Thursday, June 10, 2010

Ask Your Characters

In her post on Monday, Elisabeth talked about naming characters. I'd like to continue the discussion of creating characters by sharing two ways I learn more about these people with whom I intend to spend a lot of time.

In character-building, fiction writers are often encouraged to create a biographical sketch which includes the character's physical attributes (Mitch has brown eyes and because I've written it down somewhere, Mitch will always have brown eyes in my book), family background and notes about important past traumas that affect the character's outlook on life. I always do this as part of my novel research, and use the Enneagram and astrological sign to give me hints about personality traits. With the sketch created, I can add other facts I learn about the character along the way.

Then I pull two books off my shelf with the express purpose of having a quick conversation with each of my characters.

The first book is "The Book of Questions" by Gregory Stock. I open the book at random three times and write down the question I find there. Then I ask each of my characters the same three questions and add their answers to each biographical sketch. So, whenI open the book up three times right now and I get:
  • If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be? [Question 127]
  • What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about? (Elizabeth Bennett has some thoughts on this.)[Question 142]
  • Would you prefer to be blind or deaf? [Question 171]?
These questions can be posed to contemporary or historical characters. Sometimes a question will have to be adapted for a historical setting. A sea captain in the 1700's would not encounter a dog in a locked car on a summer day very often. Then again, maybe you really want to write a time-travel story. Hm-m-m. But I digress. Point? The questions allow you to easily dig a little deeper into your character's character.

The second book is "14,000 things to be happy about." by Barbara Ann Kipfer. My request to each of my characters is "Name five things that make you happy." A random opening of the book again can bring intriguing answers and set the brain's idea juices into overdrive. Each page lists over 25 things that might make someone happy and I try to choose something that hits my fancy without making any judgments. Mitch (of the brown eyes above) is a land surveyor in Alabama in the early 1800's. The five things that make him happy are:
  • candymaking
  • writing old friends about new plans
  • boiling water for coffee
  • sleepyheads
  • erect posture
I'll bet your brain just fired up. Candymaking? Huh. What's up with that? Why on earth does erect posture make this guy happy? His posture? Someone else's? And off we go.

Creating living, breathing characters can be tough, but using books like the ones I've mentioned can transform your paper characters into people.

Can anyone else suggest some other resources that will help us get to know our characters better?


Elisabeth Rose said...

Interesting. Writers often say they do character interviews and in depth charts to learn more about them but I rarely do that. I think I must be too lazy :) I learn about my characters as I write. Rather like meeting people in real life. The more you hang out with them the more you learn about their likes and dislikes. They tell each things I didn't know too. :)

Carol Hutchens said...

I've always done the charts...
But I like this idea from Lis. Bet this would end the info dump in the early chapters...thanks for sharing.

Great post, LaVerne

I.J. Parnham said...

It's nice to hear how others write. My way is the opposite of this. The only exercise I ever do to find out about my characters is to write their story and gradually they let me know about themselves so I can improve the second draft.

I often think the moment the people have become real to me is the moment I read something I wrote earlier and I think he/she would never say or do that.

LaVerne St. George said...

These comments are really showing how different the writing process can be for each writer. That's good news for new writers, because the only advice they need is to use a process that works for them. Lis and Ian, your approach made me recognize that I'm a planner by nature, so I tend to have a basic plan for everything I do, character development included. I am in awe of those of you who have a comfort level with forging on ahead and trusting that you'll learn along the way.
Vive l'difference!