Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The non-list-making, non-threatening, let’s-have-a-cup-of-coffee-and-chat method of creating living breathing characters.

Guest blog by Susie May Warren

There you are, you’ve got a blank computer screen, and the smallest tickle of an idea, something you’ve read, or seen, some question you think might be interesting tackled in a book.  But where do you go from there?  How do you turn a blip of an idea into a full novel, one that will resonate with readers?

Jack Ryan
Regardless of the genre -- suspense, romance, historical, or chick lit -- stories can touch our lives, even change us.  And, while plot lines are important…it is characters that drive stories.  When we think of The Hunt for Red October, we think of Jack Ryan.  When we think of The Fugitive, we think of Dr. Richard Kimball.  Characters drive the plot.  So, how do we create characters that live and breathe and drive a story into our hearts?

Throw away the list!
When I began writing, I did what seemed logical – I filled out character lists.  Answered hundreds of questions.  But my characters still felt flat, and more than that, their actions, dialogue and conflict didn’t seem to connect.  At the time, I was home schooling, and as I looked at developing my children’s self-esteem, it hit me.  People reveal themselves from the inside out, based on how they see themselves, or want others to see them.  And discovering how a character defines himself is the key to making them come alive.   

Susie May Warren
Who am I? 
I have an identity – as a wife, a mother, an author, and by those three words, I’ve given you a glimpse into who I am, based on your understanding of what those words mean to you.  Everyone has an identity, a way they describe themselves.  Knowing how our character defines him or herself will help us understand his/her motivations and values.  And knowing those will help us figure out what their greatest fear and dreams are, and help us craft internal and external conflict. 

Let’s take the characters I mentioned above:
Jack Ryan – a CIA analyst, rising in the ranks who hasn’t had much field action. He’s a family man who wants to keep the world safe.   His greatest fear in this movie is misinterpreting the actions of a Russian sub that has gone AWOL and accidentally igniting WW3.  His greatest dream is to be right…and gain access to this sub.  His motivation is his family…keeping them safe.

Dr. Richard Kimball
Dr. Richard Kimball in the Fugitive.  He’s a doctor who has been wrongly accused of murdering his wife.  His greatest fear is never having her murder solved.  His greatest dream for the purpose of this movie, is apprehending her killers.  His motivation is his love for his wife, and his freedom.

Knowing a person’s identity makes their actions believable.  So, how do we discover our characters?  

First, as you create a character, ask how he defines himself.  For example, I’ll create Joe, who calls himself a drifter.  Why does he call himself that?  Because he has been on his own for year.  Why?  Because he left home as a teen.  Why?  Because it hurt too much to stay there.  Why?  Because his father left them after his little brother was born with Down Syndrome.  Why?  Because he’d been close to his father and his heart was broken. 

See the pattern?  Start with an identity and start asking WHY.  The key is to keep asking until you get to the underlying motivations behind your character’s identity.  Once you’re there, it’s not too hard to discover the three things that will give your character resonance:
1.      Your character’s values
2.      Your character’s greatest fears
3.      Your character’s greatest dream
                    
Values drive actions. 
We do things because we believe in them.  For example, if my character has a broken past, maybe he values trust and family.  And maybe he’ll do anything to protect the ones he loves – i.e., his brother and mother.  But maybe he also values his privacy?  One way to create internal conflict in a story is to pit a character’s values against each other.  What if this character has to sacrifice his privacy to earn someone’s trust?  Or sacrifice his family to keep his privacy?

A person’s values also lead to mannerisms and ancillary information. For example, my character might carry a picture of his family in his glove compartment. 

Make them suffer:
While you’re asking your character the whys, also ask him about his greatest fear, and greatest dream.  Because, your goal is to make him suffer.  For example, if my hero loves family, maybe his greatest fear would be to lose the family he has left.  And maybe his greatest dream is having a family of his own?  By asking these questions, you’ll then learn how to torment them.  (And authors are all about the torment, aren't we?).

What about the extras?  
Oh, you mean the kind of car he drives?  The clothes he wears?  Your character’s identity, motivations and values will make them reveal the “list” questions.  My character might drive an old pickup…maybe unconsciously the same kind his dad did.  Or maybe he’d drive something completely opposite.  Maybe his hobby is fishing…reminiscent of the old trips with his father.  Once you know your character’s identity, he’ll fill in the gaps. Your job is to listen. 

Creating a character doesn't have to be about mining your brain for interesting quirks.  Simply sit down with your hero/heroine and have a little chat.  (Preferably in a room with a closed door where no one can hear you.)  Hopefully you’ll discover a character who leaps from the page and into your reader’s hearts. 

Susan May Warren is the award-winning, best-selling author of over 40 novels and the founder of My Book Therapy, a craft and coaching community for novelists. She likes to call it the coffee shop inside the Walmart world of publishing. With a community of over 1300 writers, a premium membership for advanced writers, video classes, online chats, writing products, retreats, contest and an annual pizza party, her goal is to help everyone find their voice in the publishing world. Check out the daily blog on writing at www.mybooktherapy.com.

25 comments:

  1. Awesome, Miss Warren! This should be a ton of help! I've filled out some character charts myself...

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  2. Great post!
    For me, writing questions and answers for my characters takes the fun out of getting to know them, so instead I just hang out with them, kind of like how you said. If I see something I think is interesting, I automatically wonder what a character would think about it. Sometimes I forget other people don't have such a close relationship with my character, so I get some strange looks whenever I say things like, "Oh, (insert character's name here) would love that!"

