Monday, April 4, 2011

Building Memorable Characters, by AJ Nuest

Please welcome AJ Nuest, author of JEZEBEL'S WISH, which is due out on Income Tax Day, April 15th.  Beautiful cover, AJ.  I'm glad you could join us today.

Thanks to Sue for having me on her blog today. This is my first in a long stretch of posts this month, celebrating the upcoming release of Jezebel’s Wish, due April 15th from The Wild Rose Press. Thanks for starting me out, Sue. It’s my honor to be here!

Building Memorable Characters

All authors hope to create characters that will stick with their readers–not only so each character differs within each story, but so they also stand out from all the other books that particular reader has enjoyed.

When an author first starts out, many characters within their stories may be modeled after people the author already knows, because the author has a basic understanding of how these people will react in certain situations. (If you tell your mom you’re pregnant, got fired, sold a book, are getting married, etc., chances are you know exactly what she’ll say.) So, it’s within an author’s best interest to sometimes base characters on real people, because they are already three-dimensional individuals whose personalities will jump off the page.

But other factors in your characters should play key roles, the most important…Motivation. Each personality you create must have an underlying motivator to explain the characters’ actions. And if an author is trying to be really savvy, they should be able to state this motivating force in one word.

PROVIDE: This is one of my husband’s primary motivators. We run a business from our home, and being a small business owner in today’s economy is…challenging. If business slows, our advertising campaigns don’t pay off, or one of our regular clients disappears, you can bet your sweet bippy my husband’s mood will sour. This is because his primary motivator is to provide, and until he solves this problem, all other motivators take a back seat.

NURTURE: I don’t like the rest of the family in the kitchen (and with a son on the brink of adolescence, trust me, this can be difficult). The minute the refrigerator door opens my ears perk up. One of my main motivators is the care and feeding of our family, and if anyone messes with my pre-planned meal schedule, I get irritated–same with the bedtime schedule, the errand schedule, game/practice schedule, showering schedule, boo-boo tending, and care and feeding of our numerous pets. Stay out of Mom’s way, because I’m on a mission.

ENTERTAIN: One of my son’s primary motivators is to entertain. He brings levity to any situation, and sometimes gets his younger sister laughing so hard, she hiccoughs for half an hour afterwards. He’s the magician, game player, and all around goof ball. He gains satisfaction within our little family by making everyone smile.

LOVE: Without a doubt, my daughter is the heart and soul of our family. One of her primary motivators is to give and receive love. She has an incredible sense of empathy, but if she goes without her cuddle time at day’s end, she literally cannot fall asleep. She often initiates tasks to gain my approval, earning a “gold star” each day in order to track her level of success.

Now, you may notice I explained ONE primary motivator for each member of my family. This is where an author can get a good start. However, in order to make your characters three dimensional, you must also include other underlying motivators. One tool I find useful to navigate a character’s personal development is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is often portrayed as a pyramid, with the largest and most fundamental needs at the bottom, and self-actualization at the top. The lower-most layers contain what Maslow called "deficiency needs" or "d-needs": esteem, friendship and love, security, and physical needs. If these "d-needs" are not met, the individual feels anxious and tense. Maslow's theory suggests that the most basic level must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs.

Physiological needs: The literal requirements for human survival. If these are not met, the human body simply cannot function–air, water, food, clothing and shelter. Without them, the individual cannot motivate toward the next level of development.

Safety needs: Once physical needs are relatively satisfied, the individual's safety needs take precedence and dominate behavior. People's yearning for a predictable orderly world in which perceived unfairness and inconsistency are under control. Safety needs sometimes manifest as job security, savings accounts, insurance policies, a reasonable disability plan and the like.

Love and belonging: After physiological and safety needs are met, the third layer is social, and involves the need to belong–friendship, intimacy, family. Whether this comes from social groups, religious groups, sports teams, or small social connections (family members, intimate partners, mentors, confidants), individuals need to love and be loved (sexually and non-sexually) by others. This need for belonging can often overcome the physiological and security needs, and if not met, can lead to loneliness and sometimes depression.

Esteem: All humans have an innate desire to be respected, by themselves as well as others. People need to engage in order to gain recognition–have an activity that gives the person a sense of contribution so they feel accepted and self-valued. Imbalances at this level can result in low self-esteem or an inferiority complex. People may make seek fame or glory to counter-act this imbalance. However, people must first accept themselves internally before attaining success.

Self-actualization: This level pertains to a person's full potential and their realization of that potential. Maslow describes this as the need to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming. While one individual may have the strong desire to become an ideal parent, in another it may be expressed athletically, while in another it may be expressed in painting pictures or inventions. As mentioned before, in order to reach a clear understanding of this level, one must first not only achieve the previous level, physiological, safety, love, and esteem, but master these needs.

I often use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, placing my characters within a certain level to create internal conflict. Using this diagram helps me “flesh-out’ my characters, find that innate quality which makes them tick. But this is just one of many tools available to any author. I would suggest finding one that works for you, and using it round out each character you create.

