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Monday, April 11, 2011

Who is This Strange Person? Getting to Know Your Characters

My stories almost always begin in my mind with a tiny flash of a scene. Sometimes it will be an actual scene – I was walking through an almost deserted parking lot one very foggy evening, noticing how the street lamps played in the fog, and all of a sudden there was a man, crouching between the cars, trying to find one that was unlocked, because he was shot…yeah, that’s it…and the shooter was still after him, because he had witnessed a murder, and… Well, you know what I mean.

So I have a snippet of a scene and at least one character. Next step? Well, for me, it’s always figuring out who that character is. Before I can think about plot (and I am a plotter) I have to know my starting character; who may not even end up being my main character.

But how do I get to know this character?

I’m a pack rat. I tend to save things, anything I think will come in handy. This includes tossing interesting blogs into a Favorites folder to re-visit later. I took a look in that folder yesterday and found over a dozen blogs written about knowing your character.

Distilling them down, here are the most common methods:

Interview your character – sit down over an imaginary cup of coffee and ask them everything you want to know

Develop a detailed character history (even if little, if any, will be included in your story) - include parents, siblings, home town, childhood, education, early loves, traumatic events, dreams and plans, etc.

Write a detailed character sketch (again, go beyond what will be included in your story) – physical description, personality traits, friends, habits (including little quirks), attitudes, passions, fears, etc. I added music and sports to my list.

What I found interesting was no one suggested using faith, politics, or current social issues. I wouldn’t recommend including your character’s stand on a really divisive current social issue (unless it’s germane to your story and/or you want to alienate some potential readers) but wouldn’t it help you understand the character to know where he/she would stand and why? The same would be true of faith/religious beliefs and political leanings.  Would your character have the same stands/beliefs as you?  Why or why not?   Answering some of these questions could really help you get inside a character.

How about you? How do you get to know your characters?

I'm currently enjoying: One Was a Soldier by Julie Spencer-Fleming

Groaner of the day: No matter how much you push the envelope, it'll still be stationery.

14 comments:

Maria Zannini said...

Ref: How do you get to know your characters?

Usually while I'm pulling weeds or washing dishes.

In the beginning, they're usually ghosts, faint ideas of what they could be. As I go through my day, I think about them, slowly adding a little more to what makes them unique and important to the story.

Much like your man crouching between cars, entire little scenes start to emerge, developing the character further.

Linda Leszczuk said...

Maria - do you ever try to figure out certain things about them or just let them unfold?

Maria Zannini said...

I'm not an unfolding kind of writer. Nothing is random in my stories. I always think things through and create characters step by step even if it takes me a while to figure it out.

N. R. Williams said...

I tend to get to know characters as I write. I realized this recently since I am writing about a bird. Hey, it's a fantasy, and this bird looks at the world through a whole knew set of goggles.
Nancy
N. R. Williams, The Treasures of Carmelidrium.

Linda Leszczuk said...

Nancy - Can't wait to meet this bird.

Linda Leszczuk said...

Maria - I thought you were a thinker.

How are the chicks?

Jemi Fraser said...

Groan for sure!! :)

I usually start with a flash of a scene too (often the climax scene). Then I let the characters roam around in my head for a couple of weeks. Once they've marinated I'm usually ready to write!

Liz Fichera said...

I have conversations with my characters as I'm cleaning my house. Seriously. It's quite glam! ;-)

I do like your idea of digging into a character's faith, politics, etc. That takes it a little deeper. It doesn't necessarily mean that those details will make it to the page but can help to create more three-dimensional characters.

GigglesandGuns said...

Yes, yes, yes! All of this is right on.
I know the whole meet the character who may not be the MC. I've had one who didn't even end up in the piece.

The groaner cracked me up

Karin said...

I am not a writer but it is opening a new world for me to read the comments of those of you who write. I never took the time to think about how the stories I enjoy are created. Now I do. Thanks, Linda!

BTW--I always chuckle at the groaners!

Karin

Linda Leszczuk said...

Jemi - Very interesting. I've started with my flash scene coming at the beginning or even the middle but never at the climax.

Linda Leszczuk said...

Liz - I converse with mine while I clean as well. Sometimes out loud. I get strange looks from the family.

Linda Leszczuk said...

Mary - Hey, I've had start off characters who don't make the final cut. Always feel a little bad for them.

Glad you liked the groaner.

Linda Leszczuk said...

Hi Karin. As I talk to other writers, I'm geting a better understanding of how I write. I never really thought about it that much, just did it. Carries over into my reading too.