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    1. Oh, yes...the famous strange looks! I get those a LOT. We writers are a strange bunch.

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    2. I echo this. Once I almost tapped a complete stranger on the back - I was about to start gushing about how her name (Ember) was also the name of my main character.

      And then I realized how weird that would look...so I kept my excitement to myself. :P

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    3. I drive my sisters crazy when I talk like my character is real.

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  3. Extremely, extremely helpful! Thanks so much! One thing I never want to do is have flat (or cardboard, as one of my friends has called them--you know who you are!) characters. Every book I've ever read that doesn't have interesting characters I can relate to seems really boring. In my opinion, the best and easiest way to ruin your book is to make the mistake of not really getting to know your characters. I mean, how easy would it be to write the life story of a stranger as opposed to a best friend?

    Anyway, thanks again!

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  4. Thanks so much for posting, this is really helpful. Now excuse me while I go off to have a chat with some of my problem characters...hopefully this will make the editing easier. ;)

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  5. Wow, I got scared at the title. Joking,lol.
    That was a great post! I love working with my characters and making them better. I've tried some character charts too, and sometimes I get something out of them, but most of the time it seems pretty boring. I like this idea alot.

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  6. Thank you so much for this! My main character in my current WIP is a lot like me. Though that definitively gives me a boost when it comes to figuring her out, I realized that I haven't really given my future readers that thing that is making her decisions for her. That dream or desire. I have sort of been just making her do what I would do in that situation and though that I feel is good, the readers don't really see that. I need to go back and give her something to really push her. Once again, thank you so much!

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  7. Perfect timing! The idea that I thought was THE IDEA for me has fallen so flat and dry right now. I don't even want to write. I'm thinking its more a premise or theme than plot. I have no idea what to do with the plot and have been stressing over plot point. Maybe I don't know my characters enough! I've tried those lists and questionnaires only to find them stressful

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  8. That is an utterly excellent post! I've always been one to fall into lists and wonder how in this world I'm supposed to do them. I'll run into blank walls. Favorite color? What's my character's favorite color?! I can never do well on them--even with the characters I know the best. Asking why sounds more like me. It sounds right and like the proper way to get answers. I love asking myself questions beginning with why, but I never put two and two together that that's what you should do in character creation. Thank you ever so much!

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    1. Exactly what I thought! I just LOVE asking "why", Ms. NG. It's so much fun!! :D

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  9. Thanks for this! Really helpful post.

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  10. I love this post! I probably would've anyway, just based on the title, but still--I'm a fan of the method you've outlined here. The list thing's never really worked out for me, but I'm thinking something more organic like this should be a big help. I'm definitely trying this next time I have a new character to flesh out.

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  11. Hey so as soon as I read this post, I asked my main character some questions. Questions that I have never asked her before or thought of. In response, I got a 870 word scene of one of her most personal memories. This memory in fact made me tear up and that is a HUGE thing for me! I have never cried because of my writing. Absolutely never. This scene my character "told me" made all of her story I have so far penned out more powerful. Thank. You. So. Much. (!!!!!!) I never thought a simple scene could turn my story around but it gives it this TOTAL new view to my story. I really needed this as lately I haven't been the most confident in my story. The passion sort of left me and I was going into my daily half hour writing sessions thinking about what I will do after it was over. I am so glad the passion is back and the ideas are flowing! I have been writing for three hours and it feels like a mere three minutes! ♥

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    1. That is so incredibly awesome. The other day I cried because of some of my writing for the first time. I'm so glad your writing's going well. Mine is too. I keep coming up with new ideas subconciously and writing them when I should be paying attention in English class. It's a wonderful system.

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    2. :D Thank you so much and that is awesome about your writing as well! And isn't the feeling of being touched by what YOU wrote amazing?! So glad you got it to!! And lol! That sounds like a wonderful system although I am not sure if your teacher agrees.

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  12. Thank you so much for this post!!!I just started thinking about a new idea and I just realized I've been unconsciously doing the "why?" thing. I'll take it even further now, and think about her values and fears and dreams! Thank you! This was really helpful!

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  13. Wow, what an awesome post. I can't really say anything in this comment that hasn't been said before, but I just wanted to jump in and say how helpful this was. Because it helped. ALOT. Thanks again!

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  14. This is just what I needed I was actually thinking about this in the car today on a field trip. I have the best book idea but I just can't get my characters to be at all life like. I have a hard time getting away from the people around me and creating them as their own like able self. This is going to help me a lot!

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  15. This just makes me want to go meet a new character. Thanks for a great post, Suzie! And I feel pretty special to be reading this because I'm pretty sure both Jill and Steph have talked about all the great things they learn from your workshops? Thankyou!

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  16. I always thought those lists were horrible artificial. Good to know other people agree. Thanks for your thoughts! =)

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  17. From Amo Libros:
    Ohh, thank you!! This is a big help!!

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  18. Fabulous tips! I definitely think that interviewing your characters can be a great way to develop them, and I feel that I've had a lot of success doing so. By answering questions about my characters - (sometimes from my characters' viewpoints, which can be really fun!) - on everything from their greatest fear to their favorite song, I can get into their head in a way that really helps bring them to life on the page. :) Thank you for the advice!

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  19. Oh my goodness this has helped me! Thanks so much!

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