Monday, June 15, 2009

Character creation

I received some good questions on my request for blog topis, and I'll answer each one. I'll start with Laura's on characterization:

Laura wrote: "That leads me to wonder how you go about creating a character. Do you sit down before writing a book and write profiles of each character and how he or she would react to certain situations?"

I'm sure every author has a different technique of character development--what works for some authors doesn't work for others. For instance, some writers use character charts or index cards to keep track of who their characters are and what they look like.

That doesn't work for me, because I lose charts or forget to look at them. That's just my special style. :-)

My answer to the question is two-part:

1. Do I write profiles of each character: Yes, but...

2. Do I write out how he or she would react to certain situations? No.

Character Profiles

I do write down notes about my characters, but I don't have anything so organized as a notebook or charts or whatnot.

I find it helps enormously for me to write autobiographies for certain characters either before I start or shortly thereafter (I start the book when when I emotionally *need* to start it--the idea grips me so hard I have to write it before I explode. And, um, deadlines creeping up on me force the issue as well.)

I write biographies or autobiographies of my main characters: in romance, the hero and heroine. In mystery, the main protagonist.

I like to start with when they were born and who their parents were. What kind of people were their parents? Rich? Poor? Prominent? Nobodies? Were they happy people or miserable? Does he have good memories of his childhood or only terrible ones?

What were some events in the hero's childhood that marked him? In the case of Madness of Lord Ian, of course, it was his father's abuse that bordered on violence, and being shut away for being "different," plus what he suffered as experimental "treatments" in the asylum. But also he had memories of his oldest brother, Hart, who always looked after him, and no matter what their later differences, the oldest and youngest brothers of the Mackenzie family share a special bond.

As another example, I had a pirate character in an earlier book with several life-shaping moments--when he watched his father be killed, and when he decided to take charge of bringing up his illegitimate half-sister.

Those events will make the character become who he is, as will his social and economic background.

I'm brainstorming a novella right now in which I'm not sure who the heroine "is." The hero was mentioned in another book (his brother was the hero), so I know a lot about him already, but the heroine is an enigma. I haven't even decided whether she will be a "normal" or supernatural character.

I'm mostly visualizing these characters in my head, which is how I always start the characterization process, not writing anything down until I've replayed things in my brain several times. But soon I will start writing out the heroine's biography, and the decisions I make about her will shape the plot. Her decisions (and the hero's) will drive the story.

2. Do I write out how he or she would react to certain situations? No.

I say no to this question because I'm not a big pre-plotter/planner. I wait for the situations to come up in the book, then I channel my character and basically record what he/she says and does, plus of course the reactions of the other characters to them.

This is where the character bio comes in handy, because it's already made me get deep inside the character so I can channel him or her.

That doesn't always mean I get it right the first time! I always read through my drafts two or three times, and I'll think: "That character would never say that," or "She would never use that expression." I make changes accordingly.

The draft gets out the bare bones of my story and characterization, then the second draft fleshes it out and establishes the characters more firmly.

That's not to say that I don't think writing out how a character will react to situations is a bad idea. It might be a great way to get to know them. A similar method is a "character interview" I've seen some writers use, to ask their characters all kinds of pointed and difficult to answer questions. Not only are their answers telling, but also whether or not the character is comfortable answering.

Whatever method you choose, I believe it's very important to get deep into your characters' heads, know where he/she came from and what happened to them earlier in life. Think about them, daydream them, live with them, dream about them, let them blog, grill them... Whatever it takes. :-)

3 comments:

Alexis Walker said...

So Jennifer, when you decided to make Ian different, which came first, the diagnosis or the character?

Erin Quinn (aka Erin Grady) said...

Great, post, Jennifer. I'm a write a I go writer too--but lately I've been desperately seeking process and searching for ways to establish and improve.

Jennifer Ashley/ Allyson James / Ashley Gardner said...

Alexis: The character came first. I "watched" him for a long time before I realized that the traits he was revealing were Aspergers.