Monday, December 08, 2008

Stepping Out of Character?

Martha Mihalick, editor at Greenwillow, was another speaker at this year’s Prairie Writer’s Day conference. Her topic was Character: how to create really good ones, and why it’s so important.

Basically, plot springs from the character. Sure, you could have a chain of events, but without a believable character to carry it out, you’ve got nothing. So how do you create a well-rounded character? Ms. Mihalick tells us all...

Characters are flawed. That’s what makes them real, and that’s how readers identify with them. They are more than character types, such as The Jock, The Nerd, The Quiet Kid, The Queen Bee, etc. They move the story forward through their virtues and flaws, which means they MUST be more than a type. It also means they drive the plot – the plot never drives them.

So how do we create these wonderful characters? Ms. Mihalick had many helpful things to say on this.

On a characters objects and possessions:
What does your character carry around in his/her pockets? And why?
How does he/she dress (i.e. what is his/her sense of style)?
How is his/her bedroom decorated?
What is his/her most prized possession?
What are his/her opinions of the various things in life?

On the people a character interacts with:
Who are your character’s friends? Enemies?
Who lives in his/her town? Neighborhood?
How does he/she treat these people?
What are his/her relationships with parents? Siblings? Other family?

On a character’s actions and reactions:
What makes your character laugh? Cry?
What does he/she do when frightened?
Introvert or extrovert?
Body language.

On a character’s opinions:
Optimist or pessimist?
Liberal or conservative?
What is his/her opinion on certain kinds of music, movies, and books?

Put all of this together, and you’re on your way to creating a very real character.

Now that we’ve created him, how do we reveal him to the reader? Through a combination of action, dialogue, and monologue. But only those things that are relevant to the story. If your character thinks wearing socks with sandals is appalling, but is has nothing to do with the story, there’s no reason to bring it up. The same goes for the people and surroundings. Only bring in the things that have direct relevance to the story, build it, and move it forward. Everything else can stay in your notes.

Now we know how to build a complex main character. How do we build a minor character? According to Ms. Mihalick, use the same things. The minor characters must be as complex as the main character, even though we won’t see as much of it. But if you, the author, know the depth of your characters, then that will come across to the reader. The same thing goes for villains.

She parted with a list of books that contain well-developed characters:
TRACKING DADDY DOWN by Marybeth Kelsey
ME AND THE PUMPKIN QUEEN by Marlane Kennedy
LILY’S PURPLE PLASTIC PURSE by Kevin Henkes
THE LAST APPRENTICE by Joseph Delaney

Thus, adding to my towering TBR pile. :) Hope you enjoyed this as much as I did!!

22 comments:

keri mikulski :) said...

Great questions.. More to add to my interview! Thanks! :)

Tabitha said...

Yeah, I especially liked the part about opinions. The more I can flesh out my character worksheets, the better. :)

Marcia said...

I LOVE character creation and answering all these questions about my characters. Thanks for bringing up as aspect of writing that makes me smile (more than drafting does). :)

Carrie Harris said...

Yeah, I actually do more work on character than I do on the plot. Because I inevitably find that when I plan out the plot, my characters refuse to follow the plan. :)

Ann E. Bryson said...

Thanks for reminding me of this, Tabitha! It's a good exercise!

Kelly said...

That was a great presentation. I liked the opinion part, too. Especially the opinion of Tom Cruise : freak show or handsome, talented actor? :0)

beth said...

Sounds like a great conference! Martha was at the conference I went to, as well (wow, she gets around!), but her speech was on voice. I like this about character...wish I could have seen it!

Merc said...

Good questions, Tabitha, thanks for sharing! :D

PJ Hoover said...

Great suggestions! I'll add them to my character worksheet!

Tabitha said...

Marcia - glad to have made you smile first thing in the morning. :)

Carrie - my characters have a tendency to do that too. So I lay out a road map with the major events, then let them pick the route. :)

Ann - sure is! She has such wise words, doesn't she? :)

Kelly - LOL!! Yeah, that was a great example of opinion. Nearly everyone has an opinion on that one. :)

Beth - wow, she sure does get around. :) Makes me wonder how many conferences editors and agents do each year...

Merc - sure thing! :)

PJ - I did too. :) Yay for editors who share their knowledge! :)

Angela said...

Thanks for sharing this--great questions to ask ourselves when we're fleshing out our characters.

Gottawrite Girl said...

Tabitha, I love Martha. I've hear her speak before, and she's wonderful. Nice AND knowledgable. What could be better?

Tabitha said...

Angela - sure thing! Just like the last two speakers, this was too good to keep to myself. :)

GWG - isn't she lovely? And such a great speaker. I hope I get the chance to hear her speak again. :)

Christina Farley said...

This is really a good reminder. In a sense it's the details that bring a character to life.

Thanks for sharing!

Tabitha said...

Sure thing! :) Glad you enjoyed it! :)

Jacqui said...

Thanks for sharing!

Bish Denham said...

This is some very helpful information. Thanks for sharing.

Mary Witzl said...

I love character creation too, but once again, I am guilty of several character-related writing sins, and reading this has made me all too keenly aware of them. The business of not writing something into the character that doesn't need to be there is one thing. Another one of my character problems is that I make good characters, them have them step out character to do my bidding. This has to stop.

Ooh, I learn so much from coming here!

Tabitha said...

Jacqui & Bish - absolutely!! :)

Mary - aww, that's such a nice thing to say. Thanks. :) You already know how much I love your blog, so I won't get all mushy. :)

Devon Ellington said...

One of the annoying things I've noticed is the trend to give the protagonist one big ole flaw or eccentricity that is used to define the character completely and makes the character a caricature instead of a character. People don't always respond in exactly the same way every time something happens, nor do they respond only in the context of one particular character trait. Those books go into the "give away" pile, and I don't spend money on them again!

I want characters with a range of emotions and responses. Even more important, I want the characters to grow and learn during the course of the story, not keep making the same mistakes over and over, ending up at the same place.

Devon Ellington said...

PS I am someone who CANNOT do a character worksheet before I write the book. You can ask me the weirdest, most obscure question about any character and I can tell you the answer, but if I write it down BEFORE I write the book, I lose the character.

In series, I do character/backstory/plot/setting notebooks to keep continuity, but I add the latest information once the latest book goes off after its final edit, as I'm preparing to start the new one.

Tabitha said...

Devon - so true about the caricature. Ms. Mihalick talked about that when she brought up the character types. And I totally agree about needing to see a character grow. Without growth, what's the point of the story? :)