Thursday, July 19, 2012

"Dating" Your Character


by Rachel Coker


Rachel Coker is a homeschool student who lives in Virginia with her parents and two sisters. She has a passion for great books and has been surrounded by them all her life. When she is not writing or playing the piano, Rachel enjoys spending time with her family and friends. Interrupted is her first novel.


I’m a homeschooler, and, if you know anything about the homeschool community, you know that we like to make jokes about ourselves all the time. We’re very hilarious people. Anyway, one of the jokes we homeschoolers make is about how utterly unsocialized and deprived we are. Usually these jokes are made whilst juggling multiple dates, commitments, and parties on the calendar. We’ll laugh at our overwhelmingly busy lives and say to each other, “Gosh, aren’t we so unsocialized?”

But it gets worse. Because not only am I an unsocialized homeschooler, I am also a complete weirdo who is best friends with fictional characters.



That’s right. I count among my closest companions people who aren’t real. But you know what? I’m a writer. That’s what writers do. We befriend and tell stories about people who only exist in our imaginations. But you know what else? If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re a writer, too. Which means you are just as messed up as me!

But seriously, what I want to talk about today is how important it is to really know your characters. To feel like they are your best friends and to understand them that well. You see, stories are about people. Sure, they are also about events and actions and emotions but at the core of every story are the people who make it up. They are the ones you sympathize with, who you despise, who you cheer on and support. Bad character development can not only strain a story, it can unravel it.

If a story is a quilt, then the characters are surely the threads that make it up. When you look at it as a whole, you see events and a plot—the big picture or design. But when you push your nose up a little closer, tiny threads and pulls and seams come into focus. These are the traits and emotions and quirks that pull the story together. Every person and every character trait has a reason, a function. Every little detail is necessary to keep the piece together.

When I was first thinking about the plot for my book, Interrupted, Allie’s character was constantly running through my mind. It’s a funny thing, being a writer. I could visualize her in my head. I could hear the way her voice sounds. I knew her quirks and her faults. One thing I remember being really convinced of when I was filling out my character chart for Allie. Allie was going to have rough hands. Since she was looking after her mother, her hands were the ones subjected to burns and cuts and bruises. Her mother’s hands were white and smooth. Hers were rough and worn.

Even though this particular aspect wasn’t a huge part of the book, it was very crucial to my development of Allie’s character. Her story was a story of rough hands. It was about endurance and toughness and not letting anyone see her cry. She wasn’t a soft hands kind of person. Once I realized this, other parts of the story started clicking together in my mind. She would respond to certain situations like a calloused hand. She wore her toughness like a blister, hiding the soft skin underneath. Instantly, I knew exactly how her reactions to certain circumstances and plot twists would be.

While this kind of character development may be a little anal on my part, I do know that it is a huge part of being a writer. That’s why we writers must go to extremes to develop our characters. Now what I’m about to say is going to sound a little strange, but please, bear with me:

I want you to date your characters.

(Obviously, this is a messed-up analogy, especially if your main character is a girl, but please—bear with me) When two people are in love and want to be married, where is the first place they start? They get to know each other. They find out what the other’s likes and dislikes are. They want to know their partner’s little quirks. What makes them laugh or cry or blush. They date.

Wrong approach, by the way ;)
It’s the same thing with your characters. They’re not just something you draw out of a figment of your imagination. It’s more important than that. They behave in ways that you don’t, and do things you’d never dream about. Therefore it’s important for you to understand them.

This may sound really weird to those of you who have never written fiction before, or who view their characters as a flat, two-dimensional object. They’re just words typed out and written on a page, nothing but stark black letters against a white background, and can change pretty much however you want them to. If that’s how you think, then stop. If that’s how you really view your characters, then your story will never have the heart that you want it to.

"Date" your characters. Really get to know them. Think about habits you’ve already given them, and consider where those habits may lead. Characters are people, too. On the outside, they may seem like one thing. But once you push past the exterior and really take a look inside, you realize that they are a lot deeper than you may have thought. They have hopes and dreams and fears. Every little thing that they have gone through has shaped them into who they are today and prepared them for the trials they are facing right now. They have a story to tell, a story that you have to record. And even though you know you can’t do it justice, you have to write it anyway.


