Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Labeling Your Character to Help Characterize

by Jill Williamson

photo©2009 Bradley Gordon, Flickr
At a writer's conference I attended, the brilliant Susie May Warren suggested that when you start thinking up new characters, you should give them a label. Susie is the author of many books and owns My Book Therapy, an online writing and coaching business. Check it out at http://www.mybooktherapy.com/.

In her class, she used the example of Joe the Drifter. "Drifter" being the label that conveys meaning to Joe's character. Because we can all easily picture the type of person a "drifter" might be, right?

This is a great idea when you're starting a new book and you're not yet fully aware of who your main characters are. If you can label them, it will help you get to know them as write because you can quickly think of traits that fit that label.

I touched on this one a while back when I wrote about character archetypes. But I never considered that a more specific label could help me so quickly.

At the conference, Susie helped me with Mason, a character from my upcoming book Captives. She asked me what kind of a character Mason was, to label him. I said he was a doctor. And that made me think of famous doctor characters. Was Mason a Dr. Richard Kimball from The Fugitive? Was he a John Michael "J. D." Dorian from Scrubs? Or maybe a Dr. Emmett Brown from Back to the Future?

Nope. Mason wasn't like any of those guys. And I was frustrated. Labeling Mason as a doctor had been a good start, but it wasn't helping me write him better.

So I tried another idea.   

I had a vague picture of who Mason was in my mind. So I decided to work backwards. What famous characters reminded me of Mason? I came up with two: Mr. Spock from Star Trek and Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory.

Now both Spock and Sheldon are way too extreme to be my Mason. But this exercise did lead me to the right Myers Briggs personality type and a better character label than doctor. Mason is an analyst. And he is sometimes very extreme, sometimes not. So, as I was writing Mason's extremely anatytical scenes, thinking of Spock and Sheldon's personalities was a big help. Mason is a much more believably complex fellow now.

And no one has to know that I thought of Mr. Spock or Sheldon Cooper as I wrote those complex Mason scenes in Captives. (Except that I told you here!) But thinking of those characters helped me write his analytical side. I discovered some other tricks for writing Mason too that I'll share with you in another post.

Think of your character's label, then think of a famous character to see if there is a likeness. A character like Joe the Drifter could mean someone like Rambo, the Postman, or Mr. Bean in Rat Race. Three very different types of drifters. If you get stuck, try the process backwards like I did and see if you can list a well-known character first, then find your character label. Share what you found out.

37 comments:

  1. That is so cool! I'm going to have to try this. :D

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  2. This is awesome! :D These posts are always insanely helpful. I have this one character that's interested in/likes my main character. She thinks of him as "the lawyer". The only lawyer I could think of that he was remotely like is Matt Damon's character in The Rainmaker. He's more like Dylan O'Brien's character on Teen Wolf wolf. He's that goofy guy that nobody takes seriously but he has a big heart and during the hard times he's the one that ends up taking care of everybody. So...would that make him The Caretaker?

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    1. He sounds so sweet :)

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    2. Yeah, maybe a caretaker. A teddy bear/guard dog kind of guy. I think that would be helpful in writing him. I love that kind of character!

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  3. Let's see...my MC is...hmm. Well, I guess I'll stick "Leader" on her. She's the oldest of a bunch of kids, and she's a mix of a bunch of different people I know plus other stuff that's just showed up out of nowhere :D I love how characters just figure themselves out sometimes!

    As for a famous character, I have no clue. :D

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    1. Keep thinking! There are all kinds of types of leaders. William Wallace from Braveheart, Elle Woods from Clueless, Robert Gould Shaw from Glory, Shawn Spencer from Psych, the Queen of England, Princess Diana.

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  4. And here I thought basing characters off other characters was BAD. Guess not. ;) Like you said, no one has to know. ;) This is going to be so cool! Thanks Jill!

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    1. This is just to get your creative juices flowing. You don't want to make your characters a carbon copy of anyone.

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    2. Yeah, I must have worded this wrong... I meant combining two characters together, or loosely basing a character off another character.

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  5. This is really awesome and I can definitively see how it can be useful! I am going have to think about the label for my MC. She is a bit tricky because she is a meaner girl in the beginning of the book with only one goal in life that pretty much evolves around one thing - herself. Obviously, a top priority of mine is making her lovable so that I don't scare off readers before chapter three if you get what I mean. So with this in mind, I sort of have to think of several characters.
    For the readers to "feel" her more, I have a girl who loves stories and daydreaming. Somethings most readers they themselves like. I also am going to have to make her extremely sweet and protective over the people she cares of most in her life. I am not sure what label she now qualifies under.
    As for her meaner side, I am thinking of a girl who is a bit like Donald Duck. She gets a big dish out of pranking other people but goes a bit too far at times and comes out as irritable. She is mischievousness and doesn't like people who can't take a joke. This ends up making trouble that goes a lot deeper than just a simple joke.
    So yeah...she is confusing but I will eventually pin a label down for her...=)

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    2. Sounds a little bit like Scarlett O'Hara from Gone With the Wind. I don't really know how, but even though I kind of disliked her, I was cheering her on the whole time. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I respected her. Or I understood why she made those decisions even though I didn't really agree. Oh, and in J.K. Rowling's new book she does something similar. You don't always like the characters but you can understand them, and they change throughout the book. Just a couple things to think about. I don't really know if they apply to your MC or not.

