Friday, March 19, 2010

Elements of Characterization

Every writer knows that it's important to have a well fleshed out character, but how do you go about creating one?

You might start with a single idea for a scene with that character, maybe a general impression of what the character is like, but to carry through a novel, you need a real depth, a real sense of connection to that character. It needs to be established to the extent that when you throw a couple of your characters into a room together, they start talking, loving – or fighting – straight away, and the dialogue has a sense of reality.

Sometimes that sense of connection is easy to establish. It is certainly easier for some characters rather than others. There is always the Gatecrasher as well – a likely sign that things aren’t working. If your host of characters persists in being ‘flat’ your subconscious will rebel by spontaneously creating a character that highjack’s the action. Now some people – particularly pansters – let this Gatecrasher in and watch how the story changes. I’ve tried that, and a few disasters later I have decided that the Gatecrashers (except in very rare circumstances) have to be ruthlessly culled. Then you have to go back to your characters and see what the heck isn’t working. Now I’m not talking about the plot development stage – at that point you WANT new characters to spontaneously generate – I am talking about when you are trying to get these onto the page.

Kate had some good ideas yesterday about social setting and how this might influence character. When I am struggling to connect with a character I often go through a fairly structured process to flesh them out, where I will look at a number of different categories, like:

  • Background – where did they come from? Where did they grow up?
  • Early life – what sort of things formed them?
  • What do they do? – It's amazing how often you forget this. Before the amazing events of your story, what did they do on a day-to-day basis? This will define where they were at the outset, what responsibilities they may be leaving behind, even their relationships.
  • Love – have they been in love? Can they love?
  • Love in the book – is there a romance?
  • Friendship – who are the people in their life? Who defines them?
  • Desires – what drives them. What are they searching for on conscious and unconscious levels.
  • Fears – what are they scared of (and not just not getting the their desires) – what phobias do them have – very useful for building tension
  • Journey – what are they going to learn on their quest. Will they fail?

By the time I have worked through this, even the most stubborn character will start to come to life – or will have morphed into something I can work with.

So what tricks do you use to get your characters to flow? Or is your challenge reining them in?


Dave Freer said...

Nice post, Chris. I like to work a mixture of instinct and thought into this - ie I write the first 3k or so without much of an idea what the character is going to be, and let their response to the action talk to me. Then, when I some idea who they are flesh them out - in my head not necessarily in the story.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris, I'm a pantser, so I get to know the person as I write about them.

So I guess I'm intuitive at first. Later I'll ask myself why they do things, and where they are going.

Jonathan D. Beer said...

Indeed, nice post Chris. I remember reading interviews with authors who talk about their characters doing things which surprise them, and force them to change the story around their unexpected actions; and I thought "What? But they are your characters, you control them." But no, now I get what that really means.

I have a technique which I have shamelessly stolen from a chap called Gav Thorpe, who in turn nicked it from a book about screenwriting (I believe). To get into the mindset of a character, he writes a brief bit about them, perhaps nothing more than key words. And then he writes, in a truncated, biographical form, a narrative of their life or the events of the novel, entirely from their perspective. He writes how they feel about each Big Point of the novel, explores how they react, really write something personal to the character.

At the end, you really know the character. Doing this has helped me immeasurably to get into the heads of my characters.

Anonymous said...

Gatecrasher. I like that term.

Fortunately my worst ones merely insist on returning in the next book, or better yet, having the next one all about them.

I've got one now that has me wondering. I don't think he's so much gatecrashing though as offering a simpler solution to my problem. I must remember that the Main Characters need to be the ones that solve the problem.

Lin Wicklund said...

Years ago, I joined a writer's group which had an annual convention and monthly one-day classes on things like this.

At the time, it seemed everybody had their own form for characters.

I have a whole flat-bottomed file folder *full* of 'character worksheets' -- the shortest one is three pages, single spaced. Several are 12 pages - and a lot of them have the same geneological tables to fill in that you get from geneological societies.

Has this fallen out of fashion? Please tell me it's fallen out of fashion!

I could *never* get through any of them. While I can see the good side of making note of a character's eye and hair color, say, in case you forget before s/he shows up again, doing the equvalent of a womb-to-tomb governmental agency workup just drained me of any interest I may ever have had in actually *writing* about the guy!

I'm not a pantzer, I just refuse to have more extensive files about my characters than I keep for kids!

Kate said...

Very much a pantser here - I'll start with the main character in my head, a vague notion of where I need to be when it ends, and knowing what kicks it off at the start.

