Thursday, February 28, 2008

Torturing the truth out of the character

I’m always in the market for a new way or an improved way to create characters. I love seeing all these tips this week (and I’m making notes, LOL)

Most of my characters just come to me complete with a story idea. Then I have to put the thumbscrews to them to make them tell me enough about them to know what their real problems and goals are. Let me tell you, these folk have very high pain tolerances. Trust me on that :D

So basically, I’d start with a name and a short physical description. Most of the time, they’d tell me what they do for a living, who their friends are and who their enemies are. But when I’d ask about their goals, dreams or aspirations, they’d get all close mouthed and tell me that the idea for the story was what they wanted. Ooookay.

That brief look at an external conflict just wasn’t making it for me. So I had to get tough, er, tougher. (You have to let them know who’s boss, right?) I started digging but in a round about manner (sometimes being sly works better than being mean--sometimes)

All our good characters have to have some positive quality, something that makes us either admire the hero or wish we were the heroine (or maybe vice versa depending on your gender, lol) But one positive personality quality isn’t quite enough to make a rounded character. And while they might tell me they’re honest, you’d have thought I was asking for their first-born when I wanted to know what other positive personality qualities they might have. Good characters, the kinds we willingly follow for 300-400 pages, have several. I try to go for at least 3 but no more than 5 (more than 5 just seems to put them in the Dudley Do-Right category)

Next, I try to find at least one negative personality trait because none of us are perfect, are we? Here’s the funny part. They always come up with namby pamby negatives like ‘I eat too much chocolate’.

I mean, really, can there be too much chocolate?

Well, okay. If the character is diabetic or trying to lose weight, a fondness for chocolate is a negative. Anyway, I have to keep digging, forcing the answers out of them until I latch onto the negative that personifies that character. Truthfully, one to three negatives is enough for a ‘good’ character, More than three and we start wondering if this character is an antihero or maybe the bad guy. Obviously, we don’t want the reader to mistake our hero for a villain (antiheroes are a whole ‘nother subject) so we don’t want to go overboard on negatives.

The main thing we as writers have to remember is too enlarge those positive personal qualities, those things that make our heroes and heroines larger than life. They’re not just brave, they’re courageous. They’re not just honest, they’re the Abe Lincoln of honesty. Before you start worrying about Dudley Do-Rightism, don’t forget we’re tempering those positive qualities with the few negative ones. That makes them human and far more interesting to us.

After I’ve got a handle on their appearance and personality, and knowing what the kernel story idea is, I’ve got a good starting place. I usually begin to write the story here (I think I mentioned that I’m a pantser) but sometimes I find that I need a bit more.

Generally, I’ll start with a brief paragraph about them in their current, normal life. That’s easy because it’s pretty much superficial and going to change as soon as the story starts. I realize I need to know more about them so I begin a biography. It’s generally sketchy at first and I’ll add to it as I go along, pulling the information from the characters (I’ve found toothpicks under their fingernails is very helpful when they’re being recalcitrant). When I have enough of their biography done, I can see how they’ll act or react to the different stimuli of the story. And, even if they haven’t told me in words, I’ve got a handle on what their inner wants or goals might be, what their deepest fears (besides me LOL) are, and how those wants or fears will impact the story and the other characters they meet.

I do this for my protagonists (both the hero and the heroine since I write romance) and the villain. The only real difference is the villain gets a few less positive qualities (he or she has to have at least one to keep from being cast as the Evil Overlord type bad guy and to build just a little reader empathy) and maybe a few more negative qualities than the heroic pair who are my protagonists. The good guys and the bad guys are a balancing act after all...but that’s a subject for another day :D

Hope this helps explain some of my techniques for building characters.

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2 comments:

Skylar Masey said...

This is a great idea Lynda! I never thought of doing a biography of my characters...especially the villains! I tend to overlook them as not being as important, but they really are. I guess it's because I don't have a lot of actual baddies, just opposing forces. :0)

Lynda K. Scott said...

Yep, villains are just as important as heroes. Think about it...if the villain is weak or incompetent or simply excels in slavering threats, how much of a threat is he? Our heroes would look like bullies if they went after him (and the results would be a foregone conclusion).

Opposing forces is a bit different, obviously, but care still has to be taken to make them 'good' enough to go up against our protags.

I love talking about characters! LOL