Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Developing characters

Some writers use worksheets to get to know their characters. They want to know everything about the characters' backstories, their height and eye color, their likes and dislikes, what they had for breakfast, and so on.

I've tried such worksheets a couple of times, but could never get into them. What has worked for me is doing little outtakes--scenes or backstory exercises that don't appear in the finished book, but that help me get in touch with the point of view, motives, and history of my secondary characters.

I let the characters ramble on about whatever they care to tell me. For example, here is Austin, the spoiled rich kid from The Secret Year, reminiscing about his relationship with his late girlfriend, Julia:

"She liked to drive fast. She liked writing ... that didn't interest me too much, but I had my sports, and nobody says couples have to like all the same things. She was better in school than me. She liked to go mope off alone by the river or in the park or wherever, I didn't even know all the places. Sometimes she told me she drove through the flats and imagined what it would be like to live there.

"Once we saw an old Mexican woman sitting outside a gas-station rest room, and Julia got all excited about what it would be like to be that woman. She went over and tried to get the woman's life story, but the woman only spoke Spanish and didn't seem to want to tell her bio to a complete stranger.

"After I went back to school, I wouldn't let people talk to me about Julia. I told them I didn't want to discuss it, and they respected that. I missed her like hell but I thought I should move on, you know. Otherwise I was afraid I'd sit in that pit forever. After a couple of weeks I went out with Emily Barrett, and I had a few too many and ended up crying on her shoulder. Thank God she never told anybody. She said she understood."

Almost none of that appears in the book: we do see Austin with his arm around Emily Barrett, but we don't know how badly that date ended. I don't know where the whole scene about Julia and the woman at the gas station came from, but it reinforced my sense of Julia: enthusiastic, curious, inquisitive, even to the point of being slightly pushy. Writing from Austin's point of view also made him more sympathetic to me, which helped because the book is told from the point of view of his archrival, through whose eyes Austin doesn't come off very well. Besides all that, Austin lives in a fair amount of denial, and writing in his voice helped me figure out what he actually knows but doesn't admit, what he admits to himself but not to others, and what he won't even let himself see yet.

If traditional character worksheets don't work for you, it's something to try.

6 comments:

  1. This is exactly what I do! Character worksheets/interviews don't work for me.

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    1. Yeah, free-writing is the only way I get anywhere!

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  2. I'm a worksheet sort of gal, but I will definitely try this. Thanks for sharing that insight into Austin and Julia. That snippet about her interviewing the Mexican woman fits so perfectly.

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    1. It's exciting when the characters start to seem so real that new scene-lets like this pop up out of nowhere!

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  3. This is cool. It's something I've done before, and it worked quite well. Traditional character worksheets have never worked for me. The thing is, I usually have to do most of this after a first draft is written because I discover so much during the drafting stage. It's really difficult for me to get into anything before that.

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    1. Me, too! In my 1st draft I just pour things out. Later on is when I use exercises like this to beef up the characters and such.

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