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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Characters: getting to know them

How do characters become real people? Personally, I treat them like real people as much as possible, and it seems to rub off. They start talking back, disagreeing, developing annoying habits, all those things real people do.

Getting to know them
When I'm working on a character, I ask them a lot of questions. I watch a movie and ask them what they would do in that situation, or what they think of the characters' choices. I get ready to go to the store and ask my character where they get their groceries. When I'm folding laundry or cooking dinner, I'm thinking about what chores my character does, and why.

Yes, this includes things people only do in private, too. Even if the story never follows my character into, say, the bathroom, what happens in there is a part of that character.

At the same time, I'm thinking about plot issues: how will the character react to the situations? What would be dramatic and interesting -- and reasonable? Under what conditions would a character make a dramatic choice? How do backstory and world-building influence the character? What are top priorities to someone in that situation?

For example: a character who grew up poor and occasionally went hungry. It seemed a safe bet to me that if you put food in front of this girl, it's going to vanish. Whether she likes it isn't an issue, and she'll eat until she's stuffed if she can. Poverty makes her relationship with money interesting: maybe she's very miserly and reluctant to spend what little she has. That can turn into a mean-spirited Scrooge type, or it can manifest as one of those hyper-economical housewife types. Or maybe whenever this character comes into some money, she spends it quickly. Does she buy essentials and stockpile them? Does she blow it on those nice things she's been dreaming of (but doesn't really need)? Does she even dare to want those nice things, since when she was growing up the answer was always, "We can't afford that"?

All of those things tell you something about the character's underlying personality. A Scrooge-ish attitude toward money will carry over into attitudes toward people -- or are people "different" from things, in this character's mind?

Watching and reading a variety of stories helps me a great deal in this process. It helps in both directions -- well-written stories get me fired up with ideas that work, and poorly written stories make me think about what would have been more dramatically satisfying.

Writing a story about the character accelerates the process, too. I often write little trial-run stories with characters, just to get to know them better. Just little slice-of-life things with minor goals. I often write plain conversations between two characters, during which they both reveal backstory and give me a sense of what's important to them.

Sprang fully formed
What I describe above is a slow build by accretion. Like a pearl. But on occasion, it has happened to me: a character's personality arrived fully formed. I always knew what he'd do, but getting him to explain his backstory and motivations took some arm-twisting. He's a memorable character, needless to say.

Has that happened to you?

1 comment:

mshatch said...

I've never had a character show up completely. They always take their time revealing themselves but asking questions and writing their backstory - even if it's never going to part of the book - definitely helps bring them to life.