Monday, September 27, 2010

Characterizing Characterization

So Friday's blogfest was a BLAST. I'd really like to thank Alex Cavanaugh, Elana Johnson, and Jennifer Daiker for a FABULOUS topic and some very interesting takes on creating characters... SO interesting in fact, that I am not willing to drop it just yet.

What struck me is how different we all saw it. Every person looked at it differently, but there are some CATEGORIES of approaches that I thought might be useful.

Which comes FIRST the Character, or the Plot?

I noticed that some people thought of their characters first (sometimes fully formed) and THEN thought of something for them to do... (or something that would happen to them). Other people couldn't do character until they knew the STORY.

People who really needed to have the characters down did clever things like interviewing them, writing full profiles, depending on psychological 'types'. (I was the only person who assigned them punctuation, but I also tend to do that after the fact, and honestly.. I've never DONE that *shifty*).

Other people needed characters to develop more organically—within the context of the story.

As with most things, I am a bendy sort... I need to know the characters before I write the book, or they won't behave consistently, but I can't 'know them' without writing them IN ACTION. I start with a couple scenes... sometimes those scenes survive, sometimes they don't.

Trait Inventory

Some people had qualities they insisted on: Smart, brave, flawed, unattractive (LOVE this one, though it's an exaggeration to how it was presented... but I am also in the 'can't be too beautiful' camp—pretty people annoy me). It's also nice if characters are capable or learning and growing.

The Telling

And then there was the school (of which I subscribe) that any character (with the probable exception of Bella Swann) COULD be written to be compelling. It is in the HOW. The reader needs to be made to CARE. That doesn't require LIKING the character, it just requires making the reader HAVE TO KNOW what happens.

There are a number of ways to make readers care about the character. I saw blogs about giving them a history, relationship... think, for instance, of Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games. She isn't necessarily LIKEABLE, but she takes care of her family when her father dies, she then volunteers herself for the 'games' so her sister doesn't have to go. Those two things buy a lot of leeway from the reader for this prickly character.

Even a pedophile like Humbert Humbert is compelling in Nabakov's capable words. THAT one, we are let inside his head and participate in his delusions—the 'minx-like' behavior he can't resist.

But I think my real question of interest, is whether this character creation thing is a little like the plotters versus pantsers thing... I think it MIGHT be. Do plotters need their characters sheet with all their traits, likes, quirks, where the pantsers allow the characters to develop with the story? Does this ring true to you?

I am in the middle on both fronts. I don't OUTLINE, but I do TIMELINE (and follow with about 60% success). And characters sort of COME to me, but before I DO THAT full timeline, I have written the scenes and have a pretty good idea.

So that's my question: What do you do on EACH?


[Editing Note: I am making good progress in whipping the WiP into shape, but MAN is this a slow process. I've got all my planned edits marked in some form or other, but going through and getting them in is big... I'd say I'm maybe a quarter done with that part...]


Roland D. Yeomans said...

For me, the character always comes first. Then, I think what would make him like that? What would he do in our present? What did he do in our past? From those answers comes the novel.

I came up with Alice, the Victorian ghoul, as the fearsome love interest of my YA hero, Victor Standish first then gave her back story upon answering the above questions.

Those answers are revealed in my Monday's short post, WHAT IS DEAD? It's told through her eyes.

As always, your post is fun and thought-provoking, Roland

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Characters...actually, the victim, comes first for me. Great post on the process!

Good luck with your revisions...I know it's slow-going sometimes, but you're making great progress!

M.J. Nicholls said...

I think it's difficult NOT to care about a character, unless they're a monster on purpose. After all, we've made the decision to sit and read the book, and we'll generally read on regardless. Well, I do anyway.

I get annoyed when people abandon books because they dislike the protag. It's like switching off Mozart because you don't like the countermelody. There are more important things.

Old Kitty said...

I am always in AWE at writers who do this very disciplined character outlining in depth! It's cos I think I'm more a panster/organic type creature. Everything is vague to begin with but by the end of the chapter - something concrete happens. Or so I would like to hope! LOL!!

Good luck with your WIP! I do like your TIMELINE idea!! I can so relate to it! Take care

Journaling Woman said...

I hate pretty people too. Ha! I don't care if they are pretty on the outside, but the inside--no way.

Most of the time plot comes first for me.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I develop the characters first and then outline the story. Some qualities change as I write, but I need to know my characters before I decide what to do with them.
And while I never describe whether my characters are good looking or not, I let their habits and behaviors determine attractiveness.

Jan Morrison said...

I think I'm like you. Actually I think the same writer thought both you and me up. Of course, you are younger and smarter but I'm older and more wise-ass. I am a pantser and I feel my way along with the action to find out what my characters are like. I need to give them things to overcome before I can find out. And it is absolutely true for me that I can see the less important characters more clearly than the protagonists and other main ones. Which is probably the same in my life. If they can be summed up in a couple of lists why the heck would I want to spend four years with them?

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I see and feel the characters before I ever think of a storyline for them. And I'm an outliner.

SY said...

This is great post... It really emphasizes getting to know your characters personally

Hart Johnson said...

