Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Develop Those Characters

What I'm reading: Pray for Silence, by Linda Castillo; Crazy for Love, by Victoria Dahl

Thanks to Maryn for her post yesterday. I'm working on re-editing a backlist book so I can publish it when I get my rights back. It was the first book I had published—and actually, the first book I wrote, although it had been rewritten countless times before being picked up by the publisher. Anyway, I know exactly what she's talking about. And don't forget – you have until Friday to leave a comment to win a book. Since she's giving two books away, that doubles the odds that you'll win.

And don't forget the summer sale at Smashwords. What's in a Name? is 25% off, but only until the end of July.

In my blog hopping the other day, I came across two posts talking about developing characters. One used worksheets and questionnaires, and suggested spending a LOT of time getting to know characters before putting words on the page, including suggestions to spend ten minutes writing and reflecting on the character. This, while it might work for some, is a total turnoff to me. If I'm going to write for ten minutes, I want to be working on the WIP.

The other said you could do that, but it wouldn't create the depth of character you'd achieve by looking at how your characters behaved, and that you have to write beyond the character notes. If I may quote their guest blogger, Harry Bingham:

First of all, character emerges from every tiny detail. Those little snippets of dialogue. The humour. Weird little choices of vocabulary. You can’t get those things from writing character notes, you just get to them by writing the character. Letting yourself sink into the moment.

Are either of these the right approach? Of course not. It's no different from any other helpful writing tips. Each author will find what works. And even for the same author, what works for one book might not work for another.

I have finally returned to my current WIP, now that the copy edits are all turned in. (And no, I haven't heard from either editor yet). I created my main characters with broad brushstrokes, and fill in the details as I go. I don't need to know that the favorite expression of my heroine is Sheesh until I actually write it and it works. I didn't know she'd been engaged until I needed more conflict for her when she meets the hero. I didn't know her parents had expected her to follow in their footsteps until I needed a stronger reason for her to be struggling to open her own bakery in a new community. I tend to 'find' these traits as I ask myself "WHY" during the writing process.

I've also (at last) got that dead body. I didn't even know which character was going to end up on the bakery floor, or exactly how he or she would die when I started writing. But once I picked my cause of death, I needed more history on the character. How did I do this? The same way my cops are doing it. I have them in the room, with their white board, making notes and asking questions. And as they ask and answer, I write.

For example, the victim died of a drug overdose. Once I establish that, then I can decide whether she was a drug user, either recreational or perhaps taking prescriptions for some ailment. If that's the case, then I'll figure out what the ailment was, but I didn't need to know that from the beginning. As it turns out, she regarded her body as a temple. (Seemed to be more of a mystery that way). And with that piece of information, I could mention that she took pride in using only organic ingredients in her shop.

If I were a plotter, perhaps I'd have known all this before I started. But to me, knowing too much means forcing clues rather than layering them in more subtly. And I'd have missed all the fun of looking at the story and deciding which of the characters I'd introduced was going to have to die.


Scott Morgan said...

Hi, Terry:

Very interesting post, and one I cautiously disagree and agree with at the same time.

Full disclosure, I have a book, Character Development from the Inside Out, coming out in November, which I tell you because it's only fair of me to admit to that up front.

Now that that's out of the way ... I think you're right on when you say that any writing advice is only good if it works for the author.

And I agree that it's easy to let yourself get bogged down in the details and forget that the joy of writing is in the discovery. Personally, I love to write but hate to rewrite.

But, I'm always leery of blanket dismissals of any approach designed to help writers. Your approach would never work for me, for example. and, obviously, mine, which does advocate building human beings before plots, wouldn't work for you.

It's the same argument people give about business plans. One guy says "You have to have a business plan, period!" and the other one says "Don't have a business plan, you'll just end up sticking to something you'll outgrow." I've found they're both right.

My reason for advocating details in character development is not to bog anyone down in inflexible must-hit points, it's to get them to think broadly and in ways they might not otherwise. It works for new writers who often don't understand how to direct their own stories. My caution would be to remember that it's different for you, a successful, published author and pro than it is for someone who can't put their finger on what's wrong yet.

Thanks for the thoughtful post. You obviously got me thinking. :)

Terry Odell said...

Scott: thanks for your comment. And, as frequent visitors to this blog know, I don't profess to convert anyone to what works for me. As a matter of fact, I'm usually saying that rules only work when they work. :-)

If my post wasn't clear that I was speaking only of what works for me, I apologize.

Viviane Brentanos said...

Interesting post and I do agree everyone has their own way of doing things. For me, I don't make character charts other than the basic eye colour, height etc. As for their traits - they develop as my story does. The overall personality I have marked in my head from before I even put pen to paper. Example - the story I am working on now was begun when I was a mere 13 years old but my main male character is still the same person he was back then - a human mix of good and bad. Possessive, loyal, kind, bad-tempere4d, unforgiving. I know this man inside out. I talk to him as I sit on the bus or prepare dinner or soak in the bath. For me, he is alive.


Devon Ellington said...

If I write too much ABOUT a character before writing the first draft, I lose the character. Intricate character sheets, biographies, etc. makes my subconscious think I've written the book, so why bother? I have to use the first draft to get to know the characters through situation and detail and response, the way one would get to know a new person in one's life.

In subsequent drafts, I layer in other details and fix any structural problems, etc. that came up.

I must be doing something right, because I write full time and don't need a "day job"! ;)

If someone wants to write a book about their character before they write the book in which the character shows growth and change, that's a personal choice. I need to learn about my characters in context, and then tweak things to give them to most solid support in all the other elements of the book as possible.

Terry Odell said...

Viviane - glad I'm not the only one whose characters show up everywhere.

Devon - obviously your system works well for you. And I agree that discovery as you write is a viable option.

Cherie Le Clare said...

Interesting debate. I love to 'discover' my characters as I write but find doing a basic mind-map sketching in a few details and quirks helps me to ground my characters from the beginning so that I stay in character rather than veering off and giving them a different eye colour or something halfway through. Layering my characters starts from tiny seeds formed in my mind-map, covering the essential basics.
I'm intrigued by the title of your book, Scott - where will I be able to buy it from?

Terry Odell said...

Cherie - it's not so much a debate as two different approaches, neither of which is right or wrong.

Cherie Le Clare said...

One definition of debate (from Oxford dictionary) is: to discuss, consider different sides of question, ponder. You are right, Terry; neither is right or wrong but I didn't realize that was an issue.

Terry Odell said...

Cherie - I guess I should have checked the dictionary before I made my comment. I just recall debates as having 'winners' and 'losers' back when I was in school (although I was never on the debate team.)

I didn't mean to cause a stir.