Monday, June 20, 2011

The Makings of a Character

Well, I'm sure you've heard this before (probably more than once) but at the heart of almost every great story is an unforgettable character. (or characters).
We can all recall the 'great' ones that we've read or watched.

Scarlett O'Hara
Joe March
Lizzie Bennet
Indiana Jones
Maria Von Trapp
Lucy Pevensie

So - what are some key ingredients to creating memorable characters?
Let's look at a few (this is not an all-inclusive list, but a way for you to get started. For more information on characterization, check out Sarah's FABULOUS post here.

Where do characters come from? Well, there are quite a few places:

1.       Imagination - Developed completely from the creativity of your own mind.

2.       People you’ve observed - inspiration from the people you 'see'

3.       People you KNOW - real life is usually stranger than fiction.

4.       Autobiographical - would we ever admit to this one? :-)
But usually they're a mix of more than one. Characters have a crazy way of sneaking up on us out of nowhere, but they can't get very far without our help. That's why the phrase 'character DEVELOPMENT' is used. It's our job to make these characters believable, realistic, memorable, and unqiue.
Not so easy.

Next you must decide 'who is telling the story'. Most novels have one overarching character who is pursuing an external goal, while struggling with an internal goal. We follow this character (maybe even two characters) on his/her journey and watch him/her grow through the process. Growth is important.

When you decide 'who' is telling your story, you'll probably need a name. Names are very important. Just listen to a DiAnn Mills lecture and your learn for sure. She puts a lot of stock in the names she gives her characters.

Jane Eyre has a very plain name. That's important, because she sees herself as plain, but her name is also solid. Clean. Practical. Many things that apply to her personality. But the name Eyre is a bit unique, and leaves of puzzled as to how one actually pronounces it. So there is a bit of a mystery involved, as there is in the entire novel and in Jane's own life.

Harry Potter is a common name. That's important. All of Harry's friends have unique and colorful names, but not Harry. Why? Because Harry is an ordinary kid, who is called to extraordinary things.

Luke Skywalker gives a great 'feel' for a sci fi. Luke (as in St. Luke) and a guy who 'walks on sky'. Cool, huh?

Pick a name with purpose.

Know Thy Character - From simple things like filling out a character sketch to creating an entire FB page from that characters perspective, we all do something to get to know our characters better. I usually interview him/her and sometimes I'll write journal entries from the character's perspective.
Here are a few helpful questions to ask your character.

1.       What is his/her talent?

2.       What is his/her goal?

3.       What is his/her big fear?

4.       What is his/her greatest joy?

5.       Who is his/her best friend/mentor/confidante?

6.       Who is his/her enemy?

7.       What is his/her deep dark secret?

8.       What makes them laugh?

9.       What makes them cry?

10.   How does he/she respond when they are embarrassed? Angry? Happy? Uncertain?

11.   What does he/she carry in their pockets/purse?

12.   What have they lost?

13.   If they had to grab something from their burning house, what would they grab?
Answer these question, devling deeper into 'knowing' your characters, makes them more three-dimensional instead of just words on a page.
Okay - I'm getting a little carried away here, so I'll come to a close. I'll just leave you with one more note about how I 'get to know' my characters better:
I make something happen to them.
That's right. I throw them in the middle of some stressful scene or spiraling conflict, then see how they respond.  Putting a character into action helps you 'see' how they WILL act. :-)
So - what are some things that you do to make your characters?

And stop by Katie Ganshert's blog today for more information about characterization! Remember, these people are important enough to carry your story -so take time to develop them well :-)


Theresa said...

Wow, what a great post! I am just at the point where I am meeting new characters and getting to know my main character. I get what you're saying about the name. It is important to her that she is her own person, hence her name is Mia - Italian for "mine".

Thanks for the great tips. I will definitely read this post a few more times.

Katie Ganshert said...

Great list of questions, Pepper! I posted about characterization today too, only with a bit of a different spin:

patti.mallett_pp said...

Thanks for this super post!! I didn't think you got carried away at all, in fact, I was disappointed when you stopped conjuring. (But, with the great start you gave, I'll carry on from here.)

And, next, I'll hop over to Katie's site....

