Monday, June 15, 2015
I have a hard time with characters; they've always seemed very vague in my mind. I could see what they looked like, sort of, but their characteristics, their inner selves eluded me aside from the general labels of 'noble' or 'heroic' or 'villainous'.
I am much more plot driven. Exciting events, epic battles, rousing speeches are my forte. But of course for a story to be interesting, you have to have an idea of who your characters are. Now we could get into successful and really great stories where the characters aren't fleshed out and the plot often takes precedence over the people in the plot; but that's not my point here.
I thought I'd take a few minutes to explain how I flesh my own characters out.
First, I take larger personal traits like honest or quick tempered and use them as the building blocks. These are the things that are most immediately apparent about the character.
Second, I find the complement to those traits. If their most obvious trait is positive, then it needs to be balanced with a negative one. So if your character is, say, straight-down-the-line honest, then you could balance that with a lack of tact and a willingness to hurt someone's feelings needlessly.
On the other hand, if you have a quick-tempered character he/she might also be quick to feel the hurts of others and protective of a certain person/persons perceived as needing protection. He/she might (and probably will) be of the act now, think later group.
Third, when I write my characters, I check back over their actions and reactions to make sure they are acting true to their characteristics.
In my work-in-progress, my character Alice refused to go to the witch the first time they met; the second time, however, she agreed to go with her. This might seem like a contradiction, and at first it seemed like it to me. But there are a few things to consider:
1. Alice is definitely impetuous. She acts without thinking things through. Her first opportunity to refuse the witch, she did so out of fear and defiance. The second time, the witch promises her something she desperately wants, and despite the fact she can't really trust the witch, Alice acts on her desires rather than using her head.
2. Even after refusing to go to the witch the first time, Alice was conflicted on that point, going back and forth in her mind about her decision. This means that the second time, she was more likely to do what she wouldn't do before.
3. Her goal is not to stay away from the witch, but to rescue her brother. Although she is afraid of the witch, if she has to rescue him by going to the witch then she is willing to do that. The witch's persuasive ways are much more effective on someone with this mindset.
Fourth, always show your character for who he/she is. Don't tell us, "Pete was impulsive." OK, job done, now we don't have to show Pete actually being impulsive. In the Hardy Boy books, the author always makes a point of telling us near the beginning that Joe is the impulsive one, Frank the more thoughtful one. In the long run, though, both boys end up pretty much acting exactly the same (and usually agreeing completely with each other).
Which brings us to the the fifth and final point: characters with strong personality differences should clash. The thoughtful character should try to hold the impulsive one back, while the impulsive one should try to get the thoughtful one moving. And your characters should have different personalities. Just as each character should have traits that balance each other out, so you should have characters whose larger personalities balance things out between them.
By the way, I've never found character interviews or those long lists of questions about the character's parent's favorite food, etc. to be helpful; they overwhelm me with what seems to me to be useless information that doesn't further character development.
Instead, I will write out a short paragraph or two initially, stating in plain terms what the character is like as I envision him/her. Here is how I first describe my character Gilbert: Gilbert is thoughtful and likes to take things slowly. He can also be very moody. He uses persuasion first, but is not against getting physical. He does not read much; he would rather spend his time alone, taking walks or working in the smithy.
Later on as you think it through, you can add more specifics. Once I've done this, I find that my characters are more settled in my mind and they are easier to write.
I hope this has been helpful, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on how you develop your characters. Does it come easily to you or do you really have to work at it? Do lists of questions help or overwhelm you?