Building characters

I’ve learned lots of tidbits of wisdom over the years from various novel-writing workshops and other writing seminars. One very important tidbit is this: Do not end up with a cast of characters who are all just like you! You might think, “But of course” when you read that, but be honest. How often have you really been able to write the thoughts, feelings, motivations, and actions of someone whose mind and character is totally foreign to you? If you’ve done it, I bet it took a lot of work.

Lego blocksToday’s post is more for next year than for this year, given that after today, you will have only six days left. (Eek!) But this bit of writerly wisdom has stuck with me for years, and it’s very important to get a firm grip on this idea if you plan to continue writing in the future or even if you don’t plan on writing again until next year’s NaNo. Creating plausible characters is not always easy. Even creating characters who are just like you isn’t necessarily easy. Let’s have a look at what you want to know in advance about your character, what you can create on the spur of the moment, and what sorts of tools might be out there to help you get all the details right.

WHO IS THIS PERSON ANYWAY?

Story first, or character first?

Once upon a timeYou’re usually going to want to know at least the primary details about your character, especially if he or she is one of your main characters. That is, unless you follow the “fly by the seat of your pants” method of writing and you wait for the character to reveal him or herself to you as the story progresses. We’ve discussed the two methods of writing your story before: either having it fairly well plotted out or just letting it meander where it’s going to go until it develops into a real story. But the method you choose by  which to write your story can actually have a considerable impact on how well your characters themselves are constructed and written.

Back in 2011, David Corbett wrote an article for the Writer’s Digest entitled, “How to Craft Compelling Characters.” About a third of the way into the article, he made some interesting observations about what happens to characters if the characters come before the story as opposed to how they appear if the story comes first and the characters are crafted to fit into a role in that story. If the story comes first, and you need to put characters into it in order to enact that particular plot, you may create people with the characteristics required to fill specific roles, but there will be little more to them than that. They can easily end up as two-dimensional cardboard cutouts who just fulfill their required function but are hardly real beyond that. On the other hand, if you have some vivid characters in your mind and just decide to let the story go its own way, the story can grow directly out of their hopes, dreams, needs, and secrets. They are people to whom the story happens, rather than functionaries created to step into prescribed slots in a plot.

This is not an argument for winging it, however. You can write good characters for both types of stories, of course, but their creation involves really getting into their heads and knowing them as people. So it helps if you know a lot about them in advance, or if you can sense, when some person just pops up unexpectedly, that there is more to this person than meets the eye.

What do you need to know about him or her?

Flower with words for emotions written on its petalsAccording to Corbett, in that article, you need to make some kind of emotional connection to the character; you need to relate some real-world experiences to her and to recognize what might be an emotional trigger for him. Corbett recommends that you do this by relating the character to your own life, to events you’ve experienced, and even to what other people in your life are like. Do you have a coworker you’re especially fond of? What sorts of qualities does she have that you’d like a character to have? Did you ever experience a moment of deep shame or perhaps of immense courage? What effects would this sort of experience have on a character’s psyche; what would it make him like?

This is, of course, right where you need to be careful that you are not creating a character who is just like you. Even if the person has had a similar experience to what you’ve experienced in the past, that doesn’t mean that the character responded to it in the same way. It’s possible, most of the time, to respond in more than one way to the same experience. A trauma can help you be more compassionate to others in the same boat as you, or it can make you hate everybody and act accordingly. So again, don’t make the character just a carbon copy of yourself, even if you are using things from your own life to create him or her.

To create a character with many layers, it’s not necessarily even that important, at least at first, to know what she or he looks like or other surface details. It’s more important to know what motivates him and what sorts of goals she has. Does this person have emotional scars that motivate him to go after his goals in a way that hurts others? Does she want something so badly, based on even on a strong enjoyment, that she will step on anybody she has to in order to get it? Or has he experienced a deep loss that has made him look upon others with great empathy? Has she discovered such purpose in a particular goal that she inspires everyone around her?

You may occasionally find a character springing full-grown into existence from the slightest or oddest of sources. In one of my novels (eventually to be posted online and then probably self-published), I have a character named Elan. He is golden and alive and optimistic and close to pure, yet he is also capable of a fall into a terrible corruption of his hope and beauty if he is not careful. He has many depths to him, and he is pretty much the favourite character in this story, no matter who reads it.