My gatecrashers tend to be walk-ons who turn out to have a much bigger role than I realized - although it was a horrible shock when the utterly evil villain I thought I'd safely killed showed up in my head complete with trademark smirk telling me how he'd survived and of course he'd set up the bolt-hole beforehand, and this was what he was going to do to recover from that little setback...

Lin - you do what works for you. That evolves over time. This field has everything from writers who start with an outline that they flesh out and turn into the novel to the pantsers like me who start somewhere and keep most if it in their head with a few dot points in a file somewhere so they don't have to keep scrolling back to find that information.

You'll find some books need more than others, too. Instead of keeping FBI files on my characters I tend to end up asking (okay, yelling at them) "What was that all about?" Or words to that effect.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Characters are the one place where I'm a pantser. Part of the reason I can write "good" (I think. Hope? well, it's the one thing even reviewers rarely ding me on) characters is that they are REAL to me. They show up in my head, fully formed.
This doesn't mean I know everything about them. In fact, my writing method is closest to Dave's. They show up. I write, oh, fifty pages with them. Sometimes I find I have to abandon them. We have irreconciliable differences. Most of the time, though, I just get to know more about them as I write and sometimes go back and 'backfill.'
Back in the eighties I tried the curriculum vitae for characters or the interview, but it seems to me you end up knowing all sorts of things you don't need to know and the character gets testy. "WHY do I have to tell you my favorite breakfast? Can we get on with the story already?"
Yes, it's sad. I'm BULLIED by the voices in my head. ;-)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Dave. I guess working through the characters background is my way of teasing out there story. In a way I guess I am writing about them. Its an interenting approach though, maybe I should not be so hard on myself when the initial scenes don't gel - and get ready to throw them out:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. I guess I have a fear of letting myself go like that. Mainly because I had to throw away half a novel the first time I tried it. Maybe I should experiment.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Jonathan. That's an interesting approach. I guess I do that for the major PoV characters. It would be an interesting exercise to go through that with the minor characters as well. 'So evil henchman, how do you feel about the destruction of the Volcano Lair?' Seriously though, minor character are present at those times and do influence the story.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. I noticed that I used to have a trend of passing the action to minor characters, or new characters. It was really weakening the story. For some reason I was backing away from the major characters. Until I solved that the whole novel just kept losing its forward movement. Took me a while to see it.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Lin. That sends a shiver down my spine. All I'm interested in is teasing out the characters own story, and how they related to the wider story. Smaller details appear on the fly for me. Ouch! Filling out such detailed sheets sounds terribly painful. Talk about killing creativity! Did the group get you to sit in neat rows with your hands folded as well? 'Hey! No talking back there!':)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. You are one person who doesn't need too much of an aid to get your characters talking!

Its interesting how everyone takes a different approach to get to the some place. What I would call 'plotting' - assembling the story and characters, many people achieve through exploratory writing. I just get stuck doing it that way.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Sarah. Sounds like you have tried a bit of everything. I think I started with the trait list when I first started writing novels and last with it for about 5min. I am just wondering if the different approaches can be related to the all kinesthetic/visual/aural learning spectrum. Some people literally need to 'walk themselves' through things to learn - so maybe its not that much of a stretch to feeling the way through words. Others maybe do it in their head, being more visual. Not sure how the aural would fit in.

Its so fascinating talking about the processes of other writers. So many different ways to skin a cat!

Stephen Simmons said...

I'm not fmiliar with the term "panster", but it's sounding like I might be one, from the comments I'm seeing here ...

Almost everything I've written has been driven by characters, not plot ideas. Characters pop into my head, and they tell me what they want to do. When I need a bridge between where two characters are, I send out a call for somebody from the waiting room and see who shows up. Hopefully it's somebody who'll work into the framework I've already got written. If not, I send him/her away, back up, and try again. (Or change the framework, on one occasion, because he ended up being just too interesting to discard.)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Stephen. Panster is short-hand for 'seat-of-the-pants-writer' i.e. continually exploring and discovering while actually writing it - as opposed to planned it out beforehand.

No matter what the approach all writers need to end up in the same place - with believable characters and a series of events that works as a plot to support the story/character arcs etc, integral and believable setting.

I like that concept of the waiting room. Hope the guys don't get too noisy in there:)

Stephen Simmons said...


I have a flash awaiting reply from the editor right now that takes place entirely between past characters, inside the unsuspecting author's head.

No, I don't hear voices. Those are just off-stage characters, impatient for their turn ...