Thursday, September 29, 2011

Creating Characters

Last week Jimbo G left the following series of questions in the comments section:

When you start writing a novel, do you create biographies for each character? With the intent of helping you keep them straight and understand their thoughts/reasoning/actions? If not, how do you keep these things straight?

It's a good series of questions.  So I thought I'd answer.

I do not write biographies.  But that's just a matter of semantics.  I do come up with biographies, but I don't write them down for some reason.  I just keep them in my head.  They tend to be general, as I enjoy discovering my characters as I write them, but I usually know their name, their age, their appearance, and basic life story up until that point. 

I would recommend writing bios down if that helps you keep track of things.  What's even more fun is scouring the net for images of people who might look like your characters etc.  I think the only danger in writing biographies for characters is that you can wind up spending so much time creating every little detail about a character that you don't actually write the story they are in.  In general, world building and all that background work, while important, can also become a crutch.  And like I said above, there is fun to be had in discovering the character as your write.  Putting her into situations, having her interact with others, and seeing how she grows as a "person".

Another concern is that you as an author might feel obligated to share every little quality about your character in the story since you spent so much time fleshing things out.  Remember to use only the details that matter, not every single thing because you think they're neat.

But as far as thoughts/reasoning/actions go . . . that's a very intuitive thing for me.  It might come from my passion for logic.  The question isn't how someone reacts, but why they react as they do.  For me there isn't much struggle knowing how a character would react, because once I have that character formed in my mind, well there's only one way she would.

That's the way I recommend you look at it.  It's not about keeping a list of pre-chosen behaviours straight.  It's understanding why the character is who she is in the first place.  A person doesn't react because they have an imposed list of traits, a person has a list of traits because of who they are.  This isn't D & D where you choose to have a certain level of power vs magic etc.  This is "My character grew up in a land full of magic where people therefore didn't have to do manual labour.  This means he is fantastic at casting spells, but whenever he has to physically do something, he's weak."  If a character has spent her life being outspoken, she won't appreciate it when the judge tells her to be quiet.  If a character has spent her life following the rules, she'll shut up right away. 

It's all about playing pretend, and ultimately that's where I always go.  I'm an actor, and as a child I was an active make-believer.  I have spent my whole life creating characters and the act of doing so has become quite second nature.  Try to get yourself into the headspace of your character.  Pretend to be him.  Even in writing dialogue, say it out loud and with a funny accent if you want.  No one's watching :) . 

Play pretend.

I hope this helps somewhat, do let me know if you (or any of the rest of my readers) have any follow up questions or any other questions in general!  Thanks so much for this one!


KamilleE said...

Thanks for the advice. Do you make any kind of notes for your characters?

I find that if I don't write it down, I forget it later.

Adrienne said...

Like I said above, no I don't write anything down. But who knows, that might change some day.

For me, it's logic, so it's hard to forget elements of characters because if one element is missing then the character is no longer the same character. You need all the little elements to make up a unique person.

KamilleE said...

That's pretty cool. I have to 'interview' my characters and keep notes on them. It might be because I have a poor short-term memory.

Lydia Sharp said...

Excellent post. :)

Jimbo G said...

That was really helpful. Thanks so much for explaining that. I have the premise for my novel, but I'm no where near ready to write it. I still have so much to learn...