Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Self-Editing Checklist: Characterization (Plus a Giveaway!)

Plot vs. character. Character vs. plot. The debate could give writers a headache the size of War and Peace. Lucky for all of us, I'm not going to jump in that pool.

Regardless of your approach, the content in this post assumes you've done some characterization. It might be character interviews or charts or talking to your characters while you drive your son to preschool (which I've never, ever done...*grin*).

In case you haven't figured it out yet, Point #8 in my self-editing checklist is Characterization. (For the previous 7 points, click here.) Here are some things to consider as you analyze your characters in each scene.

a) When introducing new characters, are you info-dumping every detail upfront, or are you letting their character be revealed through action and dialogue as the story plays out? This includes backstory. Are you spelling out their family history before we know who they are?

Think of it in terms of real life. If I meet you at the park while my kids are climbing the jungle gym, I'm not going to tell you about my childhood, starting with the birth canal. I'll start by talking about my current life, my kids, and my potty training battles if I see that your kid is in Pull-ups too. Then if the friendship progresses beyond an acquaintance, we'll add another layer, and so on.

Get the reader interested in your character's current struggle, and they'll be dying to peel the layers at a later point (preferably after Page 50 or even 100).

b) Does each of my characters leave a dominant first impression? Have I made them distinct enough to differentiate them in the reader's mind? This might include different strengths, weaknesses, appearances, speech, mannerisms, and attitudes. (For an expansion on this topic, check out this overview of characterization.)

c) Will readers be able to relate to my characters? Are they too perfect? Too flawed? Too cliched? Seek to find a balance between imperfections and likeability. This is a very tricky skill to learn (and it's one I'm still learning!). One book I highly recommend is Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias.

If you're in the early stages of characterization, or if you're stuck with a difficult character, there's an amazing resource available. My critique partner, Jeannie Campbell (aka, The Character Therapist), is launching her new website TODAY! She's a licensed therapist who provides tailored diagnoses and evaluations of fictional characters, and she has awesome tools on her site.

In fact, she's offering her Writer's Guide to Creating Rich Back Stories as a giveaway to one lucky commenter! The winner will be announced in our weekend edition. Be sure to check out her site! (And no, I'm not just saying that because I think she's nice and super-cool.) :)

Your homework for the next two weeks, should you choose to accept it: Read the article I referenced and analyze your scenes for how your characters are being portrayed. If you've found trouble spots or just need ideas to move forward, check out The Character Therapist, as well as the book I mentioned above.

How do you usually develop your characters? Do you err on the side of making them too perfect or too flawed? What are your favorite characterization resources?

* Headache photo by Nutdanai Apikhomboonwaroot /
** Onion photo by Carlos Porto /


Keli Gwyn said...

Great info, Sarah. In one of my stories I had a hero who was too perfect and a heroine who came off as a bit clueless and moody. Not good. They could have used some time on The Character Therapist's couch. =)

Sarah Forgrave said...

LOL, Keli, I tend to write moody characters on days that I'm feeling moody. Funny how that happens. Maybe I can do a joint Character Therapist session with my characters! :)

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

i'll pencil you girls in for a group session. :)

Julia said...

Thanks, Sarah!! Great post!! This series has been so meaty and helpful!! Love Jeannie's site, didn't know she was your crit partner...heading over to check it out.

P.S. Hope you're doing well today.

Joanne Sher said...

ALSO love Jeannnie's site - and REALLY want that book! I'm working on characterization on my WIP right now (or, within the next hour, to be more exact).
Enter me PLEASE!

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Wow! What a great post, Sarah! I soooo appreciat all you shared today. It's so practical. As for my characters, ofr my current wip, I got to (and am getting to) know them through interviewing them. Since this is my first wip, I was so surprised that they talked back to me!
At first, I wrote the main characters as very selfish people, so I've had to re-vamp and change some things in the story so they are more likeable.
Thanks for the link to your friend Jeannie the Character Therapist! I plan to check it out soon.
You ladies over here are such an encouragement!
As for favorite resources, I'm still discovering them, but my critique partner has really helped me to better understand and add depth to my characters.
The book sounds interesting! :)

Anna said...

This post couldn't be more timly. I have always struggled with characterization and in fact I just wrote a blog entry spelling out my struggles. My question: do character questionnaires or surveys actually work? I am giving them a real shot for the first time and so far they seem rather pointless. I don't really care about my charcter's favorite color, only things that pertain to my story. But like I said, I've always stuggled so I'm giving them a fair chance since so many wirters swear by them.

Mary Vee Writer said...

Great info Sarah.
I think my greatest handicap is spilling a character's lifestory up front. Bad--bad. I know. Working on this.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great post - definately something I need to get into more actively with interviewing. As I did alot of acting over the years, I tend to "step into" the character's shoes instead. Imagine that I am them...

I often find myself making funny faces as I write in order to work out their reaction to something and their facial expression. I'm sure my neighbours must think I'm nuts!

