic, but I do cherish the relationships in my life deeply and love what they all offer in my world.
I like to create real characters that bring more meaning into each other’s world and evolve them into the best versions of themselves. Because real relationships can make us better.
Any other advice you’d like to give aspiring writers out there?
To all those writing out there, my advice is to find what you are most passionate about and write about that and create multi-dimensional characters that resemble the people around you.
They don’t necessarily have to be just like the people closest to you. You can create a character based on a barista at a Starbucks and imagine what kind of life they lead. You can create a group of characters by going to a bar or coffee shop and watching the people interacting there. You can create a character based on several friends of yours that would make the coolest person in the universe to know with maybe the most unique background.
One thing I have found helpful is creating a world that my main character would either suffocate in or thrive in. And then build people they need and people that are toxic to them. Once you do that, you will find yourself a complex character that others can relate to. Think outside the box and have fun creating people!
What’s next for you?
Right now I am working on Katy and Jake’s story in Love is Surprising and I have big plans for Katy’s character that she is not going to like at first but essentially needs.
Katy hates surprises and her life is about to be full of them and most are not good ones. And the good ones are way too scary for her and that’s going to shake everything up for her. I think people will fall in love with Jake and Katy because they are down-to-earth everyday people with scars from their past that have to face hard self-truths in order to come together in the end.
I am also getting Nat and Chris ready for their own journey in Love is Forgiving. Stay tuned!
Get to Know Your Characters
It’s important to get to know your characters before you write. Otherwise it’s way too easy to fall back on stereotypes and your characters will end up flat and boring. And your book will be put-downable as a result.
Do you “interview” your characters? Let me know in the comments!
Today, I want you to take fifteen minutes to develop a character. Pretend you’re on a “date” with them. Ask them the questions you’d ask a date, like what they’re favorite ice cream is, what shows they watch, where they’re from, etc.
Share your character profiles in the comments and don’t forget to comment on your fellow writers’ creations!