That is writing. It’s not sitting down with a piece of paper and pencil and determining to pen the next Narnia or Lord of the Rings. It’s discovering your characters. “Meeting new people”, so to speak. And pushing through, no matter how difficult it may seem, to uncover their story and telling it the best you can. And I can guarantee you that once you can do that, you will sit back and realize that you have just written a wonderful book.

37 comments:

  1. I'm not crazy!!!:D
    Oh my gosh, my sister always looks at me like I'm a wierdo because I talk about my characters like they live next door. Like their real:)
    Seriously, when me and my friend start talking about crushes, four out of five of them are fictional, so we finally started saying 'real' crushes;)
    Lol, I think I've got the dating part down. And love the clip art by the way.

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    1. Haha, that's too funny! I talk about my characters all the time and my family has just learned to deal with it. ;)

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    2. MaddieJ--I think of my characters as real too. I find that I think about them often. Like I will be watching a movie and I will think, "Jenny would like this," or I will be going somewhere and think, "Adam would take Evy here on a date." Just random everyday things like that. It is pretty crazy, yes?

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  2. I really liked this post, Rachel! I'm a homeschool graduate, and I always chuckled whenever I heard misconceptions from others about homeschoolers, especially about us not being social beings, because honestly, it's just not true.

    "If a story is a quilt, then the characters are surely the threads." I couldn't have put this better. Characters are so incredibly important to me. I think them constantly, almost obsessively. :)

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    1. Clarebear--As a homeschooler myself, I too love the homeschool joke--most of the time anyway. It can be pretty hilarious.

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  3. Rachel, this is a wonderful post! Characters are so important to every story and they are usually what I remember most, long after I finish a book. As far as my own characters go, I'm often out somewhere and think, "What would my characters do in a situation like this?" It can get pretty funny when I turn to whoever I'm with and begin mumbling about my characters. But, like you said, that's what writers do! :)

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    1. Jill--I do that too! Something will happen anad I will think, "Hmmm...What would Lyddian do in this situation?"

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  4. Rachel, I love your description of how Allie's rough hands clarified her to you. Beautiful. Thanks for a great post!

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  5. Great post Rachel! I think I might just be "dating" my main characters at the moment. :) Like so many other writers I am always hearing their voices in my head and asking myself what would they do? How would the react? I talk about my world/characters like they are real, because to me they are!

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    1. That's exactly the right mindset, RJ! They are real! Anyone who thinks otherwise is obviously not a writer. ;)

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  6. Love it! But I'm not looking forward to "dating" my FMC. My MMC is a whole different story though . . . (No pun intended)

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    1. Well, never mind. I'm already pretty much dating my MMC. *sigh* I need to work on my FMC then . . .

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  7. Oh yeah, and the homeschool jokes cracked me up. The other day a teacher told my friend that he hated homeschoolers because they were unsocial, and didn't know how to talk. She laughed and said he'd never met the right homeschoolers because Maddie wont shut up. I love my friends;)

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    1. as a homeschooler myself, we are DEFINITELY not quiet, and very social- maybe even more than regular people ;)

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  8. Another great post, Rachel! I loved this. I'm currently working very hard to "date" the characters in my current novel in planning. I am really liking how they are turning out (and going to turn out as they develop in the story) and it is so exciting.

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  9. Thanks Rachel! Let's see how this works... I've got some character dating to do! :D

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  10. Thanks for this post! It is such an encouragement to hear from other Christian, homeschooled writers.

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  11. *grins* Public schooled kids used to ask me if I had any friends when my best friend was standing right next to me. :P

    Good post. I love it when my characters start complaining about their stories.

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    1. Lead Good--When your character start telling you to change something or that it should be different? Yes, this happens all the time.

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  12. Ah, Rachel, you are a girl after my own heart. I hope to be a sixteen-year-old homeschooled published author in a couple of years...

    I'm half in love with my MC's best friend anyway, so this dating stuff sounds great. :D You've got some good advice to give there. Thank you very much.