Sarah Forgrave said...

Jeannie, Let's skip the pencil and go straight to a big fat permanent marker. :) So glad to highlight you today, my friend!

Julia, Meaty...I'm okay with you calling my posts meaty as long as we leave it at that and don't talk about my arms, LOL. And I'm doing okay today, thanks for asking! Need to email you. :)

Joanne, What great timing for the giveaway! I hope you had a productive hour! :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Jeanne, The first sign that you're a real novelist...hearing your characters talk back. Congratulations! (And welcome to the crazy side.) :)

Anna, Great point about character charts. They can be meaningless depending on how deep you take them. I use them to really hone my character's appearance and family relationships...things like that. I also use them to figure out their personality type (another writer's guide that Jeannie has on her site, by the way). Their favorite color is only useful if it helps you learn their personality better or if it plays some big role in the story.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Mary, Sometimes a little spillage is okay as long as you clean it up later. :) *ahem* Cliche alert..."Don't cry over spilled milk." :)

Freya, An acting background can be a great asset to your writing! Have you read Brandilyn Collins' book "Getting into Character"? Great, great read!

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

julia, joanne, and jeanne - thanks so much!

anna - i think questionnaires work, but not with pointless questions. i thought long and hard about what i was going to ask on my questionnaire on my site...and they all have a reason behind them.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

mary - i like a good spill too....i just usually end up cutting it. but writing it out is always SO helpful to me.

sarah - you're the best! hope you got my crits okay.

Pepper said...

Does that dominant first impression have to be a good one? ;-)
Oh, so glad you have this post up, Sarah. WOW!!
This is so much of what I need.
AND - I'm 'waving' to Jeannie! I wish I had your brain on most days, Jeannie - for both writing and work.

I am in TOTAL agreement with you guys on character charts! Like most important things in life, it needs to be meaningful! I have to protect every writing opportunity I get, so my characterization time needs to pack as much of a punch as it can.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

*waving* back at you pepper! :)

Faith said...

Great post! My characters always seem to end up like me, not a huge talker, but a big thinker and over analyzer, and very hard to read. For me writing open-bookish characters is very hard.
And they do tend to be a bit perfect.
Thanks for the tips!

Please enter me

crazi.swans at gmail dot com

Angie Dicken said...

GREAT advice Sarah! I love the part about when you meet someone, you don't get their life story right off...that's a great way to put it! FYI, I am in the editing stages of my novel, and have read and re-read your posts on self-editing! It has been so helpful, especially since I have limited ability to hit the local bookstore whenever I want now that I am chasing four around! ;)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Pepper, I can't imagine you having to make every minute count. Ha! You're the queen of multitasking if I ever saw one! :)

Faye, My characters have bits and pieces of me, too. And like you, I tend to be introverted. The one exception is when I go to the ACFW Conference...There's something energizing about being with all those fiction writers! :) My current heroine is a bubbly, outgoing person, so I often find myself drawing from how I feel at conference time. So maybe you can channel the same type of experience by thinking of a scenario where you come out of your shell. :)

Angie, I'm SO glad my posts are coming in handy for someone. You have no idea how happy that makes me! And girl, I hear you about the bookstore. Taking little kids there is maternal suicide! :)

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Great post, Sarah! And yay for Jeannie!

I've tended to make my characters too perfect in the past, especially in some of my first stories - I guess I equated likable with perfect. Now I tend to make them too wishy-washy or not strong enough and it's something I'm working on. Thanks for the tips.

Beth K. Vogt said...

Good post as usual.
One of the tools I like to use to develop my characters is the MBT Book Buddy, developed by Susie May Warren. (Yes, I know this is not the first time I've mentioned her!) The Book Buddy has some great charts/questions for developing your characters.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Cindy, It sounds like we need to blend our characters and they'll be the perfect combo! :)

Beth, I just joined MBT recently, so I'll have to check out that book. Thanks for mentioning it!

Patsy said...

My daughter would love this book. She's in the process of writing her first book. I know it would be very helpful.


Sarah Forgrave said...

Patsy, Congratulations to your daughter! It's a huge deal to take that first step and write. Good luck in the drawing! :)

Brenda said...

Thank you for the post on characterization. After reading, we hope we have created characters our readers can relate to and will long remember. May we share this post link on our Writer's Resource page on our website?

Ann Lee Miller said...

Great post.

Anonymous said...

Hey Sarah,

Great post! I need to work on giving my characters a distinct voice. I long to create a character that people will remember. I'm going to check out that book you mentioned.


Sarah Forgrave said...

Brenda, absolutely!

Ann, Glad it was helpful. Thanks for stopping by!

Joy, It's so hard to take our writer's voices out sometimes and let the characters speak for themselves, isn't it?

Catch My Words said...

Great post. I usually err on making my characters too perfect. Since we love our characters, we want them to be the best they can be, thus they end up too perfect. Although I do have a character that was so flawed that readers didn't like him. It's a fine line.