Jezebel’s Wish Blurb:

Haunted by nightmares, tormented by guilt, Jezebel came to Redemption Ranch to escape the past—except now she's stuck in the middle of nowhere with no redemption in sight. When her mother pushes her into riding lessons with local veterinarian Matthias Saunders, Jezebel balks. Sure, the doctor is gorgeous, but he’s completely obnoxious and knows how to push every one of her buttons.

Only her deep connection with The Reverend, a gentle stallion who guards her darkest secrets, has her agreeing to spend any more time with Dr. Saunders. Caring for the stallion is the first bright spot in her life in months, and if being around the horse means she has to deal with Matthias Saunders, then so be it. Surely a city girl like her can handle one country vet—even one with disturbing blue eyes. Can't she?

Jezebel’s Wish Excerpt:

Jezzy stopped. “I thought I was having a riding lesson.”

“You are.” He nodded toward the empty paddock. “Go in.”

“Go in?” Jezzy propped a hand on her hip. “You sure you know what you’re doing? Because it was my understanding that an actual horse is needed for a riding lesson.”

“Don’t you think it would be wise at this juncture to leave the understanding up to the professionals?”

Jezzy rolled her eyes. “You’re making this way too easy. Professionals? Please. Don’t get me started.”

“Why not? Getting you started is exactly what I’m here for.”

Jezzy’s jaw dropped. She didn’t quite know how to interpret that remark.

He held out the rope. “Now go in. And take this lead line with you.” Steely blue determination glinted in his eyes. There was no way he was going to give in.

Jezzy snatched the lead line from his hand and stormed through the gate, then turned when he closed it behind her.

He put a foot on the bottom railing and rested against the gate, facing the horizon. “Take the chair to the center of the paddock and sit down.”

“And just exactly how is that supposed to teach me to ride?”

He cocked an eyebrow. “You want out of the deal?”

Jezzy’s fist clenched tight around the lead line. What she wanted was to march back to the fence and smack his face.

AJ Nuest lives in northwest Indiana with her loving husband and two beautiful children. She is the author of two contemporary romance novels.

Visit her on the web at:
Facebook: Tattered Pages


  1. Loved the blog...and it's so true of characters and how we need to know their motivations!!! Loved the excerpt too!

  2. GREAT excerpt from your book. And the cover art for the book was enough to make me want to read it because I own a Friesian horse and that black horse looks so much like my guy. I enjoyed the psychological pyramid as well. Well done!

  3. AJ, this book sounds like a winner! Thanks so much for coming on the blog today and sharing your process for creating memorable characters.

  4. This is one of the best descriptions of Building Memorable Characters I have ever read. Good job, AJ!

  5. What a treat Sue! Not only do I get to enjoy that fabulous cover and story, I get to learn something too. Can't imagine a more inspiring blog. Thank you for sharing this.

  6. Sue, thank you so much for having me! I am truly blessed to be surrounded by such a great group of supportive friends. Can't wait to have you on my blog on May 4th!!

  7. Thanks for stopping by, Tess! And for the wonderful compliment and support!

  8. Thanks, Patti! The Reverend (horse on the cover) is actually based on one of my mom's Morgans. I'm jealous she gets to spend her days with him!

  9. Thanks, Darlene! Love ya', babe!

  10. Awww, Karen, you're so sweet. Thank you for the kind words. I'm so, so, so excited for the release. And having Sue host me is just the best. Glad you stopped in!

  11. AJ, I loved reading about your family's motivations. Got me thinking about my own family and what makes each one tick. Cool exercise.

    Like the others mentioned, your cover is beautiful. Best wishes on many sales!

  12. Thanks, Misty! I'm really lucky I had such a great, great cover artist, and am surrounded by really awesome folks. It makes the writing seem easy in comparison. Thanks for stopping by!

  13. Nice post, Sue & AJ!! Thanks so much for sharing! Very useful information and I've taken notes on incorporating them into my characters. LOVELY!!

    CAN'T WAIT FOR THE RELEASE DATE!!! Something more fun to look forward to on tax day! ;)

    Arial ;)

  14. P.S. Sue - I read your profile description and just laughed out loud!!! You're a hoot! Now I know why you and AJ are friends. Hee hee! ;)

  15. I know. I was originally bummed when I found out my release date...but then I realized no one would be able to forget! :-) It's definitely a date that stick with ya'.

  16. The release date for my first release with TWRP, The Mitchell Money, is April 29th, two days after my 69th birthday and the day of the royal wedding. That date's hard to forget, too. This year, April is a good month! My to-buy list is growing and growing and . . .

  17. Great post, AJ! And congrats (again!) on your upcoming release of Jezebel's Wish!

  18. Hey! Congrats Sue! You're right! April is a GREAT month this year!!

  19. Hi Lynda! When I saw your name I literally said, "Ohhh...Lynda's so cool." Hope you're doing well! Thanks for the congrats and take care of yourself!

  20. AJ, I love how you apply Maslow's theories to your characters. I studied him in school and always found his theories interesting. Your book sounds great. April 15 is a terrific day to bring out a good book so we can all escape from the dreaded taxman. And Sue, we can all read your book on April 29 right after the royal wedding when we're still sighing with the romance of it all. Your story will be icing on the wedding cake.

  21. Yes, that's my motto, Cara. When all else fails, escape inside a book!! Thanks for stopping by to say hi!