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    3. Thank you so much for this you Anonymous genius! I really liked what you had to say about Scarlett O'Hara and do see my character in her a bit! I too respected her in a way and even wished I could be like her so I can see me writing a character like her. She was so bold and that was what I really liked. She was a bit of a novelty to me who has always been a bit timid. Once again, thank you so much! This really helped me! <3

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    4. Great idea with Scarlet, Anon! Sadly, I did not have such a cool character come to mind. The first person I thought of was that annoying diva girl in High School Musical. Sharpay? LOL Didn't she get nice by movie three?

      Maybe Glinda from Wicked?

      These are not very respectable characters, though, an likely could not be leads.
      :-/

      Stick with Scarlet.

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    5. Glad I could help :) Good luck with your character!

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    6. @Jill, LOL!! Loved your choices though I hope mine is a llliiittttle bit nicer. ♥
      @Anonymous, ♥

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  6. Great post! I sort of do this but after reading this I have new ways to make it deeper, tThank you!
    I know in my first WIP one of the guys was like Fred from Drop Dead Diva. I look at MBTI sometimes but it's a little confusing to me. I was reading about the personality thing by Gary Smalley that uses the animals. Then, I saw tue character therapist had a PDF talking about how to use that with characters. I read through it & learned about myself but also saw which my newest MC is. The great thing about the character therapist one is that she has bonuses for writers & it sparked an idea on how go add a conflicting character for my MC.

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  7. Jill, thanks for this post! I haven't really thought that much about adding a description tag to my main character, but now that you've mentioned it, I'll probably spend all week trying to figure it out!

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  8. Wow! That is such a great thought! I should really do this with some of my more difficult characters. I think I'll go think on and label them. Thank you so very much! This is excellent advice!

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  9. This is really, really interesting! Although I'm having a difficult time characterizing my MC. She's an introvert, creative, kind, proactive, and sarcastic at times. I've been considering her as an ISFP (Artist) but parts of her personality don't seem to fit that label. Hmmm.

    Thanks so much for this thought-provoking post! :)

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  10. I've labelled my MC from my 2nd book "The Sunshine", because she's like yellow, and sunny days, and blue skies, and happiness. I guess I'd kind of equate her to *Leslie* from The Bridge to Terabithia. :)

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  11. I think I would label my MC as a Pip from Great Expectations. He's trusting, but this can sometimes carry too far and make him venerable. He's also a lot like Marius from les miserables in that he is very passionate. :-)

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  12. AARG! It's so hard to pick just one! My main characters all have about 3-6!! Trying to cut it down though :D I hope that means they're deep, complicated characters! XD

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  13. Cool! Cant wait to try this!! Haha, I should have no problem working backwards, since most of my characters are based off other characters who had certain stupid traits that drove me nuts so I changed them. *cheater*

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    1. I might have to try that sometime! :D

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    2. My MC appears to be a building. And will eventually have - over time 80 tenants. The tenants will come and go depending on their monthly wants. OK ... it's a 5-story loft accommodating artists of all types. I've had this dream many times over and I still see these people walking in my head as I write this. It's crazy. I don't know what to do with it! People are painting, writing, playing instruments, doing laundry, eating ... I don't know what to do but get them out of my head and keep writing.
      BUT ...
      I don't have a sure MC ...
      Please, help ...

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    3. Debby, who has the most at stake? The most to lose?

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    4. I'm not sure what you mean ... the artists ... the owners of the loft? But they stay silent ... ?

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    5. It's always going to be the artists who will have the most ... because it is their talent at stake ...
      so ... maybe ... i'm focusing on the wrong thing?

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    6. if th's the case ... the how do i choose a mc ?? out of 5 floors of artists who are flooding my head?

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    7. What I mean is which character is on the journey that means the most? The one who if you cut them, the whole story would fall apart? That's usually how you choose the main character, by selecting the person who has the most at stake throughout the story.

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    8. Thank you very much. You have been very helpful. I have reduced the number of tenants from 20 per level to 7, and I think that will make it much easier for me to work with.
      I still see all these people walk through my head - but I think it will be much easier to manage, and discover who is more important ... maybe from chapter to chapter instead of book to book.
      And, so much more fun.
      Again, thanks!

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