Thursday, June 26, 2008

Writing 3-D Characters

I seem to be on a character kick these days. I mean, I just finished a bunch of posts on character. What more could I possibly have to say? Apparently, there is more.

When I browse agent and editor blogs, interviews, submission preferences, etc, there's something I see over and over. They want to see vivid, believable, three-dimensional characters. Which is great! They're telling us what they want. But...

How do you create these kinds of characters? Unless you're writing an autobiography, it's going to be more involved than writing down what you would do given a bunch of difficult situations.

Let's start by examining two people, PersonA and PersonB.

If these two are in the exact same situation, will they react exactly the same? No. They may have similar reactions, but not the same because they're individuals. And no two individuals are exactly alike. Let's put them in a situation.

PersonA and PersonB are walking together down the sidewalk. A mugger jumps from an alley, demanding all their money. What do PersonA and PersonB do? Well, that depends on them.

Instinct and fear tell us to give up our money and run like hell. So, what if both PersonA and PersonB do this? Does that make their reactions are exactly the same? No, it doesn't, because we don't know what they're thinking as they're running away. PersonA might be thinking "I can't believe I was so careless around that alley. I'll never walk down that street again." But, PersonB might be thinking "I can't believe I let that jerk bully me into giving up my wallet. I'll never back down again."

Should they be in the same situation again, their individual thoughts will lead them to completely different reactions in the future. PersonA is led by fear, and is fine with that. PersonB is ashamed at what his fear made him do, and will change his behavior next time around. To me, even though they did the same thing, that makes PersonA's reaction extremely different from PersonB's reaction.

So, how do we figure out what PersonA and PersonB are going to think? And why they'd be thinking it? Character worksheets? Research? Interviews? Yes, those will help. But, personally, I think it's harder than that. I think we, as writers, need to learn how to put ourselves in other people's shoes - figure out how they view things, how they react to certain situations - even if you disagree with their methods.

When I create a character and put him/her into a rough situation, I ask myself two questions: "What would I do in this situation" and "What would my character do?" The answers are usually similar, but not exactly the same. If your answer is exactly the same as what you would do, then you probably need to rethink your character (unless you are writing an autobiography, of course).


Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

Good post!

"What more could I possibly have to say? Well, apparently there is more."
There's always more to say.


Tabitha said...

Yep, seems that way. Both with writing stuff and with stories. :)

Mary Witzl said...

This is great stuff, Tabitha, and it is so true.

I am told that when I write, I look really weird. I talk to myself, make odd gestures, roll my eyes, scratch, snicker, etc. In fact, I'm just trying to figure out what is natural behavior for my characters.

Whenever my students used to get back tests, I was always intrigued by their reactions. Once, two girls got back their tests with roughly the same score. One was thrilled and showed hers to everyone; the other blushed and hid her exam. Later, she asked me why she had messed up the few questions she got wrong. It never ceases to amaze me how richly complex human personalities are, and how different. Honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Tabitha said...

I do the same thing! It's funny how physically doing the things our characters are doing really helps clarify them in our minds, isn't it?

And I totally agree about the complexities of humanity. It makes us very interesting. :)

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