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Creating Credible Characters–Let’s Get Personal

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

In the previous post, I mentioned that we all react to the “otherness” surrounding us and that this is one way to create conflict and show who are characters are inside.

But that isn’t quite enough when it comes to developing fully-realized characters. We must go deeper. We must continue peeling the layers of the onion. This is where we move from the realm of “type”—of general characteristics—into individuality defined to specifics. It’s the “why?” behind everything your character thinks, says, does, and is. In Getting into Character, Brandilyn Collins calls this process “Personalizing”:

“The character will become a unique person, with inner values and a resulting set of traits and mannerisms not duplicated in anyone else.” (Collins, 18.)

This is where knowing a little about psychology helps. You’ve answered the interview questions, filled out the character profile worksheets. Now it’s time to go back and look at the answers and act like a four year old and ask one of two questions: “Why?” or “So what?” Example:

  • Anne is afraid of flying.
  • She was in a plane crash when she was a child.
    So what?
  • Her parents died in the plane crash.
    So what?
  • It was the first and only time her parents had allowed her to go on a trip with them.
  • Because they traveled to a lot of dangerous places in their jobs as professional photographers.
    Why did they take her this time?
  • It was a reward for Anne’s winning a photography contest held by the local newspaper.
    So what happened?
  • Shortly after takeoff, the commuter plane’s engines failed. Anne’s father protected her with his own body—being impaled by a piece of metal that would have killed Anne and saving her life.
    Why is this still important nearly thirty years later?
  • Two reasons: Anne cannot step on a plane without the feeling that it is going to crash (as that’s been her only experience with being on a plane); and she blames herself for her parents’ death.
    Why does she blame herself?
  • If she hadn’t won the contest, if she hadn’t been so eager to go somewhere with them, they never would have gotten on that plane, and they might still be alive.

See how it works? Not only does this start to define how Anne will react to certain situations (like facing the choice of boarding a plane to follow the hero at the end of the book), but it also defines how she interacts with her aunt and uncle who became her guardians/foster parents after her parents’ death.

Just because I’ve gone to this depth with Anne here doesn’t mean I’m finished personalizing her by any means. I also have to know what she went through in high school (remember my backstory where she was teased about her scars, about her height/weight?)—I have to know that to know how she reacted to the breaking of her engagement in her mid-20s to know why, in her mid-30s, these things still affect her at a very deep level . . . and that she hasn’t been able to move on yet. Each of these experiences has built upon the other—they are not separate from each other. What happened to her at eight years old in a plane crash informed the decisions she’s made throughout the rest of her life—and will greatly affect her character’s growth in the short span of her life that’s actually shown in the 90,000 words of the novel.

Take one of your main characters you’re struggling with right now and try the “Why?” / “So what?” questioning method. What do you learn about him/her? Is it possible he or she hasn’t been reacting to situations in your story the way you expected because you haven’t delved deeply enough into his/her underlying experiences?

  1. Tuesday, June 19, 2007 10:49 am

    Any chance you can make this up as you go along? I tend to get to know my characters best by writing them. It’s like developing a friendship. I don’t know everything up front.


  2. Tuesday, June 19, 2007 11:59 am

    Oh, I never know everything about the character up front, no matter how detailed I think I’ve gotten in the backstory I’ve written for them. That’s what keeps the writing process fresh and enjoyable—continually learning more about the character. The process of personalizing continues every time the character reveals something about him/herself in the course of writing the story—the things that make us stop and wonder, “Now, where did that come from? You’ve never reacted like that before!” It’s at this point where we need to dig deep and find out where this character’s reaction is coming from—to see how we can (a) make sure it’s real and (b) see how else we can weave it into the story.

    Okay, here’s an analogy (it’s been such a long time . . .):

    When a character first comes to you, it’s like going on a first date. Either you already know a little bit about him (if it’s someone you’ve known a while/a character you’ve been thinking about a while) or you’re coming into it completely “blind” (blind date / character comes to you out of the blue). On that first date, you’re going to spend a little time getting to know the vital statistics: age (or approximated by finding out when he graduated from high school/college), where he works, what he does, what his general interests are, maybe a little about his family and friends.

    Then you start dating this guy. This is the process of character development before we start writing. It’s spending time with this person/character getting to know him better. Finding out if you really are compatible. Finding out if you are really interested enough in him and his future (the character’s story potential) to make a commitment to him.

    Next comes the wedding. This is when you finally sit down and start writing the novel. When you got married, you knew a lot about your new husband . . . or so you thought. You didn’t know everything about him, did you? I would imagine (not being married myself), that no matter how long you’ve been married, you are always learning new things about your spouse / getting to know him better and on a deeper level every day of your continuing relationship. This is the novel-writing process.

    Character develoment is the fun part–dating. Prework on the novel–figuring out the story, planning the plot–is the work that goes into planning the wedding. The euphoria of getting those first few thousand words down is the honeymoon. Then, the real work, the actual writing of the novel–the marriage–begins. And that’s when you get to know your characters best.


  3. Tuesday, June 19, 2007 4:46 pm

    Okay, maybe because I shortened some of the steps, like dating, but there’s character development that comes after the “wedding”. Because living and melding one’s live with another brings about a whole bunch of new questions and experiences that you couldn’t imagine when dating.

    Same with writing. So I can see this as a bit of an iterative process.


  4. Tuesday, June 19, 2007 9:57 pm

    Excellent posts! I love how you explained digging deeper and I realize I haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of my characters yet. Why and so what–great tools to go forward with. Like Erica, I get to know them better as I’m writing. Some of the deeper characterization comes in subsequent drafts. But it should would save some time/ink/paper to do the why/so what first.



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