Oh, interesting responses!

Mark, I can't believe you always care! Read Twilight--that will break you. I don't very often put down a book for it, but I definitely don't LIKE the book much... A Separate Peace comes to mind.--there was just NOTHING to like about the MC and the book couldn't recover.

And definitely evidence for my theory... character details go to outliners... *nods wisely*

Jan--I LOVE that--same writer thought of both of us. That rings true to me...

Thanks everyone!

Holly Ruggiero, Southpaw said...

Basic plot first, then basic character, then scribble some words done, next define plot and character.

Jessica Carmen Bell said...

Well, I outline plot first, but then I let characters come about organically. Sometimes my plot ends up changing (well most times) because the characters do something different than I expected, or turn out to be different that I imagined them initially. So I change accordingly. As long as I know where I want the book to end up, why I want to book to end up like that, and have a SIMPLE BASE to follow there, I pretty much go with the flow. So I guess you could call me a "plotting panster"??? hehehe.

Ted Cross said...

I have scene ideas that come to me and I just store them up in my mind. I also have characters that develop. Often I find I can take a new character and insert him or her into some of my stored up scenes.

Hart Johnson said...

Ha! Middle of the roaders, like me! All three o' ya! (though in different ways)--proving indelibly that the world is made of shades of gray...

arlee bird said...

Either way is valid depending on the main focus--is the story plot driven or character driven? Sometimes I am enthralled by a story idea and the types of characters necessary to make the story work fall into place. Other times I might have characters that I really like and I have to figure out what to do with them.
I am a big fan of timelines--it's easier for me to visualize. A rough outline helps at times, but mostly I just formulate an idea in my head and start writing.

Tossing It Out

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, I think you might be on to something here. I'm a panster, and I like to get to know my characters as I write. I do a little bit of storylining and figuring out who they are beforehand, but for the most part they I start putting them in situations and they start behaving as they do. Of course this becomes a consistency issue eventually, but that's what editing is for :)

LTM said...

you know, I've done both. I've had a character come to me who I felt like I completely understood--and then I put her in a situation that was just awful. Then I had a situation I thought sounded interesting and I had to find characters and flesh them out to experience it.

I think the first way is easier to write. But I guess they both work, yes? :o) great job on your progress. I'm trying to nail my flippers down and get some of these WIPs finished myself! <3

Falen (Sarah Ahiers) said...

i think i typically come up with the plot and the characters around the same time.

However i am not a pantser and though i have general ideas of my characters when i start, they pretty much have free range to change as much as they want. I may have to alter my outline some, but that's ok as long as there is an outline

Clarissa Draper said...

Great continuation. I think you're right about summing it up that way. I know for me, plot comes first and the characters follow along and act the way I think they would in the situation they're given. They put up with a lot from me.


Hart Johnson said...

Lee-so interesting that you can go back and forth! Do you write in multiple genres, too? Maybe that is a piece of this puzzle, too.

Stickynotes-storylining is a good way to put what I do--the timeline and a few details, but not a scene by scene, by any means.

And the OTHER Leigh does both! Curiouser and curiouser... Now i'm thinking it's a name thing *shifty*

Sarah--why does it not surprise me you are messing up my theory? teehee

Clarissa-always best to be rotten to your characters, I think... sounds like you've got a little back and forth going though, which I generally do too.

arlee bird said...

I guess my writing would lean more toward a literary genre which would subgenre into sci-fi, mystery, drama, absurdity, etc. so I'm probably less story driven than I am leaning toward character and setting. Often though I'll get a story inspiration from a dream or elsewhere and the characters are not initially so important.

Tossing It Out

Walter Knight said...

"Battle Star Galactica" writers were interviewed, and said it's not about the plot, it's about the character development. I agree. I find an interesting character, and he goes on a journey as I write each day.

Although I like to develope characters, I do not describe their physical appearance. I let readers imagine what they look like, hoping readers can further identify with them. Readers can even assume race, letting their own stereotypes kick in if they must.

Carol Kilgore said...

I am pretty much a middle of the roader all the way around. That said, I'm in the thinking phase of my next project. I intend to know certain things about character and plot beyond what I've known with previous projects, but I still won't know the complete story or everything about the characters until I write it.

Jo Schaffer said...

I think about this a lot. My stories are very character driven. Even if there is something extraordinary about their circumstances, in the end it is about the character's humanity. Their journey.
I begin with a good idea of who the character is-- like a close acquaintance--and then put them into situations and allow the process to organically unfold them to me. Like making friends. Only time and experience can show you the true nature of someone. Otherwise characters are just "personality types".
I laughed at your reference to Bella. I think some writers, even decent ones, make cardboard cut out charcters just as a vehicle to tell their story. Something that could never satisfy me.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on my blog. Way to hang in there. Peace.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I get a character stuck in my head, then I think about an opening scene for the character and then I start writing to see what happens next. Not a method I’d recommend, but it seems to work for me. I don’t feel like I really know my main character until the end of the first draft. I think that’s why the second time through is so much more fun for me.

Cheeseboy said...

