H. A. Titus is the writer who had the most amazing idea, and WON the spot on Scarlet Inkwell to talk about writing, and share tips and tricks that they’ve discovered. Now, that’s not H.A. Titus there, but it’s fitting because she’s going to be talking about “Hanging out with your characters” and you know, more often than not mine are prone to do things like this! So, without further ado, onto her thoughts!
SPENDING TIME WITH YOUR CHARACTERS
We all notice when a book’s characters stand out. They’re amazing and unique, and we just don’t want the book to end because we love them so very much.
I don’t know about you, but a few years ago, whenever I returned to my own writing after reading a book with amazing characters, I winced. My characters felt flat and boring, and they all had the exact same nervous tics, facial expressions, and speech patterns. They were like clones that I trotted out on command, as many as needed for the story.
Since then, one of the most important things I’ve learned with character development is to spend time with them. To authors who can corral their generally well-behaved characters, this might sound a little funny. To other authors, who struggle with just getting their character to do what they want for five seconds, it might sound like an exercise in despair. Nevertheless, spending time with your characters allows you to get to know them better, to understand their reactions and desires.
Work on a story generally begins a month or two ahead of when I actually start writing the story. That time is spent working out plot ideas and just spending time with the characters; asking them questions, writing snippets of scenes in their point of view, and generally treating them like I would treat a new friend whom I’d like to get to know better.
Here are some suggestions for spending time with your characters that I often use:
*The Four D’s: These originated from Brandilyn Collins’ (author of Dark Pursuits and Deceit) writing book Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets A Novelist Can Learn From Actors. They encompass a character’s Desire, what they want most out of anything else in the world; their Distancing, which pulls them away from achieving their Desire; the Denial, which is a circumstance that pushes them so far away from the Desire that achieving it seems impossible. The character can then either discover a new Desire, or the plot continues on to the Devastation, where the hope of achieving the Desire is completely ripped away. The four D’s seem like plot points, but knowing a character’s emotional state regarding their Desire in all stages of the story has a way of adding more tension into the story.
*Building on this, Susanne (C. S.) Lakin, author of The Wolf of Tebron, The Map Across Time, and other books in the Gates of Heaven series, writes a series of blog posts about how she begins building characters. She says she determines and thinks about these three points: the character’s core need, and what they would do if they couldn’t get that need met; the character’s greatest fear; and the incident(s) that wounded them early in lie that got them believing a lie. Knowing these things are essential to creating a realistic character.
*Asking a series of character-building questions. You can find these online (a good series I’ve found is here: http://www.squidoo.com/character-development-questions) or another series I absolutely love is in the back of Alan Watt’s book The 90-Day Novel. I especially recommend the ones in Watt’s book because some of them tell you to write for a set amount of time (usually five minutes or so) about a character’s opinion on a certain question.
*Writing a character voice journal. James Scott Bell talks about this in his book Revision and Self-Editing. Writing a character voice journal sounds a bit strange…basically, you just write in the voice of your character and let them ramble on as long as they want. Using a couple of the character-building questions as a starting point may be useful, but don’t hold your character to answering only those—they will probably begin to ramble, and I’ve found that rambling is a good way to learn truths about your character that are often obscured.
*If you’ve done some character stuff and feel you don’t have a good handle on the character still, don’t worry. Start writing the story. Sometimes even the most reclusive character will reveal something about himself as the story progresses. I sometimes do more character building in the second draft/rewrite of the story, as I feel that I understand the character more thoroughly after sending him/her through all sorts of difficult and nasty situations.
*If you find yourself portraying emotions in the same way for each character, a great resource is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. This is a list of different emotions and people’s external/internal reactions, as well as progressions of that emotion. It’s a fabulous resource.
And remember this: study favorite authors in your genre. This is a great way to learn how to write a story and characters. Take apart favorite books and see if you can identify a character’s four D’s, the core need, the greatest fear, and the lie. Look for new ways to portray character emotion.
Practice and study. It sounds a lot like schoolwork, but it is effective. Utilizing even one of these methods will help your characters become richer, deeper people.
Let me know what works for you and what doesn’t—and if you have another way of digging into your character’s psyche, please share! I’m always eager to try new things in writing.
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