Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Creating, Summoning, or Revealing

A while back Sabrina made a request for characterization posts. It got me thinking about where my characters come from. There is definitely something in characterization that feels a little out of my control, almost like the characters just come. I know real helpful.

Throughout my life I’ve known hundreds of people and seen hundreds of shows and read hundreds of books. There is a lot to this writing stuff that comes to me on a subconscious level (and a lot that doesn’t), and character development is definitely one of them.

A while back I found this blog by Alexandra Sokoloff. Alexandra was a screenwriter but now writes novels. She brings tricks of the trade from the film industry to writing novels, and she is brilliant. Seriously, she gives amazing advice, well worth losing a day or two in reading through her posts.

Anyway, she gives some great advice on characterization that sums up my feelings on the matter.

“I have this sense that EVERY real writer already has their own process for creating character, or I’d even say calling character, because that’s more what it seems like to me: you create an inviting space for characters to come, and hope to God they show up. And I don’t ever want to do or say anything that might screw that process up for anyone.”

I certainly don’t want to mess with what already works, but I will share my process, and hopefully it will be helpful or at least interesting.

Character is the story; the story is the character."

I’ve heard this quote a lot on writing sites, but I have no idea where it originated. I don’t think it is true for all stories, but it is for the vast majority of the ones I read and the ones I write.

I develop characters, plot, and world building all at the same time. To me they are all intricately connected, and they all entwine with each other in a very unique way to form the story.

But the most important component to me is the character. Give me an interesting character or one that I love, and I will follow that character anywhere.

I usually start with an idea, a premise, an interesting scenario and then I start asking questions. Just like Melanie.

For example: This thread on hatrack made me start thinking about divine characters. How I would create conflict with a character that is all knowing, all seeing, and for the most part, all powerful. So I started thinking. Being a parent, the first thought that popped into my mind is how hard it is to watch my children fail. Watching them struggle to read a book, fall over on a bike, but sometimes they must fail at in order to succeed. Still it is hard to watch knowing that you can tell them the words they don’t know or hold on the back of the bike to prevent the crash. But I need higher stakes than a goddess (of course I chose a goddess) watching her people fail. I need death.

So I have a goddess who needs to allow the destruction of a village for the greater good. But I want this to be personal, so she needs to be there, living among the people in disguise. So this village is very devout, and she feels the need to be there with them, to help them face their death because of their unshakable faith in her. But living with them, makes her see them differently, love them on a different level, and now she is not sure if she can let them die when she has the power to save them, even though she knows it needs to be done.

There are still a million questions, and I’m far from being done, but I can see her character emerging and the conflict, the plot, and the world all at the same time. They are all connected.

How dare they disobey me

It always starts with my characters emerging because the plot demands them to be a certain way. For example: I need the goddess to live among her people, so she can’t be an arrogant and selfish. She needs to be loving. But I need her to be willing to sacrifice these people for the greater good, so there has to be a cool, logical side to her too.

In the beginning, this process works, the character and plot nicely develop together, but at some point they always seem to diverge. My plot needs my character to act a certain way, but the character is now so well-defined that she won’t just do what needs to be done. This is when I realize that I have a well-developed character.

“It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live.” John Fowles, The French Lieutenant's Woman

It almost feels mystical and I can see how some people would see it that way, but to me it is very logical.

Real people are what they say, think, and do. After fifty or so pages of a character saying, thinking, and doing certain things, they become real, and they can no longer be slaves to the plot. The character has arrived, and now the plot must be tweaked to fit the character.

All of this is really intuitive for me, so I don’t know how to explain how it happens or how I know when it happens. It’s like knowing a person in real life, and knowing when they are acting like themselves and when something is off.

Some Practical Advice

It isn’t always instinct and mysticism for me. Sometimes I do have to flesh out a character, and there are some tricks that I use.

  1. Acting- Alexandra Sokoloff suggests taking an acting class to help with characterization, and I agree with her (you don’t have to actually take an acting class, but you could read a book or articles on it).

    I was into drama in high school (I was even in a few plays). I really believe that there is no better way to understand characters than trying to portray one. It makes you think deeply about what makes us all different, from how we think to mannerisms.

    A lot of it comes down to motivation. What the character wants, what she is willing to do to get it, and what she isn’t willing to do. It isn’t about what her favorite color is or what her favorite song is or whether or not she is good at math. Don’t get me wrong, these details add depth to the character, but they do not define her. Motivation does.

