Saturday, September 27, 2014

12 Steps to Really Knowing Your Characters

In my previous post, I presented a series of questions to help think about your character-driven novel as a whole. The intent of this was to make you consider what you want your readers to feel and what you expect a novel to do. It also got you to think of your main character in terms that would help her to push the plot along, rather than depending on outside forces to move through the story.

Now I'm going to ask you to contemplate who your all characters are in greater depth. Even though we often spend a lot of time inside our protagonists and imagining them in great detail, sometimes we think about other characters within a limited context of the story. If you go to a critique group, you might be asked why character X lies to the protagonist. Your answer is probably about his motivation.

Well, if you're really writing a character based novel, simple motivations aren't enough.
Add depth to your novel by shedding light on the complexities of your secondary characters.
Yeah, I know, you want to start writing and stop all this ridiculousness. Go ahead and write.

When you're done writing for the day, then start this and see what you think.

Profile your secondary characters.

Yes. All secondary characters. These are the characters who are critical to the story, but are not your protagonist(s). The protagonist is easy because you already answered a lot of questions about your her in 3 Pre-writing Steps. For the love of cheese, don't do this for tertiary characters and walk-ons—I'm only so crazy.

This profile will consist of answering the following questions:

1. SELF PERCEPTION: How does the character see himself? What does he think other people see when they look at him?

2. RELEVANT HISTORY: In my current book, I'm mainly looking at family history and functioning. If a character is older and it has some effect on the story, I am looking at other things, like relationship to work, education, etc.

3. PROTAGONIST'S VIEW: Because I am working on a coming-of-age novel with one point of view character, I ask how she sees each character, and how it compares to the supporting characters' ideas of themselves.

4. WANT: the abstract sense, like you did for the main character.

5. GOAL: the concrete sense, like you did for the main character.

6. MEANS FOR SATISFYING THAT GOAL: What is this character going to do to achieve her goal? What is she willing to do to get to it?

7. CONFLICT: What causes this character to second guess himself?

8. OBSTACLE: What gets in the way of her reaching her goal?

9. TRANSFORMATION: How will this character change in the end? (The protagonist isn't the only one who will do so!)

10. EXTRAS: I also add any additional things to consider that will be relevant to the story. Sometimes it is the music that is associated with the person, some mystery in the person's life that she keeps hidden (and may not be revealed in the story, but affects her actions and her personality, nonetheless), how they deal with money, or whatever seems important.

11. RELATING: How does this character relate to the other characters in his life? How does he connect with them and where are there rifts? This is mainly dealing with long-standing relationships that were established before the protagonist walked in and became a part of it.

12. STORYLINE: Yes, a brief outline of the story of each character within the story. Again, there is more than one person in most novels and their stories coincide with your protagonist's story, affect your protagonist's story, or act as a subplot. At any rate, if the character is a secondary one, he is important and his story is important, too.

Why this is better than a character sketch.

Some people swear by character sketches. 

I always thought they were stupid. I'll figure out what my character looks like, what she eats, and what her hobbies are as I imagine the story and write through it. How she feels is situational. I don't want to lose that surprise. That's part of the fun of the first draft.

Then I started doing profiles. Beyond sketches.

Character sketches tend to address things on a limited level. What building profile for secondary characters does is to ask questions about the supporting characters that you don't always know, but things that can affect their actions and define their individual voices, even their dialogue.

This means that as you write your characters into scenes, they act with a reason—and they sometimes don't, causing dilemmas for them that can affect the main character, causing conflicts, and causing them to grow throughout the course of the novel. And you know your readers want to see that all the characters change in some way by the end—even if it is in the tiniest of ways.  

How others profile their characters.

If you want to see how others produce character profiles, check out WritersWrite. Their worksheet is somewhat longer than my process, but if you are prone to answering questions more simply their questions will make sure you get into all the nooks and crannies of the character. 

Novel Writing Help also supplies an extensive list. (It's 12 steps, too!) The first five are more related to physical representations... Surprise! I'm a fan of number 6 and on! These are useful in thinking about those "extras" I mentioned in step 10.

Have fun planning!

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