Thursday, April 24, 2014

U is for Understand (Our Characters)

Join me as I blog through the alphabet. We post every day in April except Sundays. There are many others participating in the 2014 A to Z Challenge too, which is the brainchild of Arlee Bird at Tossing it Out. I'd like to encourage you to visit their entertaining, informative blogs. I'm amazed at the many talented people who participate in the A to Z Challenge.

How important is it for us to Understand our characters? To know when they were born, what kind of grades they made in school, if they were troublemakers, pranksters or popular with their schoolmates? As their creators, to what extent should we know them?

I've read books that had such well-rounded characters that I've wondered if they were real friends of the author and she just slapped them on paper, the way she knew them. Other authors are as challenged with character creation as I am. Of course, sometimes I think I've done a good job but an editor or critique partner will yell, "More, more! You need more ..." And I wonder how many "layers" I have to add to make these fictional people real.

The answer is several layers. I need to address and Understand their psychological, emotional and physical make-ups. I need to evaluate Understand their motivations, their relationships, their needs. And so much more.

Do you fill out character sheets for each character? I usually let each character write me a letter or essay (stream of consciousness) telling me all about their lives. I may not use all that info, but I enjoy getting to know them.

I have a character in one of my books that is too perfect. All my critiques, editors, contest judges commented on her being way too good and perfect. It took me awhile to realize she was supposed to be perfect, that's part of the problem. Remember that student in your class that was the golden girl/guy? Everything good happened to them? Teachers loved them, they got most likely to succeed or most popular? Those people exist! But how do we write them to make them real, and likable? I'm still struggling with this character. She's made one bad mistake in her life that haunts her, but it's not until the end of the book that she's slapped in the face with it.  I have no idea if this book (or her character) works.

Some of my friends use Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs when working out their characters. Maslow explains how we're motivated by our needs and our most basic needs are inborn. We must satisfy each need, starting with the first, which deals with survival. When those lower needs of physical and emotional well-being are satisfied, we move on to the higher order of influence and personal development.

Do you always Understand your characters or do you give them free rein? How do you create well-rounded, real characters? Where do you start? With character charts, their basic problem, the story itself? Share your characterization secrets!


Rachna Chhabria said...

Wonderful post Jessy. Some writers create such wonderful characters that I expect them to walk out of the pages and say hi to me. I make notes on character traits and write back stories for the characters (for my own reference).

D Biswas said...

"Remember that student in your class that was the golden girl/guy? Everything good happened to them? Teachers loved them, they got most likely to succeed or most popular? Those people exist! But how do we write them to make them real, and likable? I'm still struggling with this character."

Perfection and happiness are boring, so maybe you could make her bored with how easy and charmed her life is?

Damyanti, Co-host A to Z Challenge April 2014, My Latest post

Twitter: @AprilA2Z

Elsie Amata said...

My CP asked me to add more detail to one of my characters right from the start. In my head he was built up perfectly. It turned out, I didn't do such a hot job conveying him in my writing until after I was instructed to do so. Now, he rocks!

AJ's wHooligan in the A-Z Challenge

debi o'neille said...

What a wealth of information in this post. I'm going to share it on Facebook. Thanks so much!

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm always torn about this because I don't think people really know other people well in real life. And fiction should mimic real life. On the other hand fiction can't be completely real or no one would accept it.

Jess * Jessie * Jessy said...

Rachna, thank you! 'Walk off the pages' is the best way to say it. I wish I could create characters like that!

D Biswas - I agree. Thanks!

Elsie - A good crit partner is worth her/his weight! Evidently your crit partner rocks too!

Debi - Thanks. I always wonder if my blog posts are worthwhile. Glad you think this one is!

Charles - we never know anyone until we've walked in their shoes. I try to put myself in another's place, but unfortunately, I still have my own POV.

Holli Moncrieff said...

This is going to sound really weird, but in the interest of full disclosure, it's the truth.

All my novels begin with a glimmer of an idea, usually a what-if scenario. Then a character will introduce himself and start talking to me (in my head, of course--no Ruby Sparks going on here). My job is to write down their story.

One comment I always get is that I have very realistic characters, but I never feel I've made them up. I always feel they come to me--it's actually kind of spooky, but in a good way. If I have to work hard to make something up, it's not the right story for me to tell, and I let it go. Hope this makes sense!

Lynn said...

I may have to revisit my characters!