Friday, October 22, 2010

Creating Characters

Sometimes topics for blog posts come to me. Sometimes they're easy to think up. And sometimes, topics have to be solicited on Twitter.

Fortunately, the people who follow me are obliging and give me good ideas for multiple posts so that I'll have stuff to talk about next week, too. Today's topic comes from @worldofhiglet. Got to give credit where it's due.

She suggested talking about my characterization techniques. I'm taking that to mean two things: how I create my main characters before I start writing, and how I show who they are when I'm putting words on the page.

Creating My Characters

Creating characters is the first thing I do after I know the basic plot of the story. Knowing who the characters are determines how they're going to react in any given situation, and their reactions fuel the plot points between "bad thing that kicks off the story" and "epic battle fight thingy", so I need to know who my main characters are before I can start what passes on this computer as a plot outline.

The first things I write down are physical descriptions, jobs, and whatever parts of their personalities the characters have chosen to share up to that point. From there, I start digging deeper based on what I know. What are their hobbies? Their favourite TV shows, movies, and music? What are their pet peeves? Their relationships to other characters? How was their childhood and family life? I also flesh out appearances, from "tall, blonde, overweight" to include "oily skin, thick and damaged hair, small nose, big smile, piano hands".

By this point, names have come into play. I generally come up with first names first, either based on gut feeling or baby name databases. If I know X is of a particular heritage, or has a certain kind of parent, then I'll go looking for names that would fit the heritage/parents and choose one that also works for the character's personality—or one that totally doesn't work but necessitates a nickname that does. Last names can be tricky, depending on what I know about the character's background. Naming average Americans is harder than naming people of a particular background, because there are so many more names to choose from and I try to pick non-Anglo-Saxon names, for variety.

Then I go deeper still, by applying psychology and playing characters off each other.

  • If Susanne spends a lot of time with Gary, gets annoyed whenever someone puts their feet on chairs, and needs to have conflict with Gary… then Gary's the kind of guy who puts his feet on chairs. 
  • If Martha has a domineering father, how will that affect how she sees men, and what will it do to her love life? 
  • If Kelly and Joe are married, what is it about their personalities that allow them to remain so (or not)? 
  • If Wilbur works in construction, what does he think about his job? What kind of person would he have to be to enjoy the work?

Eventually I reach a point with a character's bio where I feel I really know who they are, or that I don't need to go further. Main characters get about a page, single spaced, point form. Secondary characters get about half a page. Supporting characters, if they're important enough to need a bio at all, get a paragraph or so.

Writing My Characters

My main characterization trick is to let the characters do what they want. I have enough of a sense of who they are that they just kind of come through when I'm writing. I channel them. So the ways they move, and talk, and react, and gesture … they go down on paper without my really having to think much about it.

Occasionally I have to step back and ask myself, "Okay, how is she going to react to what she just heard?" or "How does his body language change when he's angry?" I revisit the mental version of the bio and try to picture them doing whatever. Sometimes I even act it out, stand up, move around, say the lines, and see what happens. And sometimes, I skip the questions and acting and pick whichever option is going to screw things up for the characters down the line.

A lot about someone can be gleaned from how they move and how they talk. I've spent a lot of my life listening to people rather than participating in conversations (shy, introvert, linguistics major). As a result, I've got an ear for dialogue* and can write each characters' words distinctly**, usually based on their background or perception of themselves. In the WIP that's out for beta, I've got one character who drops subjects and articles like you wouldn't believe, another character who doesn't have a great relationship with verb conjugation, and a third who uses "man" way too often. Fortunately, that last guy only has one scene, or I might throttle him.

I slip motion and movement in wherever I can. Everyone has a nervous gesture of some sort. Lots of people have difficulty with empty hands (where do we put them?). People have to go places and do things all the time, and whenever it seems appropriate, I say what they're doing. For instance, driving. If a story's set today, there are going to be cars and people are going to be in them. Do they turn the wheel gently? Do they stomp on the gas? Do they flinch every time someone tries to pass them?

One other thing I think needs mentioning: For me, these two steps (bio and writing) are a feedback loop. I learn things about the characters from the way they talk and move, which then influences further actions. When I gave into the character who drops subjects and let him do it, I learned a whole lot about his personality that I hadn't known before.

How do you create characters? Same or similar method, or something vastly different? Share! I'd love to hear what you do.

* apparently
** I hope


Cordria said...

I'm baaaack....

Characters are the hardest for me, which is odd because they drive my stories. But I am unabashedly horrible at this part. I never know what my characters look like, what their back story is, or what drives them insane.

...unless it turns up in my stories. THEN I know it. :)

I create characters by writing. They form themselves through the words I write and what I need to do with them. I'm trying REALLY hard to work on bios and such now, so I know what to do with them while I'm writing. But usually I just write and let them happen.

I am also one of those people who listen rather than talk. I often sit at places like coffee shops and libraries and watch people. I've been known to drag my laptop along and write down, as close to word-for-word I can, exactly what strangers are saying. Or little details like how they hold their coffee cups, what they do with their feet, or what I think they might be thinking based on how they're reacting. It's LOTS of fun to do! xD

You can do it on reality TV shows too, but it's not as fun because people act weird in those.

And nervous gestures are completely and totally underrated. Lots of writers ignore them, but those little behavioral tics make characters seem more human (at least to me).

I love giving characters 'individual' speech patterns, but I have this thing about other authors doing it. They often go too far and then it just drives me nuts. Actually messing with the dialogue with too many 'sayin' and 'doin' and 'whazzup' type slang or drawls or writing out accents REALLY drives the story into un-readable territory too fast. A few is good, but it's a tough balance to find between describing the speech and writing the speech.

And you're totally right about that first part: you don't write your characters, they write themselves. :)

More blog posts!


Hannah said...

I agree with Cori, mostly. My characters don't really have interesting personalities until the second draft. They have basic motivations and some characteristics, but I don't really know them until I finish the stories. And sometimes they change a lot as I revise (my current WIP I'm revising has this problem: the MC keeps changing whenever I try to pin her down! I'm still trying to figure out who she is, and I'm on, like, the fourth round of revisions.)

I like these ideas. I'm a big fan of the gestures as a way of establishing character, because I'm a nervous-gesturer. I'm working on my dialogue-writing, which is weak at the moment -- all my characters sound the same, generally.

I love the sort of channeling characters, but it only happens in my writing when things are going really well. When that happens, it's the greatest thing ever, but unfortunately way more of the time my writing is driven by "Okay, what's the next thing they have to do? And the next? And what do they feel about it?" than by any sort of organic process.

Anassa said...

Cori - I wouldn't have ever guessed that. You seem so good at characterization and creating people for your stories.

A lot of my secondary/minor characters happen more or less spontaneously. I'll give them a job and appearance in the bio document, but their personality won't properly turn up until they get their first scene.

I'd imagine a lot of writers are listeners. :) I've never deliberately gone somewhere to listen and I've never written down conversations, but will often eavesdrop or similar.

I'm always mindful of overusing speech patterns. I hate writing accents phonetically, so if I even end up having to do that, it'll be mild. Mostly I portray accents via word order and slang, and I use verbal tics sparingly. Linguistics helps. ^^

Hannah - I think I'm the same way. I know more or less who the characters are before I go into the book (among other things, it helps me plot the story. Think I mentioned that above, though.), but it's not until I start writing that I find out who they really are. I live for those surprises.

Gestures can be overused, of course, but yeah, they're a great way to get personality across. Clothing is too, which I forgot to mention, and there's also something to be said for setting. We personalize our homes, our rooms, our offices…