Christine Long said...

I've been using Susan's Book Buddy to help with my characters. I spent several hours typing details into a file in Scrivner. Then I uploaded the newest version and it erased it all. So I'm starting over. Not sure it that's a good thing or not but no sense crying over lost characters.

Today is my first unofficial day of summer break. It's unofficial since I still have to administer two more tests this week but I don't have to be there every day. So I'm off to "discover" my characters again. I'm also working on edits based on the comments from the Frasier judges.

Thanks for the great post and ideas!

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Pepper, what a great post! I loved all the questions you shared for asking my characters. Hadn't thought of some of those. Loved the pics in your post too (especially Ann Shirley!). Thanks for giving me ways to add depth to my characters!

Pepper said...

Chiming in from work-guys, but I'll try to get to the comments during my lunch break or later this afternoon!

Aren't characters fun?

Beth K. Vogt said...

Fun, fun post--with photos of lots of my favorite characters.
One tip I've learned from My Book Therapy is to keep asking "Why?" until you get to your character's root motivations. A writing comrade asked me,"So, you know your heroine well? Got her all figured out?" And I said,"Yep!" all so confidently.
Then the next morning I found myself mulling over who she was (again) and I started asking "why?" and discovered a whole new layer to her story.

Aritha Vermeulen said...

Thanks for this great post. I'll translate it for myself in my own language. ( Dutch)

D. U. Okonkwo said...

How cool - great points here. Thanks for sharing!

Joanne Sher said...

What a great post, Pepper! Wonderful advice that I need RIGHT NOW. Working on my MC's characterization almost as we speak. Thanks!

Pepper said...

So glad you enjoyed the post. I LOVE meeting new characters. And, what a perfect way to 'use the name'.

Pepper said...

I linked visitors to your site to get that fabulous info you peddle ;-)

Pepper said...

Oh Patti,
Thanks for the comment. Stop by every day for more writing tips. We have such a good group of writers here!

Pepper said...

Do tell: What is Susan's Book Buddy?
Sounds like I need to find one.

Hope this is the beginning of a GREAT summer for you!

Pepper said...

Anne (with an E, obviously) is a wonderful three dimensional character, isn't she?
Glad the questions helped. I usually ask these out loud to my characters as an interview - sometimes I'll write down the answers, other times it's just to give me a better 'feel' for him/her

Pepper said...

I knew we were kindred spirits. These are some of your fav characters too?

Oooo, the infamous 'why'. I could spiral downward on that one for a long time

Pepper said...

I knew we were kindred spirits. These are some of your fav characters too?

Oooo, the infamous 'why'. I could spiral downward on that one for a long time

Pepper said...


Wonderbaar! So glad you enjoyed this post.

Pepper said...

Thanks for visiting. Glad you liked the post

Pepper said...

Don't you just love Providential circumstances? :-)


Christine Long said...

Susan May Warren has a workbook called The Book Buddy: Your Manuscript Companion. It is a step-by-step analysis of each character. By answering the questions, it helps the writer understand everything about the character.

I use Scrivner to help me keep a separate file for each character. I write the story in Scrivner then copy and paste it into chapters in a Word document. So far it's working!

Pepper said...

Thanks Christine.
I'm really going to have to check that out! Characters are such vital aspects to a good story, it's worth the work to know them well :-)

I've just learned of Scrivener. Lots of people really like it.

I've used OneNote for a while and enjoy it. It's simple, but it works with my brain :-)

Faith said...

Great post! Getting a character 'just right' is hard. Thanks for the advice.

Katie Ganshert said...

Thanks so much for the link, Pepper!

Sarah Forgrave said...

Wow, awesome post, Pepper! I find that my characters are usually a mix of the three that you mentioned. Of course, only the brilliant sides of me come out in my characters. *cough*

Julia M. Reffner said...

FB page for your character...what a neat idea...something that would have never occurred to me :)

I love the questions especially about what a character has lost.

You mean you can make something happen to your characters?? ;). As my book continues I find my character is becoming more and more strong-willed...maybe she needs to stand in the "naughty corner." :) I need character behavior training lessons :)

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

I echo ALL the above.
Great post, Pepper