Wednesday, March 10, 2010

More Than Just the Tip of the Iceberg - Getting to Know Your Characters

Someone wise once said "write what you know." That statement can be interpreted in many different ways, but if you must write what you know and if characters are fundamental to your story, then it stands to reason that you should know your characters.

Even though many writers say that their characters just 'come to them'--that doesn't mean they don't research in order to make those characters realistic and complex. 

What do you research?
Characters are really just fictional people so the things that make you the person you are will also make your character the person they are. Think about family, friends and childhood experiences. How did those people and events influence you? How will they influence your character? Linda Seger, in her book Creating Unforgettable Characters, reminds readers that “characters don’t exist in a vacuum.” She says characters are created through: 

- Their cultural influences
Was your heroine influenced by her Italian grandmother? How would growing up in rural Saskatchewan compare to growing up in Toronto?  How might those influences shape your character's behaviour?

- The historical period
How did a medieval knight treat his squire? What was it like to live on the prairies during the depression? What rights did women have during the Regency Period? What was it like to be Japanese in Canada during the War? How would these external factors shape your character?

The location
How does living in New York shape your character? How do people from Nebraska speak—is there specific slang? How might a woman in Dubai behave differently from a woman in Canada?

- Their occupation
How would someone trained to be a doctor react in that situation? How might an accountant decide to purchase a new car—would she go with her gut or would she prepare a budget? Your hero wasn’t born a police officer—what made him choose that career? What characteristics make him good (or bad) at it?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you’ll have to do some research.

How do you research?
Don’t panic. You probably already know a lot about your characters because on some level they are like you or someone you know. Why and how did you choose your career? How would you react if someone accused you of stealing? What would you do if you found yourself attracted to a completely unsuitable person? Call on your experiences--would your character react the same way or differently based on their influences?

Think about your friends, family, and co-workers too. Was your friend raised by her grandmother? How was growing up different for her than for you? If you are good friends, you probably already have an idea of what it was like from your perspective. Get hers.

We also do research by observing the people around us, the people we don’t know. Remember that weird guy on the bus? That mother you saw in the mall? The security guard at the bank? How did they act? What caught your attention? What was their posture? Attire? Facial expression? What was the situation and how did they react? Be aware of your surroundings and take note of how people interact with each other.

Linda suggests that you ask questions. Lots of them. Every fifteen minutes the security guard talks into his radio. Why?  Next time you get a speeding ticket ask the cop why he chose to be a police officer (or don't!).  Ask your friend the doctor how she would react in a specific situation.

The more you know about your characters, the stronger and more vibrant they will be. Don't worry about fitting everything into your story. It isn't necessary. According to Linda Segar, The depth of a character has been compared to an iceberg. The audience or reader only sees the tip of the writer’s work...” The audience may only see the tip of the iceberg, but the writer sees the whole thing.

Writers, how much research do you do on your characters? What do you research and how? Are your characters as realistic and complex as they could be?

Reference: Seger, Linda. Creating Unforgettable Characters. New York: Owl Books, 1990.


Joanne Brothwell said...

Great post Anne,
I do a lot of research on my characters and have written mini-essays on them outlining most of the details that you covered. That way their identities are crystal clear in my head and I can write about them with authority.

connie said...

Wow! You certainly can write!

When I read your blog, I realised that I have done a poor job of researching my characters. I have read a lot about the rights of Medieval women and what it is to live in a castle but I haven't filled out my characters much at all.

I knew I had to round them out but you have added so many facets to know! I meant to check on them as I reread the manuscript and edited, but I see now that your way is better - create them first and have them react.

Joanne has a good idea - to write mini essays about her characters.

Your blog might well be the hatpin that will get me writing again. Except for the non-fiction I am paid to write, I have hardly been near the computer.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Anne,
Excellent blog. I fill out character sketches for my characters so I know physical characteristics about them, where and when they were born, their family life, marital status, backstory. I want to know their history so I know what's motivating them right now. I need to know what's motivating them whether they're aware of it or not. I also work on their goals and what's standing in the way of their goals - the conflict. If I know them well enough, I'll know what they'll do in any given situation.


Karyn Good said...

Filling out a character chart works well for me, even though things often change during the writing of the first draft. I research career information. Develop a backstory. To help further develop my upcoming hero's character, I used Suzanne Brockmann's Tall, Dark & Believable: Creating the "Perfect" Romance Hero as a guide for creating values and beliefs. If you're interested you can find her mini-workshop on her website.

But it's really writing the first draft that does the most for me. I don't really know them when I start but by the end I've got a much better sense of what makes them tick and how they'll react to things. Not the most efficient route as it makes for heavy revising but at this point I haven't developed a better system :)

Anne Germaine said...

Hi Joanne - from your blog postings and comments it seems like you have the kind of characters I was talking about. Mini-essays are a great tip. Thanks for sharing!

Anne Germaine said...

Connie - you give me far too much credit! I am still learning. It has been (and continues to be) a struggle for me to get all the right components lined up at the right place, right time.

I am really glad you are going to pick up fiction again!

Anne Germaine said...

Jana - that's exactly what I learned from my reading (and from recent discussions from fellow writers). If you know your characters and how they will react, then you will see your story unfold.

Anne Germaine said...

Karyn - Like you, I learn more about my characters as I write (mostly throught their dialogue) but I'm trying to do more upfront clarification so I don't write myself to a dead end like I often do.

Janet said...

I love that comparison to an iceberg, Anne - I find that in all aspects of story telling, the depth of an author's research rarely makes it into the work - but the underlying influences create a stronger, more authentic piece. If you don't know your story backwards, forwards, inside and out, how do you expect your readers?

Like Karyn, a lot of the information about my characters comes in that first draft. I learn they like crossword puzzles or are allergic to mushrooms. Sometimes what I learn there gives me stuff to layer in on the second or third revision - something clicks and I can use it to further the plot or create a subplot with the information. And I always make sure my WIP notebook is handy so I can write down the insight and any spontaneous scenes that come at that time (if I don't, I know I'll forget the brilliance and spend hours trying to get it back).

Great post, Anne. As for dead ends - no words of wisdom since I usually end up in a few myself :)

Helena said...

I have a character profile form which I should use, but haven't too often. The basics are easy to fill in, like date of birth, colour of hair, etc., but I get stuck when the questions start asking about preferences, and what makes them angry, and so on.

I find it's easier to put them (the characters) into a situation and try to figure out how they are going to react at that point. After a few scenes, I seem to be getting to know them better than if I had determined ahead of time each personality quirk. Of course, using this kind of pantser approach requires careful checking to be sure they are behaving consistently! (Or not, in the event that they are erratic kinds of people.)

Thanks for giving us lots to think about today, Anne.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Anne, excellent post.

I always thought my characters were well-rounded until a few weeks ago when it was pointed out they were also stereotypical. I had forgotten to use a lot of the things you list in your post - especially things like nationality and cultural differences which affect accents and mannerisms.

Thank you for the post and the info on the book.

Anne Germaine said...

Thanks for the comments Janet. Like you say crosswords and allergies are the little things that make the characters seem more real.

Anne Germaine said...

I find those character forms a little hard to use too Helena. I fill the information out but don't really believe the more in depth info and rarely stick to it. I'm better off writing and making note of those things as I explore the characters further.

Anne Germaine said...

Anita - Building strong characters is much harder than it sounds. Sometimes I think I have a really strong character then I set the story down for a month or more and can't pick it up again because I've 'lost' the character. I should have fleshed it out more and wrote it down. Live and learn, right?