Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Knowing Your Characters Can Take A While

by Stephanie Morrill

In my experience, I can do the character worksheets. I can daydream the character's backstory. I can pin images on my Pinterest boards. I can figure out my characters' strengths, weaknesses, one-word descriptors, and growth words. But no matter how many of these things I do, I still feel distant from my main character until I get all the way through the first draft.

I don't know why that is. The only theory I have is that it's like going through a hard time with someone, and how that shared experience brings you closer together. If you're doing the whole writing-a-book-thing right, your character is going through one of the biggest challenges of their life. Easing them through that situation is what makes you dig deep enough to figure out who this character truly is.

Regardless of why this is true, I was comforted to read these words from bestselling novelist Angela Hunt and learn that this is a common experience;

"I never feel that I know my characters until I've finished the first draft. We're like strangers mingling at a party, sharing a few whispers and hinting at buried secrets."
- Angela Hunt
Can you relate to this phenomenon? Are you similar in that you have to spend a certain amount of time writing a character before you really know them? Or does something else help you?

43 comments:

  1. I find that character journals helps me immensely, but I still never find out who my characters really are until I stop writing my first draft. At the beginning I think I know them, only to find I'm completely wrong. Sort of like first impressions with people, I guess. :) I really do love my characters and I find them my favorite part of writing.

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  2. I'm the same, Mrs. Morrill. I have finished my first draft and am editing presently, so every couple of paragraphs I find myself saying, "Why in the world would I have Character say that? She'd never say that!" Thanks so much for letting me know I'm not the only one. :)

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    1. It's such a comfort when we find we're not alone :)

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  3. This was a great comfort to me, because I have struggled so long in knowing personally my characters through brainstorming, outlining, short-story writing, and early chapters of my novel. It's a comfort to know that that is okay, and natural. It's the first draft that gives you that personal experience with them!!

    But I do have a question, Mrs. Morrill. When Your novel is so heavily character focused, how do you go through a first draft not knowing your characters deeply enough? Do you press through writing scenes where the characters are totally out-of-character, and unrealistic/papercut since you know you'll work on them later, or do you pause and rework those scenes and try to figure the characters out, and evaluate how to make them more real as you write?

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    1. That's a personal choice, Joy. For me, I find it's best to push on through the end. Seeing how they respond in the very toughest situation of their life (which is what the climax of your story should be) helps me drill down and rewrite earlier scenes in a more effective way.

      And even though I rarely get scenes right the first time, I often find I wasn't too far off with my characterization in the first pass.

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  4. I'm glad I'm not the only one who struggles to get a good grasp of my characters before I've finished the first draft. Even after the first draft is written I sometimes struggle. Most writing books I read usually push the method of filling out character sheets and doing a personality test and all of that before you even start writing the book, but that doesn't work for me. Mrs. Morrill, what do you do to help flesh out characters, especially when you go back in revision?

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    1. Great question, Tricia. While I do find some character worksheets helpful (like Jill's: http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2014/07/creating-compelling-characters.html) I've certainly had times when I continue to struggle with a character, even in revision.

      The two things that have helped me most is to identify the MAIN thing that motivates this character through the story. Often that's where the problem is; their actions don't line up with motivates them. Character journals are the other thing that I've had great luck with: http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2015/02/how-to-build-unique-character-voices.html

      Hope that's helpful!

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  5. I feel the same way! My characters feel like... Well characters until I get through the first draft. When I write them their secrets and true emotions come out.

    Melody's Musings

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    1. That's a great point. There's definitely a time in the process where the characters stop feeling like just that.

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  6. Something I find quite helpful is, when I'm 'talking' to my writer friends via the internet, we'll often bring our characters into the conversation and just have them interact. (if that makes sense) It's really handy for getting a sense of how the character talks, and would interact with different kinds of characters. Also it's super fun. :D

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  7. So true. I can build character profiles all I like, but until I write with them I don't know them. Quote 'You may know about me, but that does not mean you know me'. I still make profiles and etc., but now I ignore them for most of the book unless I need to look up something as basic as age and eye color. Right now, I'm taking the time to try out different techniques for discovering character for the second draft. With five POVs, this is going to be rather tricky ...

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    1. I've always liked a good challenge and a large cast.

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  8. Getting to know my characters is so difficult. I always get a great image in my head of how they will be, do the sheets and all that, but still struggle through writing. I know them beforehand and the first draft turns into 'how can I get you to follow the story or tell your own and not pull my hair out?' They're wonderful people. It's just that each and every one of them is a brat until I get all the first words down! I'm going to save this quote. Thank you~

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    1. I'm glad you like the quote. I found it really comforting.

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  9. Yes! I don't really like filling out character worksheets except for motivational/plot purposes, mostly because I don't really get a sense for the character by knowing if they like peanut butter and jelly or not. I have a specific voice in my head, and once I get it down on paper, I figure it out. It does take a while, however.

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    1. I'm very similar. It's always worth the time!