Spiral staircaseAnd where did he come from? While riding home on the bus from work one late afternoon, I saw a white van with a spiral staircase painted on its side. Part of the name of the spiral staircase company included the word “Elan,” a word whose dictionary definition talks about being full of zest, lively imagination, and vigor. That’s not quite how “my Elan” turned out (he was more angelic than that definition might suggest), but he sprang into existence the moment I glanced aside and saw that van.

But even then, what made him so real to me and so multilayered was that 1) I knew immediately which kingdom in my fantasy world he came from; 2) because of the characteristics of that kingdom, he already had certain characteristics himself, including the ability to make his body glow brilliantly; 3) I knew immediately how he was going to influence several other major characters; and 4) I knew what personal tragedy had shaped the beauty of his character but also made him vulnerable in ways even he was unaware of. That really gave me something to go on.

So you need to know some basic characteristics, yes, including what the person looks like, what sort of family connections he or she might have, and perhaps some likes and dislikes. But to make the character real or to make her into a real human being to whom the story happens (rather than some type of stereotype who merely fulfills a function), you also need to know what she desires in life and what his goals are and what has made him the man he is. What has she done in her life that has shaped her current actions?

FLESHING OUT THE CHARACTER

People use various methods of creating characters, often in fact using several different methods for different characters in the same story. Some of their characters pop up like my character, Elan, almost in full existence from the moment they appear. Others, like the “throwaway” characters I mentioned early in the month, who end up taking over the story or making a big contribution to it in ways you never expected, also kind of pop into existence without your planning it. Those characters, you start off knowing virtually nothing about, but every small thing that happens to them in the story reveals something new, and they can become quite nuanced.

List on a clipboardBut another widely used method of creating characters is to create them virtually characteristic by characteristic, one feature at a time, using a character sheet or planner.  These planners can be as detailed as you want them to be, and you might get ideas for your character’s story even while you’re in the midst of filling in these details.

I mentioned a few posts back that I created my own little soap opera, called “Passages,” and that I made a list of the types of characters that every soap opera seems to need in order to work. (For example, the big tycoon, the town bitch, the ingénue, two or three doctors and a nurse, the police chief, the bad boy, the good girl, and so on.) But I also devised a character sheet to fill in with details about these people’s lives. At the time, this was not exactly meant to be a character-creating device; in fact, I already knew a lot about the characters I was going to have. But I had noticed, as a veteran soap opera watcher, that sometimes storylines were created in later years that contradicted stories that had occurred in earlier years. This often happened with a change in writers for the soap; a new writer might know the really big stories that had been written for the show in recent years (was anyone going to forget Luke and Laura?), but they wouldn’t have the details about every character at their fingertips.

So I made my sheet so that in my soap opera, you’d never have a character saying that his favorite color was green one year and then that it was blue the next year. Nobody was going to be allergic to shellfish to serve the purpose of one storyline one year, and then be chowing down on it two years later, as though that earlier storyline had never happened.

So I created my very detailed character sheets. I kept track of birthdays, family members (even the secret half-brother or evil twin that nobody yet knew about), what the person’s phobias might be (so I would know right away whether he or she might be claustrophic during the inevitable “trapped with your secret love in an elevator” scene, and what the person’s hobbies might be. I knew what causes they believed in, what their education had been, whether they liked chocolate or broccoli, where they had lived before they showed up in town, and what skeletons they might have in their closets. All the categories might be augmented as future stories unfolded—you’d expect that—but by golly, once it had been established that she had at one time survived a plane crash or that he was the secret love child of the older woman he despised—those things were never going to be forgotten in later stories, and they were never going to be contradicted in future plots.

You may want to use a character sheet yourself, to fill in some important background details so you’ll know how your character will react or develop as he lives through various situations. One place you might go, not just to plan your characters but to plan your whole story, is Hiveword.com. Or you can peek at a really, deeply, thoroughly detailed character sheet here. Now, that is a lot of detail.

Lovers on a bridgeYou may not have to get excessively detailed in order to know your character well enough to make her real and alive in your story; some might even argue that by filling out a really detailed character sheet, you can again create characters who are kind of “cardboard.” After all, if every detail about a character is written in stone before he even experiences something in your story, how can he grow like a real human being would grow? How can she surprise you or go in a direction you had not anticipated, if you’ve got her locked rigidly into that prison of detail?

You need to be flexible, so your characters can grow. But you also need to have some idea of what your characters are really like, in their hearts and souls, so they can have real experiences in your story. That’s the way that your story will become a living, breathing thing that draws your readers deeply in.

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Filed under * NaNoWriMo, * Writing fun

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