Monday, February 11, 2008

Thoughts on building characters

Lesson 2 in my class is about building characters. After reading all my assignments twice, here are are some thoughts for you.

First, which comes first – the characters or the plot? Several readings suggested it’s easier to develop the characters first and let them lead you to the plot rather than trying to fit characters into an already developed plot.

So you start by describing your primary character. You begin with a physical description – height, weight, eye color, hair color, build, health, voice, scars, birthmarks, clothes, shoes, hairstyle, glasses/contact lenses, etc. Write it all out on a piece of paper to keep near you as you write so on page 220 you don’t talk about the scar on the left arm that started out on the right arm on page 60. (Believe it or not, there are geeks like me who will notice.)

Once you have a good physical description of your character it’s time to add another dimension. What do they do for a living? How much money do they make/have? What kind of car do they drive? What is their home like – own, rent, square feet, bedrooms, bathrooms, colors? What pets do they have?

Now you’re starting to make your character multi-dimensional and adding interest. Next you need to provide them with some personal characteristics. What are their goals? What motivates them? What’s their primary attitude and does it vary greatly? Do they have any strange or annoying habits or mannerisms? What irritates them? What sports do they like and hobbies do they have? Are they are reader? If so, what do they read – books, magazines, newspapers? Do they like movies? What kind? How about music? Are they emotional and is this consistent with the portrait you’ve drawn so far? Do they belong to any organizations? What are their political beliefs?

To finish off your description, you need to give them a background. Where were they born? Who were their parents and were they good parents? What was their situation like growing up? Do they have siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, children, spouse/lover, exes? What kind of education do they have and what is their job history?

Is this a lot or maybe even too much? You may not give all this information to your readers or you may offer it to them gradually, but if this is the primary character in your story, it’s important for you as a writer to know and understand them better than anyone. If you’re totally knowledgeable about them, writing their story will be easy for you.

Other things to consider; they should be consistent, strong enough to maintain interest and keep things moving, complex, not stereotypical, and sincere. If you do all these things, the plot will naturally flow from the characters. When you reach a plateau you can ask yourself, what would X do in this situation? What would they say? How would they feel?

Now decide what people surround your main character and develop profiles for them. The level of detail can vary based on their importance to the main character and to the story but again, the more you know about them, the easier they are to write.

If you have a great idea for a setting, you can start to develop your characters by first asking yourself who would live, work or play there and how will the setting affect them. How does the character interact with the setting? Once you determine those things you can begin to develop your profiles.

Our assignment this week was: Write "profiles" of two characters, preferably characters whose traits would provide conflict if they were placed in opposition to each other in a story. Be sure to include internal as well as external markers. (maximum 250 words each)

Armed with all the information gleaned from the reading assignments, I quickly discovered that 250 words are totally inadequate to create a truly complete profile. It took me 471 words above just to describe how to create the profile.

The profiles I created stayed within the limits, but if I use these characters in my book their profiles will be greatly expanded. After all the reading, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of these two people. I'll post them later and when my instructor comments that will be posted also.

Prior to taking this course and reading all this, I probably wouldn't have taken the time to really flesh out my characters.

A little learning can be a good thing.

What do you think?


ChristineEldin said...

Can't wait to hear further thoughts on this.
I think I'm okay with this (but always need to learn more!), it's the setting I have the most trouble with. I never know how much is enough, what details are important, etc.
I LOVED what you posted about that! Thanks for sharing your course with us...maybe we should pitch in? Hmm?

Trée said...

AW, more great information. I may have missed it, and forgive if I did, but I'd add one more thing to building a character (at least my readers have educated me on this)--make them likable, create characters people actually care about. Boy I hate throwing my two cents in. Promise not to do it again. :-)

The Anti-Wife said...

I think you can take this exercise and with some revisions apply it to setting. The writer needs to know everything about it but only needs to give the reader enough to keep the story alive and moving.

Great point about likeability. Never hesitate to add to the confusion here. That's what we blog for - to learn from each other.

Demon Hunter said...

I love this. This will definitely be useful and I can compare it to my MC to see if I've added all of these dminensions! Thanks, AW! :*)

The Anti-Wife said...

You're welcome. Just remember, I'm no expert. I'm just trying to share what I'm learning and this is my interpretation on the information we're being given.

Merry Monteleone said...

I love fleshing out character, it's my favorite part of the fiction writing process, and I tend to follow your philosophy here - that the characters come first and the plot manifests second...

I start my rough draft in notebooks and the first section is always devoted to character sketches, as details emerge I add them to the character sketch and I always have a handy dandy reference if I forget how tall they are or when their mom's birthday is...

I think the trickiest part is the character arc - determining how they grow through the course of the novel and then determining the right way to move the plot to showcase that growth..

Sorry it's been a while since I've popped in, but it sounds like you're getting a ton out of your classes - thanks for sharing it here!

Josephine Damian said...

AW: I'm taking an online workshop right now: Plot through motivation - all about understanding what a character's motivation is - (usually springs from back story) - and how it drives them to take the actions they do - which drives the plot.

Josephine Damian said...

I still have room for one more entry in my first page contest!

Maddy said...

Ooo dear I have no thoughts but I'm happy to learn vicariously. What a good investment this course was for!

Precie said...

This is just me, but...

I have an aversion to character profiles, particularly the kind that list details as if I were filling out a dating questionnaire. Or at least, I'm averse to doing them first.

So far my fiction has focused more on internal characteristics...values, interests, personality. I don't care what my heroine's favorite breakfast food is. I don't care if my protagonist has curly brown hair or stick-straight blonde hair (His hair is too short for the curl to show anyway.) As long as I have a keen sense of Who They Are and What They're Up Against, I'd rather just let physical details and foibles appear over time.

Incidentally, when I did this exercise, one of my snippets focused on a character's attempt to appear gentlemanly and solicitous in the presence of his new fiancee...until he sees some street urchins trying to steal brass fittings from his carriage.

The Anti-Wife said...

Love the idea of keeping a notebook to add things to. I think doing a complete profile up front allows you more freedom to develop them as the manuscript progresses.

Sounds like an interesting class. Any tips you want to share? Also, I made it to your blog too late. Dwight snagged the last space.

The Anti-Wife said...

I'm always happy to invest in our, I mean my future.

I think there's merit to both approaches. For me, developing the complete profile up front allows you to keep moving through the story instead of having to stop and decide traits, likes and dislikes as you go.

For instance, if your profile says your MC loves eggs Benedict and you have her/him sitting in a restaurant about to order breakfast, you don't have to lose time writing the scene by wondering what they would order.

The point is if you know all about your character up front you can move the story along without having to stop and make decisions that might interrupt your thought process. Also, if you know who they are when you start you have more options for changing them as they progress through the story.

Hope that makes sense.

Precie said...

AW--Absolutely true...especially about being able to identify what changes about the character over time within the story. But I still hate it. :)