I do think I fall more in line with the organically created characters. However, I think all ways of character creation can be valuable. Interesting takes by all of you though.

Ketutar said...

Which comes FIRST the Character, or the Plot?
I think they are kind of... together. Even if the characters or plot isn't that fully formed yet, it's already clear that the story couldn't happen to anyone else, and that this person has to have this story... I think they carry each other. There can't be one without the other.

I do "clever things" with my characters only when I'm stuck :-D Sometimes it opens new doors to interview your characters. :-)
Psychological types... now, no-one's a clean type. (That sounds pretty bad :-D)

I don't think I NEED to have my characters develop one way or another... but I prefer the organic type of writing. :-)

Sometimes the non-consistent behavior is actually non-non-consistent... I just don't know the character well enough, but made a mistake to assume something of my characters that doesn't really fit them... I suppose I am one of those writers who don't "create" the characters or plots, but are told the stories by the characters themselves... I'm just a medium, so to speak.

I'm sure even Bella Swan could be written to be compelling. :-D I actually find Stephenie Meyer interesting. I loath her books, but she is interesting :-D
It's like Toni Morrison's people. They really are not especially likable, but they are... compelling :-D

Or think about Scarlett! She's horrible, absolutely awful, nasty, selfish, hard, cruel, even stupid, but... there's something about her, that makes one care. I suppose the "all new and shiny" good and kind Scarlett lost her appeal. She stopped being a real person. Reminds me of Carole Lombard testing for Scarlett... she was asked to be softer, and she tried and tried and tried, and just couldn't. After she was asked, third time, to be softer, she couldn't control her face and for a second she had the ugliest frown on her face... She just wasn't a soft person. And Scarlett just isn't good and kind.

Haven't read Hunger Games. Sounds like an interesting story. Very interesting.

Plotters vs pantsers... Perhaps. I still believe that it's actually the same way with both... the plotters like to have the neat notes as support for the time when writing gets tough, but they still write like pantsers. Most plotters don't much look at the research and such while writing, that's saved for editing and fact checking and such... or Writer's Block :-D And Pantsers do know more of their characters than they might have written on papers. I'm pretty sure pantsers know the eye color of all their characters, even if they'd need to think a bit longer for some.

Good for you :-) Editing AND blogging :-)

Ketutar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carolyn Abiad said...

I'm like Holly - need the basic story first, then a character - some Nanowrimo writing and then plot thickening...followed by a ridiculous amount of revision, of course.

Lisa said...

I'm a pantser right now, but with my NaWriMo story, I'm turning into a plotter.

Deb and Barbara said...

I have so many blog-posts to catch up on! (it's amazing how out of the loop I feel after just a few days away.) I wish I'd read all the posts leading to this one.

Anyway, all to say that I am a character-based writer, but probably because of my acting background. And THAT said, my last ms is suffering because as much as I like my main character, others don't. Or rather, by the time they do (@ pg 140), they feel it's too late for a sell-able book. So, back to the drawing board, I guess...


Geof said...

I really like your entry, HJ! Well I am no expert, but in my script writing experiences, I always think of the characters first. Good characters, in my humblest of opinions, are the real drivers of a story, whether it is good or bad.

Shayda Bakhshi said...

Characters always come first for me, but they usually have some sort of trait that begs a plot shortly after. For example, in SPITFIRE (which I totally just finished last night and am giddy with the joy of it), Mattie's got the ability to create fire from her skin. Plots are just beating her over the head!

I'll sometimes interview them, but I have a problem lifting that author/creation veil. What I find myself doing most is--even if the novel is going to be in first person--answer a series of questions about the character in third person, as though I'm describing them to someone else.

My favorites are the kinds of things that probably won't even show up in the novel, but are really telling about a person's personality, e.g. Would your character kill an innocent child to save a hundred others? Etc.

But I'm also kind of organic about it, as well. I don't do a whole lot of preliminaries before I jump in. I'll do them in the middle of my WIP sometimes if I feel like I need to. I do have a good grasp of who they are to begin with, of course, but I like to get to know them as I write, as well.

Nicole Zoltack said...

Great post on the different categories! I usually have the characters first, although a few times I've come up with the plot and fit the character into it. But even with those cases, I learn more and more about the character as I write, the character taking over. (I'm a panster)

Katy Foster-Dugan said...

I've done both. In my murder mystery games usually I picked a genre, then the characters would come and I would shape them for the story. But in the case on my old west mystery I stared at the screen unsure which idea I wanted to follow next and a character came to me and he fit best in a saloon town so that chose genre.

In the case of my current Wip the story came one day and the details of the characters came later. I have the plot fleshed out in my head but nothing written I tried to do character sketching but I hated trudging it out because I kept thinking, ‘I already know this why write it out twice.’ I decided to write down things that my brain my deem unimportant and forget that I wouldn’t want to search through several chapters to find their height or birthday. Because even if it’s minor I always notice those little inconstancies in a book. Although that wouldn’t be as bad as a book I read where it went from a full moon, to no moon, and back to full again over the course of two pages.

Although for the book I am thinking about for NaNo next month I might have to do some sketching because I have a clear plot and progression but no real characters.