Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tips on Developing Characters

Today I welcome returning guest, Susan Oleksiw. Susan is the author of the author of two mystery series, one set in coastal South India, and the other in a small New England town. Today she draws on her experience as a writing teacher to offer some suggestions for developing characters.

The best stories are about people we can't stop thinking about. We get involved in their problems and want to find out what's going to happen to them--we fear for them, worry about them, feel joy at their escape from near death. And if it's a character in a mystery, we wait eagerly for the next installment in the series.

One of a writer's biggest challenges is developing characters the reader will care about and seek out again and again. Coming up with these riveting characters is easier said than done.

I have a few standard exercises that I hand out whenever I'm conducting a writing workshop, and one of them focuses on character development. One exercise is adapted from WHAT IF? WRITING EXERCISES FOR FICTION WRITERS by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. The exercise is to write a paragraph about each of three characters--first is someone you know well, perhaps a relative or close friend; second is an acquaintance, someone you know less well but encounter once in a while; third is an individual you invent entirely on your own.

The exercise is interesting for a lot of reasons. The students make a variety of discoveries--about how well they think they know or understand someone close to them; the level of their own observation skills; the kinds of details that give a person a strong or clear identity; and the challenge in creating something that feels real without using some detail from real experience.

Students also learn how easy it is to let a cliche take over the description, and how hard it is to eliminate cliches or lazy thinking, but when a writer hones in on the individual's deeper motivations and feelings, he or she no longer needs to lean on cliches. When writers are thinking through the eyes of the character, the language reflects that as well as what the character talks about and sees and feels. Vocabulary the writer had rarely uses comes to the fore because it suits the character being presented. The goal is for the character to feel unique rather than be made distinct by a quirky hairstyle or verbal tic.

I use another exercise for discovering character, which came to mind recently. I attended an art exhibit and was just as interested in the other visitors as in the art--I love watching people. A couple of them seemed especially interesting and I know they'll pop up in a story some day. When I start work on a new story, I see the characters moving about in their given environment and I start describing them. The process of presenting the character on the page, describing his or her outfit, way of walking or speaking to another, becomes a springboard into a more metaphorical understanding of the person. Simply by describing someone interesting I have seen I can add layers of personality or motivations for what is to come.

The purpose of any exercise is to help the writer focus on the process of getting the image in the head onto the page, where it can be refined and refashioned as necessary. The goal is to create a character who will resonate with the reader.

Susan Oleksiw's current book Under the Eye of Kali: An Anita Ray Mystery is available in paperback from Worldwide. The second in the Anita Ray series, The Wrath of Shiva, will be available in June 2012. For more on Susan's approach to writing, visit her blog.

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Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Great tips for getting to know our characters, Susan! I especially like your idea for describing something/someone we've seen during our day...nice exercise.

Susan Oleksiw said...

The best stories come from the process of discovery, in my view. The process brings an element of freshness and spontaneity to the story.

jenny milchman said...

I will definitely share this post with my students--thanks, Susan! I remember feeling like I'd made a transition writing-wise when my characters went from painted over versions of real life folks to people who had never walked the planet before...except in my own mind.

Elizabeth C. Main said...

I'm going to use your tip about the friend, the acquaintance, and the invented character for my writing group this week. It will be interesting to see whether they can ID the right categories after they've completed the process and traded paragraphs.