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  10. YES. It's why first drafts are my favorite part of writing - I can't get to know the people in the story until I've written a whole story with them.

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    1. How interesting! I like edits because I'm like, "Ah. I think I finally have you figured out." :)

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  11. I have this same problem too. It's usually why I have so many drafts of my novel. Each time I finish going through a novel, I learn so much about my character that I have to go back and change. And then I go through it again and learn even more about a character. I've found it helpful to have my characters "interviewed" by friends of mine to find out different things about them or to do a character lounge with some other people and put them in different scenarios to learn more about them.

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  12. I am a bit different... I have not yet finished plotting my next novel, but I have spent so much time brainstorming and acting out my favourite scenes that I have already grown to know and love my characters immensely. I cannot wait to start writing...

    Thank you for the quote, as always, Mrs. Morrill!

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    1. That's wonderful! What a help that will be as you're writing.

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  13. I worked on my story before, throughout, and after NaNoWriMo, and I found that at the end of NaNo I knew my characters so much better than before. I still write kind of the same for most of the characters, but in editing I am going to try and tailor the voice in each of the character's perspectives to how they would talk.

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    1. When I go back through first drafts, I find a lot of times I was close on characterization, just not quite on target.

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  14. It takes me a long time to fully flesh out my characters as well, and in most cases it takes me more than just the first draft. I find that with each revision pass, my characters get better fleshed out, and that's part of what makes writing a novel so much fun.

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  15. When I started to write my first draft, I felt like I didn't know my main character at all. Now on my second draft, I feel like I understand her better. I never knew others had trouble with not knowing characters! Great post!

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  16. Yeah I don't end up really loving my characters until after writing three drafts of my first book and first drafts of my second and third book in the series. But I definitely think it's the going through trials with your characters that bond you with them. It's like, you may know all about someone from your friend, but you won't actually ever enjoy that person's company until you meet them and spend time with them for yourself. I like to write short stories about my characters that'll never make it into the book, and I recently started prompted character journals.

    Then of course...there's always brainstorming in the shower...

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    1. Brainstorming in the shower... so true!... that cracked me up.

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    2. Isn't that the truth? Showers are magical.

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  17. Great post!

    I tend to plot out how I want my MC to be... only to find when I start writing that she's not reading that way. I used to ascribe this to bad-first-draftness and being an amateur writer, thinking that if I just edited more, either as I went or afterward, then my MC would read right', but I'm beginning to think it's just a part of letting nice streamlined dreams grow into people who don't necessarily behave like they're 'supposed' to. And when I stop caring so much about making sound [adjective], that's when they get their own voice.

    I guess it's just an adjustment for my perfectionist brain to make, to work out how the character is apart from my original idea of them. I'm planning a new project (well, I say new, but this plot bunny's been hopping around for a long long time) , and one thing that I hope is going to help is that I had my characters interact with my NaNo friends' characters. Maybe now that I've gotten over the shock of them not talking 'right' and struggled through that messiness already into something that feels real-ish, my draft'll be a leetle more smooth. But I think I'm going to have to accept that whatever I do, whether I've plotted like crazy or not, what's gonna happen is that I start writing and mild to horrific chaos ensues. XD

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    1. I think you're right, Miri. Even for writers who like to plan every detail, its impossible to plan out your characters perfectly. They definitely have to be discovered as you go along.

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  18. I find that my characters are stubborn... takes a while for them to tell me everything, takes a while for me to pry them open and find out who they really are. For example, one of my MC's told me AFTER I wrote the first draft of my story that he was abused his whole life. I was pretty ticked at him... I had to go back through and add a lot and rewrite. It made my story have a bit more of a density that was really cool to see that this really fit with everything. It's like a 6th sense. The reasons that they do what they do are all connected in a way that I don't see with my pantsing habits until after they are unfolded and layed out, I can see why they are like they are, why he's so insecure, why she doesn't understand certain things, why he's always afraid and uncomfortable and doesn't have friends. It's really awesome... I love writing. It helps figure out how your brain works as well! Very interesting...

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    1. I've had similar things happen, Emma, and it's so cool when you find that missing piece :) (And it's so crazy sounding that I'm glad we have other writers to talk to when it happens!)

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  19. I do something called Story Character Chatting (SCC), where you roleplay with your own characters. It's fun, and great for getting to know your characters.

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  20. I have the same feeling as well. I won't truly understand my main characters until editing the 1st draft, or in the subsequent drafts as well. I gain a better understanding as more time continues on.

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  21. I feel this way, too! I always have to get through the first draft (and sometimes more) before I really know the character and can capture their voice.


    Alexa S. Winters
    thessalexa.blogspot.com

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  22. I agree completely about not knowing the people in your story until after the first draft. I just finished the first draft of a fantasy I am working on. I had a lot of ideas for one particular person before I starting writing about him, but as the story progressed a lot of them didn't fit. But maybe they will fit someone else that I haven't met yet or don't know well enough yet. This is what makes writing so much fun - the journey of discovery. :)

    God bless, Anne Marie :)

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