Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Getting to Know Your Characters

Today I have a guest blog written by my good friend and fellow writer, Maureen Mills.

One of the reasons I enjoy reading books is the opportunity to get to know exciting and interesting people. Perhaps I even identify with some of the characters in the stories, or wish I was more like them, or congratulate myself that I would handle that character’s particular circumstances in a much better way.

When I began to write my own stories, I wondered how I could possibly create realistic characters to populate the pages that weren’t simply dim reflections of me. I am, after all, the only one writing this story, right? And I can only use my own opinion on how a character should react to a problem. So every character in my story would basically be me, reacting how I would react to each situation.

This is a problem, as, honestly, I don’t feel as if I am all that interesting under normal circumstances. Not to mention the lack of conflict if everyone in a story thinks and reacts in exactly the same way.

In my research on writers in general, and their writing techniques in particular, I began to come across a number of references to characters in their books “taking over” a story, and in essence telling the writer “No, I don’t want to do that. I want to do this.”

I was mystified. Also, intrigued. I wanted my characters to talk to me like that.

Enter a very wonderful, very helpful writing instructor. (Yes, Brenda, I’m talking about you!) On the first day of class she had us all fill out a personality worksheet to see what “color” of personality we each were. I was surprised at the wide range of personality types we possessed. Then Brenda explained that we could fill out the same chart for each of our characters, and that would help us to determine how that person would react in our stories.

A simple idea, perhaps, but absolutely ground-shaking to me. Duh, of course the villain won’t be the same personality type as the hero. Mostly. And lots of conflict comes from clashing personality types instead of opposing goals.

And then I was introduced to the concept of creating entire background stories for each character. I not only needed to know what my character is like now, but what he was like as a kid, where he grew up, what experiences, traumatic or otherwise, shaped his growth physically, mentally, and emotionally.

After I knew the basics for my characters, I was ready for the next step: Questionaires.

Through my writing class and on the internet (I love cruising writer’s websites for juicy tidbits of advice) I found a number of really cool questionnaires to see how well you really know the people you are creating stories about. Some questions are like “What is the name of your character’s favorite band?” or “What is hanging on your character’s bedroom walls?” Some are more complex, like “What is the worst thing that ever happened to your character?” I found one fun and helpful set of questions that explored the relationships and interactions between all the characters in your story. “If character A met character D in a dark alley, what would happen, and who would win?” I found that questionnaire particularly good at refining my characters’ personalities.

After all this work and research—I felt like I had already written a whole novel before I’d even started the first chapter!—I was still astonished the first time I was writing along and suddenly, the story came to life and began to go in its own direction. Of course, it wasn’t the story, really. It was the people inhabiting the story who began to live, in my imagination as well as on the page.

What a magic moment!

And isn’t that what we writers live for? Finding that magic moment and, hopefully, sharing it with others?

Happy writing!
Maureen Mills

1 comment:

  1. Maureen, I know you wrote this years ago, but I just discovered it, and I love it! Wasn't Brenda's class great?



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