  2. Backstory, backstory, backstory- Whenever I just can’t get a character to work. I always go to their backstory even though it rarely ends up on the page (although I’m sure Sarah will tell me that more of it should).

    To me, people are not a list of character traits, but defined by their experiences. So I always think about their childhood, their family and friends, and try to discover those big defining moments. Once I understand where they come from, I understand what they will do.

That is all I got. I know it’s not much, but hopefully it helped some. I’ve always been curious about how others flesh out characters, so please feel free to share. Are your characters created, summoned, or revealed?



  1. Awesome post! Our methods of characterization sound very similar. Right around page 50 of a writing a book I find myself thinking, "I wish I'd known this about this character before I started writing." Maybe I start writing too quickly, or maybe that's a necessary step. I don't know.

    I've never thought about the connection between acting and characterization before. I like that. Sometimes I even do that when I'm watching TV, though I'm sure it's not as personal.

  2. I was a Theatre major in college, and that, to me is the best part about writing. I get to play all of the parts! I've always hated having to stick to just one part, or one accent.

    My favorite characters are the ones that just show up, without me inviting them. Like the background character that does something interesting, or the villain who surprises me with his fondness for the Jonas Brothers.

    I love random characters, and characters who are in some kind of pain.

    For the story I'm working on right now, (one of them anyway) I've been a little stalled, and your post makes me think perhaps I just don't know the characters enough. Thank you!

  3. I have a hard time getting to know my characters and giving them strong personalities sometimes. I always want everyone to be reasonable and rational and then they don't want to do anything interesting. Because I'm so very reasonable :)

    Acting sounds like a great suggestion. It ain't gonna happen, because I live right outside Los Angeles and acting classes are big business around here... for actors :) But James Scott Bell recommends something similar that can be done privately: A voice journal. Open a new file or a blank page and start writing in that character's voice, in 1st person. I've found that for everyone except my MC, it's a lot harder than it sounds and almost always instructive.

    Great post, MaryAnn! Thank you. (And while I sometimes ask for backstory, I never doubt that you know your characters inside and out - which is what really makes the story shine!)

  4. Indeed, excellent post.

    Sadly, I plop characters into my story ideas. The story ends up like Neapolitan ice cream. You have all the flavors, but they're lined up next to each other.

    Motivation. Back story. Desire. All good stuff to consider when trying to round out a character.

  5. I always have problems with characters, normally because I never give them time to show me who they are. I'm too impatient to work out their backstory and motivations. I never give them time to have goals. It's something I really have to work on.

  6. See, that's the thing - my characters definitely feel created to me, rather than summoned. I have found that filling in backstory really does help.

    For me, plot ideas are easy. But that creates sort of a backward process for coming up with characters - who would live this sort of adventure? And that, if I'm not careful, leads to plot rather than character-driven stories. And I have to be really careful that I'm not warping characters to fit the plot. I think my best solution is to develop the side characters as much as possible. That's the way that I've gotten some of my more interesting one.

    But still, my characters rarely seem real to me - and they almost never disobey. Thus my request for posts. :) So thanks for all the posts on character, everyone! You guys rock.

  7. @Melanie: Yeah, page fifty seems to be the magical place where I suddenly realize that I have real characters for me too. :)

    @Sheena: I didn't know you were a drama major. How awesome. And a villian who loves Jonas Brothers has to be the coolest villian EVER.

    @Sarah: Aww, thank you. :) Doing a voice journal is a great idea, especially for those secondary characters who don't really get a chance to tell their stories.

    @Dustin: My family love neapolitan ice cream. Everyone gets the flavor they want. I'm not really sure how to make that a metaphor for writing, but I'm glad this post was helpful. :)

    @Imogen: I understand your impatience. It is a lot of work for me especially when I have to dig deep into backstory.

    @Sabrina: A few thoughts.

    1. I know you write a lot of short stories, and in my limited experience with short stories, my characters never disobey me there. I need about fifty pages before they start the mutiny.

    2. There is nothing wrong with plot driven stories. I really enjoy Micheal Crichten (most of his works anyway). He always has an interesting concept that keeps me going, and I hardly even notice the MC.

    3. So many times I love the side characters so much more than the main characters. Not a bad way to go.

    4. Is it possible that you are too hard on yourself? Send my the Volcano story, and I'll see what I think. :)


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