Thursday, October 14, 2010

Building Character in your characters

It just occurred to me that the word character has like 5 zillion meanings. Well, maybe not that many. Maybe just a million or so. We get all caught up in thinking of characters as personnages, pawns in the stories we tell, but character is first defined as:

the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing.


Isn't that interesting?

There was a character workshop by Lauren Shannon at the Japan Writer's Conference. I quite enjoyed it. You know I love my characters. She gave some interesting exercises.

(1) Map it.

Draw a circle. Draw 6 lines coming out from that circle, like spokes. And put a circle on the end of each spoke. In the middle circle, write the character's profession. In the other circles, write stereotypical traits of that profession. Then change one (or two or three). Not a small change, make a 180.

Here's the example we did.

Female Truck Driver named Marge
1. Divorced
2. Big woman
3. Baseball cap and mullet
4. laughs loud and a lot
5. sexy mudflaps
6. swears

Lauren changed the swearing to being extremely proper and anti-swearing. And made Marge into a character who passes through the truck stop the MC works at. She's always getting into fights over people cussing, and since the MC likes her (she leaves good tips), she's always a little stressed when Marge is around, because she's waiting for a fight to start.

And just like that, you've got a story!

But be warned: while you can use this idea to make sure your characters aren't stereotypical, it can make your book Quirk Central with overuse.

(2) 120 questions

Lauren writes a series of questions, a minimum of 120, and answers them for each character. Write a list straight through and then go back and think through each question.

We even had one of the guys in the workshop act as a dummy, and asked him questions about the character he'd created. There were lots of things that might never work their way into his story (where he shopped, if he had friends of his own ethicity, what he ate for breakfast), but I believed they helped make MR. Kwan real. And would help his creator tell his story.

Think about it, when you tell a real life story, there are more bits than what you include. But because you know those bits so well, you can tell the story.

If you've been around this blog awhile, you might remember me objecting to lists like these. That character motivation is a lot more important than Coke or Pepsi. And that I don't know some of my best friends' preferences for the questions the lists ask.

But I don't need to know my best friends as well as I know my characters. Noone's going to not like them because I said they like Coke today and that they liked Pepsi yesterday. And while the big picture remains the most important, it only exists by adding bits of the small picture together.

(3) spaces and places
Write a list or description of all the character's spots. What's on their walls. Is their desk tidy. Does their bedroom stink.

(4) Different ages
Write a scene, letter, etc with the character as a child, a teen, an adult, a senior citizen.

(5) Different situations
Write short scenes in random situations. It doesn't even have to be anything intersting. You could just describe a typical Dunkin' Donuts run or something.

(6) Photo collage
Post character-related pictures in a journal. They don't have to be of the character. For example, if a character likes surfing, plays the flute, and love canolis, have those pics. If you need to get in character, you can have a quick looky.

How do you build character in your characters? What makes a character feel real to you?

PS, I'm off to Sendai tomorrow. Sendai is the big city of the Northeast. It's only a prefecture away, but since the prefectures in the North are frikking huge, that's halfway to Tokyo i.e. 300 km.


Marsha Sigman said...

Do you ever slow down, girl?lol And I think you are right, I am not taking enough time to fully develope some of my characters so I am going to try this list and see if it helps!!!

Christ is Write. said...

Thanks for this post! I've been working on characterization recently for the novel I'm currently editing. I'll definitely have to do some of these exercises.

"Think about it, when you tell a real life story, there are more bits than what you include. But because you know those bits so well, you can tell the story." ~ Great point! I'll have to remember that when I spend so much effort into developing a character's details.

Speaking of, do you fill out character charts to help with characterization? I just posted a blog on this and would love your opinion if you have time.



Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That's a lot to consider - thanks for the tips!
And safe travels.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Interesting ways to develop your character. Thanks for sharing.

Amy Holder said...

Thanks for sharing all these fun and interesting character development ideas! The map it idea is super fun; I'll have to try that out at some point.