Monday, January 05, 2009

Bringing Your Characters to Life

Question of the day: Though I've taken classes with several authors in the past, I'm still learning the finer points of fiction and have a big gap in my knowledge when it comes to creating full, robust characters. How did you go about setting up your characters from the beginning? Did you figure out all of their attributes ahead of time, or did you let them form while you were writing the book?

Great question and particularly applicable to me right now, as I'm on about page 50 of The Happiest Days of My Life and am really focused on making these characters as three-dimensional as possible. I think I develop my characters in two parts: the first is before I put a word on page. Although this book, as well as Time of My Life, are very concept-driven - as in: BIG PLOT - a lot of the plot development, when I conceive the nugget of an idea - revolves around the primary characters. So, for example, when I came up with the idea for TOML, I also obviously had to come up with the character of Jillian, as everything about the book centers around her. Ditto the concept for Happiest Days. It revolves around a woman who might be a little too contended in her life, and without her, the book isn't possible.

So, I start with that skeleton. In the case of Tilly (the protagonist in Happiest Days), I considered her occupation, her marital status, her siblings, how her parents (and their history) shaped her, what her hobbies might be, what her emotional limitations might be, what her weaknesses (and strengths) are. So, that sounds like a lot.

But, I inevitably find as I'm writing that the characters still need to become more full-bodied. The little nuances about people that you really don't understand until you see them in action, if that makes sense. Sort of like if you see all the facets of a blind date on paper, but there are smaller things - but just as important things - that you can't pick up until you meet them out on a date. How they carry themselves, how they react to situations that might surprise you, personal tics that only come out through their story.

I dunno, at the risk of sounding totally lame, the characters, like us, are always a work in progress, and there are always going to be some critics who read the book and think that you didn't do enough with them...but, rest assured, I tried to breathe as much life into them as I could think of. The process becomes easier with every book because I understand how important the small quirks are. If you're stuck, I think it can be really helpful to look around at your friends and family (not that you base characters on them, but still), and consider their tics, their subtleties, and ensure that your characters have them as well.

Just my two cents. How do you guys go about and develop your characters? I'd love to hear!


Anonymous said...

I think it's also helpful (at least, it is for me) to attempt to think AS your characters, not just about them. Try to feel what they might be feeling and react to things the way they would react. Listen to music they would like. I do a lot of what I call "head writing" on the subway or walking down the street, and in those moments I like to try to take on the persona of my characters, embody them. It makes me sound a little nuts, but it really works, because by the time you sit down to write their entire personality is second nature to you. I think that it's the smallest, most subtle details that make the characters realistic, and I get there by trying to live in their heads for a while.

Trish Ryan said...

There's a great checklist out there somewhere in the archives of info on writing a novel that lists about three-dozen characteristics everyone has and invites you to fill in the blanks about your characters. I thought it was a really fun exercise to get you thinking about things that might not seem integral to the story as you first conceive it. Things like "is the character allergic to anything?" and "Did he or she go to their senior prom? If so, what did they wear?" You might not incorporate all of this into the story, but it might be helpful to know.

Anonymous said...


Can I subscribe to your blog by email, such as through Feedburner? I've already signed up for your newsletter but that seems to be something separate. Thanks.

Leah (who finished "Time of My Life" in one day and loved it)

LarramieG said...

Names are VERY important too. "Tilly" invokes a much different type of character than either Natalie or Jillian. Can't wait to meet her.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Like annakjarzab, I tend to explore the character's head sometimes, indulging in the sort internal explication that bogs down the actual writing.

I also find it helpful sometimes to explore the what-ifs and deviations in plot that you *know* aren't going to stay in the finished story. Wandering off topic on scrap paper to try out an alternate direction often confirms how the character would and wouldn't act, or reveals interesting aspects I might not have discovered otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Great answer, Allison! Thanks so much.

Maya / מיה said...

Really useful ideas! By the way, I've tried the character inventory thing, but it tends to give *me* a false sense that I know my characters... then I write and realize I don't really GET them. This time I'm just jam writing about my characters' backstories, writing down each "what if" as it comes to me, and for the first time I have the feeling that I'm LEARNING about my characters rather than just forcing them into existence. I think I might try headwriting next!


Amie Stuart said...

Hmmm I tend to be one of those writers who learns about her characters as I write. Not always effective bec. sometimes I have to backtrack and tweak LOL

I also try to pay attention when I edit and make notes of things I pick up on--smell is a big thing for my current protag.