Monday, 10 February 2014

Lifting Characters Off the Page



Sometimes a character is born fully-formed. You know them as well as a member of your family and you don’t need to figure out what they think because they’re more than happy to tell you.

Other times, the character just sits on the page, lifeless and uncooperative.  You can write up a biography, have a folder full of background details and still they’re no more alive than a robot.

Creating a character that’s more than just a bag of bones is key to making a story live and breathe. But characters don’t always appear with an interesting personality and unique voice all ready to get the adventure underway. You can give them all the quirky habits and dark secrets you want, but when it comes to carrying the story from your imagination to the reader’s, something feels a little flat.

So, how can you get your characters to talk to you, and how do you make sure that what they have to say is worth reading about?



The most straightforward way to check on your character’s ability to hold the reader’s attention is to put them into a scene.

This doesn’t have to be a scene that’s going to be in your story, it just has to be a high pressure situation. It can be as realistic or fanciful as you like. The purpose of doing this is to see how the character handles things in an environment you control. You can turn up the heat, throw a spanner into the works and generally shift the walls of the maze around as you please.

At the start of a story there may not be much going on. The character might have to engage the reader without the benefit of exciting events to help. Or, things could start of so hectic the character becomes overwhelmed and hard to connect with while craziness happens. If you don’t have a strong sense of who your character is and what they’re about, it may take a while to figure out.

But if you take a little time to imagine them in a tricky scenario (you don’t have to write it down, you can just daydream it), then you can force them into revealing themselves, and you’ll find once they start they won’t be able to stop.

So let’s say I have a character I want to get to know better so I plop him down in the middle of a bank just as armed robbers run in and tell everybody to get on the floor. Or I have him abducted by aliens. Or maybe he finds himself in the middle of Oz facing the Wicked Witch of the West.

The beauty of this approach is that you can use any obvious, familiar, clichéd set up you can think of. Something you’ve recently seen in a movie or read in a book, something that happened to you in real life, it doesn’t matter.

And once you do have a scenario that you like, that tests the character in ways that help you, you can reuse it for other characters.

There’s three things to remember though. First, your character has to be central to what happens, they can’t just stay on the periphery observing things, it defeats the point.

Second, no easy ways out. If they just do what they’re told or run away, you’ll learn nothing. Remember you can use the other characters in this hypothetical scene, and even the setting itself, to block off the obvious exits.

And third, be patient. There’s a good chance the first couple of things that will come to mind won’t be that good. There will be things that occur to you that will be flat and uninteresting, or plain “borrowed” from things you have seen. Just discard them and try something else.

In the story proper you might be inclined to persevere with a scenario, dance around it to see if you can work something out, but here you can simply abandon a path as soon as you feel like it isn’t doing anything for you. At this point the only person you’re trying to appeal to is yourself.

You don’t need to work out an ending or a solution to a problem, the only aim is to see how the character interacts with other characters, with their surroundings, with a difficult problem, and if it leads anywhere.

So how do you know when the process is working? I mean, you can have them do this and that, but is it revealing anything useful?

An interesting character doesn’t just deal with problems, their actions result in a host of possibilities. That’s when you know a character clicks, not just in what they do but all the options that suddenly open up and you find yourself being drawn along by the momentum.

When choice leads to another and then another without you having to pause to make stuff up, that's when the character is starting to lead you.

In order to allow this to happen you need to give the character a chance to act (rather than think). Acting and doing is at the core of getting to know a character. What they say and think is important, but it’s hard to unlock them from that end.

If you take a character and give them a subject to pontificate on (politics, religion, hatred for the French) it’s not difficult to fill a couple of pages of observations and opinions, but if you put that character in an actual predicament (meeting a hated political figure and having to be nice; a believer whose good behaviour is punished but his bad behaviour is rewarded; meeting a polite Parisian—in fiction anything is possible) it becomes much easier to develop a three dimensional character. 
 If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.

32 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I like that idea. And it would be an easy one to work on in your head. I have a couple secondary characters that need just a bit more right now - I'm going to try this.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

This is a very interesting post. I actually don't try to compile a character's profile and traits until I've started the first few scenes of a book and see how they are behaving in the story idea that's occurred to me. Then, when I see something difinitive about them, I start my file of book characters and start filling in the details about them. Sometimes a few details get pared out, as the character evolves, but most of them stay.

Lydia Kang said...

Lots to think about here. This is a great way to look at how to make a rounded character. Thanks Moody!

mooderino said...

@Alex - that's great, hope it works out.

@Elizabeth - that kind of approach works fine when things click, but sometimes it feels a bit flat and that's when a technique like this can be helpful, I think.

@Lydia - You're very welcome.

Lexa Cain said...

It's a very good idea about how to develop characters and internalize their voices in order to write them better. I'm very plot focused, and my characters are crafted to support the plot. That sound cold and manipulative? It is. ;)

Lynda R Young said...

