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Dissecting Your Characters with Terri Austin

Your characters are the medium in which a story is told and if you don’t know them, neither will your readers. Author Terri L. Austin [1] shares her process on character analysis and why it’s an important factor in her writing. Terri’s giving away an ARC of her latest book, His Every Need, to one randomly chosen commenter. 

Welcome back, Terri!

Hello, RU! Thanks for having me on today.

My name is Terri L. Austin and I’m a pantser. There. I’ve said it. I wish I could write detailed outlines to give myself a road map from Chapter One to The End, but if I did that, I’d never want to write the book. Besides, lots of exciting twists happen when I fly by the seat of my britches. I follow where the characters lead, and that makes every day an adventure.

While pantsing is a fun way to write—it can get a little messy. Pantsers tend to follow a lot of rabbit trails or wander into the plotline wilderness. Writing yourself into a corner is the opposite of fun. And if you are on a deadline, these time drains can be costly. So what’s a pantser to do?

I’m constantly on the lookout for ways to make the writing process easier. I’m not afraid to try new ideas or streamline current techniques in an effort to make the editing process less painful down the line. And I’ve become a big believer in prewriting. No, not synopses—shudder—I’m talking about dissecting my characters.

For me this is a vital step, and though it can take several days, it saves me time in the long run. The more I know about my characters, the easier it is to write a straightforward first draft. And when I get stuck, I look back at the character analysis for guidance.

Personality Tests

Yes, appearance is important, but to build strong characters, I need more than blue eyes and blonde hair. That’s just window dressing. Instead, I concentrate my character’s fears, history, family of origin, worldview, etc.

I start by giving each of my main characters a Myers-Briggs [2] test. I know a lot of you probably already do this, but it’s a great way to scratch the surface. And I don’t stop there. I follow it up with an Enneagram [3] test. I tend to like the Enneagram test better as it delves right into my character’s belief system. There are nine personality types and this is a good first step on the road to discovery. 

Dig Deeper

In Lori Wilde’s book, Got High Concept [4], she talks about the definition of high concept and how to burrow into your character’s psyche to understand what Terri L. Austin [5]makes them tick. After reading this book, I now ask my characters questions I never thought to ask before—about misguided beliefs and why they have them. How those misguided beliefs affect every decision they make. My character’s darkest moments, happiest moments, mistakes—both big and small, vivid childhood memories. If you follow the assignments in this book, it will take you awhile, but it’s worth it. There’s a lot of meat in this little gem, and I highly recommend it.

Life Story

Now I start writing my character’s life story. Starting from their childhood, right up to where the story begins. What brought my character to chapter one? What decisions did she make to get there? For me, this part is pretty detailed. I know his scars—both physical and emotional, his backstory, mannerisms, and habits. I type it all out, even though most of it won’t end up in the novel. I need to know these things. It helps me understand my characters so thoroughly, that when I take a wrong turn in the plotline, I can spot it almost immediately. I may not know how to fix it right away, but I can pinpoint where my character lacks authenticity.

Catch Phrase

My main characters all have one. They live by a guiding principal that defines their life. I write each catch phrase on a post-it note and stick it to my computer. I look at them every day as I write.

For my book, His Every Need, Allie Campbell has only one goal—to take care of her family. Allie’s catch phrase: Don’t worry, I’ll fix it. This is also her misguided belief. Of course she can’t fix everything. Sometimes life is out of her control, which is what Allie must realize by the end of the book.

I keep my catch phrases very simple, but it helps steer my characters in the right direction as I’m writing.

Summing up Character Traits

I try to come up with four or five different character traits for my hero and heroine. I make sure not to have similar traits (for example kind and caring—they’re almost the same thing) and one or two may seem contrary to the others. The contrary traits are either my character’s true feelings or a mask. Also, it’s fun to drop an unexpected trait into the mix.

Allie is caring, responsible, resentful, and loyal. Her hero, Trevor, is reclusive, sarcastic, stoic, and sentimental.

Tried and True

Next, I work on my characters’ GMC [6] charts. If for some strange reason you don’t have this book by Debra Dixon, get it today. In Passionate Ink: A Guide to Writing Erotic Romance [7], Angela Knight suggests writing a GMC chart for the love story, as well. Invaluable.

Whew! This is a lot of work, but I’ve learned over time that I need to know how these characters will act when they’re pushed to their breaking point. Since I may only have a vague idea of what my plot will be, this becomes my touchstone. Plus, it opens my mind to potential scenes and conflicts between characters.

I hope one of these ideas might help. Good luck, fellow pantsers! And thanks again, RU, for giving me the opportunity to chat with your viewers today.

How do you get to know your characters? Any tips or suggestions that I missed?

