Characters and Writer Becoming Acquainted

I love watching Downton Abbey.  Have you seen it? Peerage and simple folk are mixed up together in a grand English home during the turn of the 20th century.  We’ve touched on the Titanic tragedy, World War I, and the flu pandemic of 1918.  The costumes and mannerisms have been a glittering array of lifestyle. I wait impatiently each week for the next installation of this wonderful soap opera.

Downton Abbey Screen Shot

Thank you to Masterpiece Theatre for this screen shot of characters from “Downton Abbey”

But more than the setting and historical events, I tune in to watch the characters.  These are wonderful, full-rounded people you can’t help but care about as they face life’s challenges and triumphs.

From a writer’s perspective, I am in awe of creating novel-length fiction on a weekly basis, and hope one day my Writer’s Digest will carry an interview with Julian Fellowes, the man who writes the Downton Abbey story.  I hope they will ask him how he came up with Bates, Mrs. Patmore, and of course the Crawley family making up the Earldom of Grantham.

I’m also wondering how precisely to make such characters feel so real as people.  You may recall that I’m in the process of writing a short story currently.  Each day I struggle to jot down even a line or two of what might happen next.  But again, I need to get into the heads of my characters, develop a sensitivity for them and make them believable on the page.

I have entire books on the subject of character development.  Most writing books will have at least a chapter on the subject.  So here are my two cents worth on the subject:

START WITH A SPARK OF AN IDEA

There is no sense in trying to sit down to a blank page or computer screen and say to yourself, “Right. Today I will create a character. Now what?” Instead, be in the constant mode of collecting ideas.  I have a spiral called “Collections” for just such a purpose.  Someone or something will glom onto my consciousness, and I try to pop it into my spiral.  More often than not, I miss the opportunity, but when I’m paying attention this is a wonderful tool. And although most of the collecting I do will result in a fun journal and not a story, it is the thinking about people, the learning to observe, that creates the ability to develop new characters.

For my current story, I met a young woman at a cocktail party at Christmas time.  She told me about her work and how there are ghosts at it.  The story was captivating.  I hope it will be half as good when I get it down on paper.

PROFILE YOUR CHARACTER

Not every character will need in-depth profiling, but the more you can do within the constraints of time and energy, the better your story will become.  Profiling starts with a list of questions you ask yourself about your character.  Again, books and lectures are full of these questions.  It is not a step in the writing process to skip.  I usually take at least an hour to answer the questions that I have developed for my own use in building characters. Here are some of my current favorite questions:

  • Can you describe your character’s physical attributes (and don’t forget scars, birthmarks, tattoos and other police-type of notes)?
  • What is your character most proud of? (Talk about instant back story!)
  • What makes this person special enough to be a main character in this story?

On Saturday I was at a talk given by Anne Randolph on the art of making your life facts into story.  She gave me a great new thought: Have the character tell you something about themselves few others know.

INTERVIEW YOUR CHARACTER

Yep. Here’s where we go off the logic track into the world of magic.  Or more precisely, your subconscious.  We live in an age of political correctness, but in interviewing a character, your own prejudices, worries, thoughts of pride surface, and they seem to do so with every interesting character you develop.  Let your thoughts wander, your vision be far off.  Just keep your pen/pencil moving.

I do tend to do these “interviews” by hand, because with typing, I tend to want to correct as I go, and everyone’s personality feels the same under my fingers.  When I write by hand, I’m often surprised to see that even my handwriting changes with the character I’m developing. Okay. It’s weird, but it works–for me.

SAVE THE NOTES

I used to write in unsorted spirals, on scraps of paper, and in multiple environments.  Needless to say, I feel I have lost entire novels by not being organized.  Not sure what made me anchor myself to a single spiral per project, but this really works for me.  It is one central collection center that helps move my writing along.  I try to use David Fryxell’s notion of numbering pages, and then recording contents with page numbers for later reference.  This has helped keep me on track several times when my wandering brain simply wants to go out to play.

ATTACH YOUR CHARACTER TO YOUR PLOT

This is a very hard part for me.  Without a theme or plot question, my characters begin to break apart and float away.  I don’t have to have a fully developed plot to create characters (heck, that would be forcing square pegs into round holes most the time), but I do need to remind myself that I’m exploring a subject–say ghosts–in every part of my writing on this project.  That one small anchor helps me avoid writing superfluous verbiage, and keeps the story moving along.

