Monday, May 4, 2009

Get to know your characters

I've read many books on writing, and they often suggest writing out your characters' attributes, either as a list or a few paragraphs. I do think this is a great idea to keep things straight--characteristics like age (a specific birth date even), physical description, brief bio, dominant personality traits, etc. I have these things scribbled throughout my notes on Finding Angel, and it's one of my goals to compile everything into a file this summer so I can reference things more quickly.

Recently, however, I have discovered a fun and effective way to get to know my characters and really cement these things in my head. I'm writing short stories based on each of my characters from the first person point of view. Most of them will serve double-duty, as the main character of each story is interacting with other characters from the books.

The coolest part of this is that I'm discovering things about my characters I never knew before. If you're not a writer, you may not understand that statement. But, my characters have become real people in my head. And as such, they are complex, and even I can't know every detail of their lives from birth to death. I know some specifics, but many times it's more of a general idea. For example, one character has a rebellious streak because he has an overbearing and controlling father. Well, I'm working on a short story right now that describes one of his rebellious acts. It's given me some insight into why he behaves certain ways, and is helping me keep him consistent in my second book, Seeking Unseen.

The first short story I wrote like this actually gave me an idea for an element to work into Seeking Unseen, that will have a major effect on one of the characters. And, I must say, I think it's a pretty cool kind of magic :). Now, I've got this story submitted to an online magazine, and if it gets accepted and you get to read it, the element I came up with is not actually found in the short. It's a side-shoot idea that will only be in the book. But don't let that stop you from reading the story! I will, of course, post if it gets accepted anywhere :).


Anonymous said... do you do that? I'm writing a book too and I'm tryin to develop my characters more, since they're a big part of the main plot. Do you just sort of list their characteristics? Do you have any advice for developing characters? In my book that I'm writing, Gally is this really loud, crazy, and obnoxious girl and I'm trying to find that part inside of her that is calm, quiet, and understanding. On the other hand, I have a character named Stacy who is really quiet, shy, and doesn't have a lot of self-esteem when she's around people she's not familiar with and I'd like to show that loud and crazy part of her. How do I do that?

Well, sorry for the rant! But some advice would be nice. (: Thx so much!!!

Kat Heckenbach said...

Well, Candy, what I did was pick an event in the character's past that was very personal and important--a turning point for him or her, and I wrote it out as a short story. Maybe for your loud, obnoxious character you can write about a time during her life where she was forced to find that quiet side. Maybe a tragic time in her life, where she turned inward to deal with it.

With the shy, quiet girl, you could write an event that makes her come out of her shell a little. Does she have a special skill, like drawing or something? I say that because when I was younger and very shy I used my art to open up to people. It was something I knew I was good at, and I'd sketch when I was around other people and too shy to speak up. It would get their attention and they would come start a conversation with me, on a topic (my art) that was comfortable for me.

The stories I'm writing are things that happened to my characters BEFORE the events in the books. The first story is an event from the childhood of one of the adult characters. But you can write about something that happens at the same time as the book, but just has nothing to do with the plot itself. If one of your characters has a home life that makes them behave a certain way, you can write about it. Some of that you want in the book, so the reader knows why the character is how she is, but it would only be bits and pieces. You can write a short story, though, that goes into a whole day of the life of that character and really experience it with her, and it will help you to get to know her better.

Is that helpful? If you have any more questions, please ask. I don't profess to be a characterization expert, but this has helped me immeasurably in getting to know my characters.


Dayle James Arceneaux said...

Great idea, Kat. I can see how this would develop the characters beyond props for the main characters. Give them some real motivations behind their actions.

Kat Heckenbach said...

That's exactly what it's done. I believe everything we experience affects us in some way, and there are big events in our lives that really mold us.

The really cool thing is, it hasn't just helped me with character development, it's given me plot ideas!