Sunday, January 24, 2016

Deepening Character

Sit back in your chair, put your coffee or wine or whatever to the side, and close your eyes. Picture a good friend. Could you describe the person sufficiently well so a stranger would recognize that individual in a lineup? Good writers often provide a single telling characteristic that uniquely identifies a character whenever readers meet them. Jug ears, a stutter, a limp, a Jersey accent in Mississippi; all could be unique traits.

Some authors provide long and detailed descriptions of characters, sometimes stretching to paragraphs. Do we remember those details? Let’s check: I say Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, what comes to mind? Ruby slippers. Pig-tails? Probably not a long description that the pig tails were only braided half-way, tied off with white ribbon and curls left loose to flutter in the breeze. That’s all accurate, but really, who cares?

Now let’s consider whether we are interested in more or less information when it comes to motivations. I suspect readers often become dissatisfied with a story because the motivations and actions do not seem consistent to the reader. How can that happen? Probably because the reader hasn’t learned enough about the real character to justify the actions the character takes. That may be because the author does not know the character at a deep enough level.

I can’t count how many times I have heard authors say something to the effect that “my character just wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do; they insisted on doing X.”

Okay, second time to close your eyes. How well do you know your good friend? Do you know her deepest secrets, her fears, her desires? Really? Turn it around: does a good friend know EVERYTHING about you? Of course not, we all hide parts of ourselves from others.

When I teach an online self-editing course for fiction authors, one of the assignments I give is:

Choose a character and have them reflect on a secret or a fear or anxiety. Have them tell you about it. How did it come about? What does it feel like? What might make it go away? This is like brainstorming: all ideas are welcome, no censuring or self-editing as your character blathers away. Remember to write in first person present tense.

When authors really let their characters tell them what they feel and fear and want and why, the words flow out onto the paper and often they are a huge surprise. The result provides the author with a deeper understanding of why that character does what she does. And, the author now has the wherewithal to give the reader enough insight so the reader also understands.

Authors: Do you think this exercise would help you understand one of your characters?

Readers: Does this make sense from your perspective, or is this a bunch of academic mumbo jumbo? Or are you someone who relishes the long, detailed descriptions of Thomas Hardy and is willing to take character actions at face value?

~ Jim


Margaret S. Hamilton said...

makes sense to me! I just did it as a way of figuring out WHY a crime was committed in a short story.

Jim Jackson said...

Margaret -- Happy to see the technique works for you.

~ Jim

Clamo88 said...

What a great way to make sure our characters make sense and remain true to their inner selves as we get deeper into their story. And if they don't remain true, we can ask ourselves if it's because they have changed/grown or if it's because we got sloppy in our writing.

Warren Bull said...

What an interesting idea. It seems to me characters feel more real when the author knows them well even when much of what the author knows does not make it onto the pages.

Jim Jackson said...

Claire -- That's an important question you raise whether our characters changed because they had actually changed or whether as writers we messed up.

I agree, Warren, that it is hard to make characters real on the page unless we authors know them well.

~ Jim

KM Rockwood said...

Interesting exercise. I will have to try it.

I have a list of questions I use with a major character, and keep a copy while I'm writing. The vast majority of the information never makes it onto the page of a story, but it fleshes out the character for me.

I am one of those authors whose characters often refuse to do what I would like them to, which changes the entire story. I just write what they tell me they need, and go back to figure out what needs to be changed. Every once in a while I get a character who I decide I don't like and refuse to write about, but that's rare.

Jim Jackson said...

KM -- I love that you refuse some characters a platform!

~ Jim

Kaye George said...

Great exercise! Thanks for the free course, Jim.

Jim Jackson said...

Kaye -- you're welcome, although the exercise is just one a part of one of thirteen lessons, so hardly the whole course. :)

~ Jim

Gloria Alden said...

Jim, this is a great idea. I keep a biography of every character who will play any major part or return in subsequent books. There's a guy in my writing group, who writes great poetry and essays and has been toying with the idea of writing a sci-fi book, but can't quite get started. I'm going to email in right now and tell him to read your blog.

Jim Jackson said...

Gloria -- one problem with Sci-Fi is the world-building. Not thinking out and properly introducing the reader to the world kills a lot of otherwise good Sci-Fi novels.

~ Jim