Now it’s your turn.  How do you develop characters in your writing?  Who are the people that stick in your head upon first meeting?  Can you combine the inner person of several friends into one character?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Creating Characters – Fun, Fantasy and Memory

Michelle Obama

Courtesy of Joyce N. Boghosian, White House photographer

Last night, Michelle Obama spoke to the nation about her husband, the president.  Last week Ann Romney was given the same task.  In short, these women had to succinctly draw a picture, create an emotion, and reveal a reality of the special men in their lives, so that others around the country could see these men through their wives’ perspectives.  The line that did this for me was when Ms. Obama said “The presidency didn’t change him, it revealed him.”

Hmm… Reveal character.  Isn’t this exactly the task of a good author?  Reveal a character, layer at a time, until your reader is thoroughly engaged and believing there is always more. Sometimes the end result is that you may be asked to write another book, or two, or three that tell us more about your character.  Why?  Because, with your words, you’ve made us care.

So, what goes into building a character?

When I started writing Daisy’s first novel, Faith on the Rocks, I knew I wanted a main character that shared my silly side, yet wasn’t entirely “Liesa.” Years of watching Murder, She Wrote, Monk, and Psych or reading the novels of Susan Albert Wittig, Diane Mott Davidson, Janet Evanovich and M.C. Beaton, showed me that the amateur sleuth could be just about anybody, but it would be good to have him or her be “different.”

Then I drew from my personal experiences to ask, if I were the protagonist, who would I be?  It was a natural that Daisy would be an aspiring writer.  Okay, that’s a start. Now what?  People have often mistaken me for a teacher, so that along with the hours and hours I spent in teacher conferences and IEP (individual education program) meetings, hinted at a teacher role.

But, a teacher would have a hard time breaking away from class to go solve mysteries.  I mean, can you honestly buy into a story with a line like, “Class, you take this four-hour history exam while I slip out and go check on a murder suspect of mine?” Not going to happen.

So, Daisy could have been a home-school teacher/mom. Ugh! Not for me. And I can’t really see dragging the kids along into scenes with murderers.  Not responsible parenting at all.

Then it hit me.  Daisy could be a retired school teacher. That’s cool, but I wanted her spry enough to run–or at least waddle–after bad guys to her heart’s content. I think she’d retire at the earliest opportunity. In today’s economy, I suspect a lot of younger teachers are “retiring” early.

Okay, now we have a retired school teacher.  Terrific market for readers out there.  What, however, would make Daisy different, the only person who could have the natural police skills necessary to solve crimes?  Who has to observe closely and build stories based on facts not always communicated verbally?  A pre-school teacher would have those skills.  The kids don’t talk much, but they have a world of learning to do.  Special needs kids have the same situation.

Hey! Wait a minute. That’s it! Daisy could be a special needs teacher.  Cool!  I’d been involved in special needs classrooms for close to 15 years. I had some experience as a substitute teacher, Odyssey of the Mind coach, and religious education volunteer.  I could do this.  I could write a Daisy Arthur mystery, because I could build a Daisy Arthur character.

In her book, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, Hallie Ephron goes through chart after chart and step after step of building a character:

  • What does your character look like?  Not so important as you may think, but any detail you use needs to be consistent.  Things like height, weight, and age are good basics, but go further.  Is there a scar–especially with a story behind it–your character is bothered by? Does he squint? Why? Is she beautiful? Please tell me it aint so!
  • What are your character’s qualities? What can most people observe about your character? What special hidden qualities exist?  Now we’re getting interesting.  What hang-ups does your character have?
  • What things frighten your character?  Let’s be sure to put those creepy-crawlies in your book some place. In writing, being sadistic is fun.
  • How does your character dress?  Silly question, but I don’t think I’d ever put Daisy in a Brooks Brothers suit, much though I love Brooks Brothers clothes.  She’s a school teacher, for goodness sake.
Ann Romney

Photo by Gage Skidmore – http://flickr.com/photos/22007612@N05/5447029631

You get the idea.  Half the writing of your story isn’t so much how A, B then C happen, as much as it is making new friends.  If you know your character, really know her, then one day you can go up on stage and say, “And that is where this boy I met at a high school dance comes in. His name is Mitt Romney”. . .