Sunday, August 28, 2011

Technical Topic: Creating Characters

Elsewhere, someone writes, pretty much:

My characters never develop beyond something used to fill a gap in the story or follow the plot as directed by the writer.  

What goes on through your head when you create a character?

There are dozens of good ways to develop characters.  You get thirty writers talking and you're going to hear thirty methods, most of them contradictory, some of them involving lists and interviews and diagrams and scrapbooks.  Some of them mentioning alcohol.

The best way to create characters is to try a bunch of these methods with an open mind and then go along doing what works for your particular and idiosyncratic creativity.

When I suggest this stuff below, you are advised to take it with a grain of salt because it may not work for you.  But here something to try:

Sit down where it's quiet and you don't have anything you need to do for a while. Get comfortable. Close your eyes. Think of your character in one particular scene, in one specific time and place.

This is a visualization exercise. You're going to crawl inside that character. You are going to see the world from his POV.

Try real hard not to feel silly, ok?

We enter the character by imagining what comes to his senses.

He or she is sitting, as you are. What's underneath him -- the stairs, a log beside the campfire, a velvet sofa? Is there wind? What do you smell in the air? What do you hear?

We enter our character by imaging the interior of his mind and body. He is filled with emotion and needs. Is he warm, cold, tired, hungry, excited, angry, annoyed, afraid?
Our guy has just finished doing something. What? He carries the immediate memory of those recent actions and feelings.

And we enter the character by imagining his needs.

Your character, at every moment, is just chock full of some goal.
What does he want, right now?
A sandwich? Directions to the zoo? A chance to kiss Molly? The combination to the safe? Escape from the toothed boomerslings?
What emotion does he feel in regard to that goal?
What action does he plan to get him what he wants?

This is how we create our people.  We don't look down from on high as if they were chess pieces we're going to move around at our convenience.  We get down in the mud with them.  We gain our insights from sensing what goes on inside the skin.  We find out how the characters see each other at eye level.
Because that's where we are.  At eye level.

I don't mean to say we shouldn't set down a list of parameters for the characters.

In Forbidden Rose, right from the start, I knew Justine had to be very young, no older than Adrian.  She had to be intelligent and educated, of the nobility, a great and loyal French spy, more fond of guns than knives, and with a horrific past.  I pictured someone of sorta midbrowny coloring, so she wouldn't match Adrian's darkness.

These are character parameters I needed for the long-term plot of Forbidden Rose and Black Hawk.

But see how none of this is important stuff about her.  None of it helps me know who she is. Any kind of persona at all could fit inside those parameters.

I didn't know 'Justine' herself till one day I was writing along in the early imagining of the story and I closed my eyes and there she and I were, in her bedroom, with Severine and Adrian.  It was one of the first scenes of the book I could visualize.  That's when Justine began telling me about herself.  And that's the first time I saw Severine and knew how I'd wrap up the story.

So this is what I'd advise.
Instead of laying down the law on what our folks have to do for plot reasons or what they have to be so they match some consistent and usable character we want them to be,
we let them tell us what they feel and think and need.

We learn this stuff because we are inside their skin.

Eventually, we can ask what they want, long term, and we can go back and look into their past to discover why they want it.


  1. Love this. Your characters always leap to life for me. Thanks for the insight on how *you* make it happen. Really enjoyed meeting you in NYC, and can't wait to read more of your books!

  2. One thing that always nails it for me is to answer the question: How do these two people make love? Once I put them together in that most intimate of exchanges, somehow, their essential natures emerge.
    That said, I absolutely have to be able to walk around in their world: scent, weather, sounds - leads to many happy hours of research instead of writing. Sigh.

  3. Hi Gwen -

    I'm waiting for Black Hawk to come out . . . I guess it's four weeks from now.

    And Pax's story is very slowly coming together. I get real nervous when I don't know what's going to happen in a story.

  4. Hi Blythe --

    "How do they make love' sounds like a great approach. *g* For me -- I have to know my people and the story very well before I begin to 'see' that. Maybe we're diametric opposites. *g* Especially, I have to see the plot point I'm making with that love scene.

    Research. I totally love research.

  5. Jo, I've started trying to do this, but what I find frustrating (and embarrassing, frankly) is that my characters are all in one way or another like me. Lots of little Annies running around regency England with my interior life. Dull, dull, dull.

  6. Hi Annie --

    Isn't that the problem though? Not only are the characters made up of bits and pieces inside us . . . we want to rewrite the same folks again and again.

    Helps if we do different ages and man/woman. Helps if we give the folks different 'themes' and different voices. Helps if we can pick little pieces from other folks, real and fictional.

    But none of it helps very much, does it?

  7. Christine12:07 PM

    Hi Annie and Jo,

    Jo said "Isn't that the problem though? Not only are the characters made up of bits and pieces inside us . . . we want to rewrite the same folks again and again."

    Well maybe not the same characters exactly but there is definitely a "spirit" each author imparts to their work and characters. I guess you could call it an author's style but I feel it's more than that. The character's take on a bit of the author's personality or world view in some way. For instance in your characters Jo, I always feel a sense of optimism and "can do" spirit in them even in dire situations. They are more "pick yourself up and go on" types rather than sitting and self analyzing. as a reader I've absorbed it and thought of it as your mentality even if it was not put in 100% consciously by you. I find Carla Kelly has a similar feeling in her works as well and I enjoy it very much. It makes even the most dramatic situations bearable because you feel these characters are resilient and won't crack.

  8. Hi Christine --

    I've been thinking about this a while.

    Our philosophy of life creeps into every line we write, doesn't it? You remember how the Victorians considered it quite as shocking that a woman should be a writer as an actress? Writing was seen as immodestly revealing.

    Every time we create our characters -- if we're doing a proper job of it -- we uncover parts of our soul. We tell the world, "I think this is how a good man acts." "This is how a woman should face danger or loss." "This is what I think is important."

  9. Hi Joanna and group,
    (I am Carol Butler Crawley on your facebook). This is my pen name. (So there is no confusion.)

    Character building: First let me say this: I do not like weak or whiny characters. men or women. There has to be that inner strength or it is a wash to me. Facing daunting possibilities in their lives, they must retain a certain strength. Perhaps that is not true to all readers or writers. In my own characters, this can be a flaw.

    Cassandra is well bred, English aristocracy transplanted in to the colonies. Well spoken and carrying herself in a way that those around her are tipped off to her background, she is none the less, rebellious with a stubborn streak a mile long. It is those traits that help carry her through the toughest of times.

    An admission here. Not all of my characters traits and background are known even to me when I begin to write. Cassandra's parents come to me lying in bed one night. I knew exactly who they would be. An outline? Yes. till, they grow as the story unfolds. In ways even I don't expect.