I put my character in a bank robbery scene... and she ended up dead...lol! Poor thing. I did learn a few things about her though ;)

Ellie Garratt said...

I do basic character profiles before I start writing, but they always up revealing themselves!

DRC said...

lol...I just put my character in a bank robbery scene too. She killed the guy with the gun, kept the weapon for herself and walked off, leaving everyone there :)

Rusty Carl said...

That is a good idea. I'm going to try it.

Missy Frye said...

I daydream scenarios for my characters. Usually, I have an idea for a scene, put the characters in it and see how they fare. In my imagination I can rearrange things until I get a good idea of the character's character. I might make a few notes, but for the most part it's in my head until I begin outlining/writing.

Lady Lilith said...

Developing a character is very hard. I would say do a lot of research on the type of character you want and then you can work on your character.

Theresa Milstein said...

You're right--some characters are easier to write than others. I think about my characters all the time, so when I sit to write, they're like people to me.

mooderino said...

@lexa - my view is that for most approaches to writing, if it's done well it'll work.

@lynda - the ultimate sacrifice!

@Ellie - it always helps when a character add to the writer's initial impressions.

@DRC - She should be fun to write.

@Rusty - let me know how it works out.

@Missy - i do that too, often the best part of the process for me.

@Lilith - I often 'borrow' traits from people I know. Makes it a little quicker to get to know them.

@Theresa - that moment when the character becomes their own person is the goal for most writers, I think.

Jennifer Hillier said...

I don't usually know for sure whether a character is working well until the second draft, when I'm reading the whole thing again with fresh eyes. I've had to let good characters go because they weren't adding enough to the story, but sometimes they do pop up in other stories...

mooderino said...

@Jennifer - letting the character to go if they aren't working is one of the hardest things to learn, but a very important one.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Great idea on adding depth to a character by selecting them for a scene and observing how they interact.

mooderino said...

@The Phantom - yes, my characters are just rats in my experiment, muhahah.

Christine Rains said...

Fantastic post. I've had to exercise a few of my characters in the past. Make them tell jokes or battle a horde of zombies. Something to find that unique voice.

mooderino said...

@Christine - how someone faces the zombie apocalypse tells you a lot about a person.

Shannon Lawrence said...

Great idea on developing character! I've found answering questions as a character helps me get in their mind space, but developing them in a scene that has nothing to do with the book sounds like an interesting activity. And it may also lead to off-shoot stories for them.

The Warrior Muse

Karen Lange said...

Love this. My goal is to create characters that people care about. Thanks for the advice! :)

LD Masterson said...

I think this will be especially helpful for me in rounding out a couple supporting characters that feel a little flat. Thanks.

mooderino said...

@Shannon - a different approach often helps shake loose new ideas.

@Karen - you're welcome.

@LD - glad to be of service.

Rachna Chhabria said...

This is a very interesting post Moody. I was struggling to make the main character in my book more interesting. I wanted a character readers cared about. I will bookmark this page and work on the points. Thanks for this helpful post.

Elise Fallson said...

This is a great exercise to get to know your characters better. Anything to torture my characters I find helpful and oddly, therapeutic. ;)

mooderino said...

@Rachna - sometimes characters require very little work, but for the times that they do this sort of thing can help, I find.

@Elise - and makes a change from them torturing us!

Jay Noel said...

That's a great technique I leaned from someone...just can't remember who taught it to me. I'll write "mini-scenes" with each character just to test them out and give them their own spotlight.

Most of the time, they never end up in my story. But I always transfer that characterization over.

Jay Noel said...

Oh, and thanks for putting my cover over on your sidebar. I appreciate the promotion!

cleemckenzie said...

This is a super strategy. I particularly love that I wouldn't have to write it down. I'll let my brain do the work and give my fingers a rest. Thanks.

Deb said...

Ooo, I loved this post. I have a character and now I am thinking why not just plop her into another situation and see what she does, or give her a topic and hear what she has to say on it. Marvelous ideas...thanks so much!

mooderino said...

@Jay - it is a very cool cover.

@lee - less typing is a definite plus for me.

@Deb - cheers, glad you found it useful.

zareen fatima said...

Classified Sites, Pakistani Classified Sites, USA Classifieds, Indian Classifieds, Entertainment Articles, Entertainment News, Entertainment Pictures, Bollywood, Hollywood and Lollywood Pictures and Videos, Entertainment Latest updates, Hot Entertainment News and Pictures Funny Entertainment Pictures, lol Pictures, Funny Pictures and Much More Fun Only on 1 Current Affairs Network
hotcurrentaffairs.com

post a comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
 

MOODY WRITING © 2009

PSD to Blogger Templates realized by OOruc.com & PSD Theme designed by PSDThemes.com