Monday, January 19, 2009

Creating Characters

Just like with any writing topic, everyone builds their characters differently--at least to some extent. When I first tried my hand at writing novels, I used these long and detailed characterization charts. They asked everything from name, to religion, to political beliefs, to how they dressed, what their favorite food was, and on and on and on. I quickly learned that these characterization charts, no matter how detailed, simply did not work for me.

For one, in these charts, all my heroes and heroines would appear to be basically the same person (except for, perhaps, hair color, eye color, etc.). But once I started writing....well, that character chart gave me very little information I actually used. This is because (as weird as it sounds), my characters don't really come to life for me until I begin delving into the story. Once I figured that out, I changed the way I build my characters in the pre-writing stage.

So, what do I do now? A very shortened version of the pages of charts I used to use. It's actually a very simple approach, and it goes something like this:

1. Name
2. Siblings and names, if any
3. Friends and names
4. Age
5. Employment
6. Physical characteristics
7. Basic journey of the character (this is where I try to, at the very least, understand the internal and external conflict my character is going to face...from where they begin, and where I think they'll end).

And that's all I have as far as a "chart" goes, and these are more so I know who the people are they're going to be dealing with, and because I'm a character driven writer--knowing their journey is critical for me. That doesn't mean I know how they're going to get from point A to point B, because often I don't, but at least I know WHAT the destination is, if not the exact path to get there.

My next step (and I've talked about this before), is to write myself a letter from the character. Now, I don't do this for every character in my book--but I definitely do it for my hero and for my heroine.

Again, this probably sounds a little odd, but I simply open a new Word document, type: Dear Tracy: and begin to free write. Sometimes I'll end up with pages and pages of information (that I never would have thought of while filling out a chart), and other times it will just be one or two pages. Regardless, I'll always discover at least one or two bits of information about my character that I didn't know before. Sometimes this will alter the journey, sometimes it will bring it into clearer focus, and usually--it will help me understand WHY this journey is important to this particular character.'s it. The rest of what I'll learn about my characters will happen as I'm writing the book. However, while I'm writing, I give myself free reign to write the characters as they need to be written, even if they don't follow suit with what I planned. For me, though, that's part of the magic of creating stories. I love it when things I haven't planned (or even thought of) happen on the page in front of me.

My process for character building is much more about learning WHO they are in the process of telling their story, than it is about deciding who they are before I've even begun. This process works for me time and again, but there is one thing I'll often have to change once I'm writing--and that's their names. If a character isn't clicking for me, the first thing I do is change their name. Often, the new name (for reasons I don't understand) will click, and suddenly whatever issues I'd been having disappear completely.

Regardless, my end goal is to write about characters I care about and to tell their story in their way. That's the only way I know how to bring them to life.


Jillian Cantor said...

Tracy, you're so organized! I don't think I've ever done a character chart, but I do find that like you, I only really learn about my characters in the process of writing the story.

Maureen Lipinski said...

I love the idea of changing a character's name if it doesn't "feel" right. I'll have to try that out.