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    1. That's too funny! Yeah, I totally had a crush on Sam when I was writing Interrupted, and kept wanting to shake Allie for not noticing him. Then I realized that it was technically my fault she wasn't noticing him, since I'm the author. ;)

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  13. Rachel, this post is beautiful. Especially those last couple of paragraphs; I think they describe writing in the most truthfully, honest way.

    I'm not in love with my MC's guy. I prefer another guy in the book -- he's a member of a band that's visiting town, and oh, he's so cool! And single. ;)

    Gosh, I'm glad you're all writers. Anyone else would think I was a very big dork for writing that!

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    1. Emii--Haha, no. I can totally relate to falling in love with my characters.

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  14. Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes.

    *That* is writing. Exactly.

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  15. I would love to date my Milo, a funny guy with a mean streak who can't handle heavy emotions. Well, time to go make some *really weird* character journals. Thanks for the post!

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  16. I just read this in The Writer magazine this morning and laughed and thought of this blog post and had to share...

    "If this sounds like my characters are my imaginary friends, well, they are. I take them out for imagined car rides and for virtual pizza. They ask me questions. They give me advice. One character called me on the phone late one Tuesday night to whisper, "Hey, there's something I forgot to tell you.

    True story."

    ~ Linda McCullough Moore

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    1. Rachelle, that is so funny, but so true to writers! Thanks for sharing!

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    2. Rachelle--So gld you shared this! It is true and hilarious! It happens to me all the time.

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  17. Ms. Coker, thank you for this post. I am very thankful that you post in Go Teen Writers. We really appreciate it!

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  18. Yay! I'm not weird!!! ;D
    I am a homeschooler too, and very "unsocialized". Hee hee!
    Some of my best friends are fictional and live in my books and sketchbook. I thought that I probably *was* a little nutty when I told it to my sister one night and she just looked at me, like, huh? I have a few fictional crushes(*blush*) too but I'm not alone!
    Thanks for the post!

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  19. I'm a very very "unsocialized" homeschooler, who knows over 100 homeschoolers, most of them she meets every week or so.
    Very "unsocialized" ;D
    This was a really great post I am only beginning to make real live characters there is this one bubbly aburn girl with violet-grey eyes that I've met but only met, I don't have a "MMC" YET or rather one that leaps of the page, oh dear I believe she's come to call
    :D

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  20. This is sooo funny, but we all know why, and can relate to it, what a laugh if some random non-writer blundered across this ;D

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  21. "Obviously, this is a messed-up analogy, especially if your main character is a girl."

    I can tell who the major demographic for this blog is. The only way I would 'date' an MC is if the MC is a girl. Otherwise, I'd have to change my political party.

    Even if I was a girl, none of my MCs would be the type to date. Too many have no heart left.

    But, I do try to be best friends with them, as much as one can be friends with someone who delights in torturing you, killing your friends, and making your life miserable.

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  22. Hey,I have the same last name as you!

    I'm a 14 year old home schooler. Unsocialized, ha ha!

    I do this all the time, not just with my characters, but also from other stories. Star Wars and Narnia mostly. Thanks for proving I'm not crazy! My siblings look at me weird when I talk to invisible Lucy Pevensie...

    Katelyn

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  23. Is there a such thing as obsessed and being too involved with the characters?

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  24. lol I'm a home schooler and we often joke about being unsocialized, even though I have many friends xD

    This is an awesome post! Thanks! I thought I was the only one :)

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  25. I was talking to my mom a while ago about my characters being difficult to work with, and how they are always trying to take over, and she just looked at me like I had grown another nose. I explained that it's a writer thing. ;)

    I would love to date some of my characters. *sigh* My friend and I are writing a book and my character is falling for hers. But I'm falling for a guy who just showed up in the book. ;) Can't wait to date him.

    I guess being a writer and a homeschooler at the same time makes us all the more weird, huh? It's kind of funny that people think that we homeschoolers are unsocialized and yet we are the ones that can have an engaging conversation with adults and start all kinds of cool things.

    This post was written on my birthday! Yay for birthdays in the summer!

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