Terri’s giving away an ARC of His Every Need. Leave a comment and you’ll be entered to win. US and Canada only.

Join us on Wednesday, June 11th when Anise Rae presents: Pucker Up: Writing the Kiss That Makes Readers Melt 


His Every Need [8]His Every Need, the first book in The Beauty and the Brit series, is available from Sourcebooks August 5, 2014.

When Allie Campbell’s father loses their home to British tycoon Trevor Blake, she pleads for more time to pay off the loan. But Trevor refuses to acknowledge his own family, so he’s completely unconcerned with hers. Allie impulsively offers to do anything to keep the house, so he teasingly tells her to move in with him and cater to his every need. To his amazement, she agrees…

Bio: As a girl, Terri L. Austin thought she’d outgrow dreaming up stories and creating imaginary friends. Instead, she’s made a career of it. She met her own Prince Charming and together they live in Missouri. She loves to hear from readers. Drop her a note at TerriLAustin.com [1] or connect with her via Twitter [9], FB [10], or Goodreads [11].

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12 Comments To "Dissecting Your Characters with Terri Austin"

#1 Comment By Carrie Spencer On June 9, 2014 @ 9:02 am

Morning Terri!

I have your diner series and love it…looking forward to your new book as well! =)

I’m a pantser as well….getting to know my characters has always meant writing the first 3 chapters to figure out who they are and what they want….but I think I’ll give your system a shot….knowing them before wasting time sounds like a much smarter idea!

Thanks for posting with us today!


#2 Comment By Carol Opalinski On June 9, 2014 @ 9:28 am

Wonderful post! I have Laurie Schnebly Campbell’s book Believable Characters: Creating With Enneagrams. It’s been an invaluable help and I also have Debra Dixon’s book. I will check out the other ones you’ve mentioned.

Thanks for the post!

#3 Comment By Terri L. Austin On June 9, 2014 @ 9:41 am

Hi Carrie! So glad you enjoyed Rose. I used to simply jump in and get to know my characters, too. I pantsed my way through the first draft and had a great time doing it. That really worked for me, until I had to toss away 78k and rewrite it all because I knew my characters were all over the place. That’s when I knew I had to find a different system. If you decide to give pre-writing a try, will you drop me a line and let me know if it worked?

#4 Comment By Terri L. Austin On June 9, 2014 @ 9:41 am

OMG, Carol! I didn’t know that book existed, but I’m off to get it right now. Thank you!

#5 Comment By Carol Opalinski On June 9, 2014 @ 9:50 am

Terri, you’re welcome! I think Laurie’s book is much easier to use than the enneagram charts.

And thank you for mentioning the other books. After reading this, I went and bought Lori’s high concept book. Angela’s was temporarily out of stock.

#6 Comment By G. A. Edwards On June 9, 2014 @ 10:05 am

All good points on character development. I was looking for something to share on developing character with someone I’m mentoring and I am going to send her here.

And the new book looks awesome.

#7 Comment By Terri L. Austin On June 9, 2014 @ 10:19 am

Thanks, G.A.! Hopefully it will give them a jumping off point.

#8 Comment By Becke Martin Davis On June 9, 2014 @ 11:15 am

Hi Terri! I really hoped I’d get to meet you at Lori Foster’s event. I looked all over for you – Linda Keller said she’d just spoken with you and tried to point you out, without success. Hopefully I’ll have better luck if you come to RAGT next year.

Thanks for a great post – I LOVE the idea of a catch phrase for each character. Brilliant!!

#9 Comment By Terri L. Austin On June 9, 2014 @ 11:31 am

I’m so sorry I missed you, Becke! Linda did an amazing job.

Glad you liked the post. I’ve just started doing catch phrases–they’re so simple, yet so helpful.

#10 Comment By Jennifer Tanner On June 9, 2014 @ 3:15 pm

Hi Terri,

You made a valid point about how well-developed characters can give a writer more opportunities to draw from. The more complex the character, the more chances we have to exploit their strengths and shortcomings.

Also, a character’s complexity builds the emotional quotient. Romance is all about showing emotion but the emotions have to be appropriate and believable, and that’s done by creating a complex character. (At least in my world!)

I like to give my characters a food fetish that gives the reader some insight into the character.

Thanks for a terrific post. Wonderful to have you back!

#11 Comment By Terri L. Austin On June 9, 2014 @ 4:54 pm

Thanks, Jennifer! It was great to be here. I love your food fetish idea–reveals so much about the character.

#12 Comment By Hana On June 15, 2014 @ 10:02 pm

Oh! This is recent.

Great post Terri! I’ve been using the trait method for a while now, and I’m glad for the other methods.