Monday, June 20, 2011

Authors Are Such Characters

I used to wonder if all authors had multiple personality disorder. I mean, we can’t write the same story with the same kind of character over and over again, so, where does it all come from? Are authors cracked? Do we lead secret lives that no one, even ourselves, knows about?
Probably not. :) Which still leaves us with the question of where all these characters come from. How can one person create so many different kinds of people?

Well…we don’t. It only looks like we do. :)

To write effective characters, you need to know people. I don’t mean knowing the different types of people—that’s too general. You need to know people on an individual level. It usually starts with your friends and family members, then it might include coworkers and friends of friends and such. Basically, you’re observing the little details in what they do and how they react to various things, and how that translates into who they are as a whole.

After you’ve done this with enough people (in sufficient detail) then you might find yourself making predictions about how someone might react or what choice he/she might make in a given situation. And you might even be right.

This is the groundwork for creating fully fleshed out, believable, and relatable characters. It’s not the type of character that’s important, it’s the person behind the character. People are individuals with independent thoughts and reactions, and observing others with a keen eye for detail will get you one piece of the character puzzle. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s only one piece. :)

You also have to know yourself. Really know yourself. Your strengths and weaknesses, neuroses, biases, quirks, likes and dislikes, emotional scars, etc. And, you need the ability to dig deep within and pull out experiences from various aspects of your life. That’s the other piece of the character puzzle, and often the hardest to assemble coherently. After all, this means we have to face every aspect of ourselves, even the parts we don’t like so much.

After you put those two pieces together, you have a formula for great characters. They consist of various aspects of the author, plus some enhancements based on experiences with other people. And the root personality of each character comes from the author, because that’s the best way to fully understand the characters. If we don’t understand our characters, then how can we expect the reader to? That’s kind of like explaining calculus when we don’t understand it ourselves. Not very helpful. :)

Just to be clear, this applies to ALL characters, main and minor. Minor characters are no less important than main characters, and don’t deserve to be typecast. The more realistic all the characters are, the better experience the reader will have. And then you’ll have a fan who will look for more of your books.

Disclaimer: in the vein of too much internal monologue, this does not necessarily apply to first drafts. First drafts need a certain amount of exploration, and character is often a big part of that. Some writers manage to know their characters inside and out before they begin writing, but most tend to discover them along the way. So, if you don’t get your characters perfect the first time around, don’t worry! That’s what revision is for. :)


Kelly Hashway said...

I'll second your "that's what revision is for". It took many revisions of my middle grade novel to get to know my character as well as I did. Then rewriting scenes to really show his voice and personality was much easier. I'm working on the second book in the trilogy and it's much easier since I now know the character so well.

Catherine Stine said...

Yes, getting to know your characters from all angles is a must. If I weren't a writer, I often believe that I would have been a psychoanalyst. They are doing such similar work!

cleemckenzie said...

I'm glad you emphasized minor characters too. Sometimes those bit players are what set a book apart and make it so much more interesting.

And getting up close and personal with yourself is an absolute must, even though it can often be a bit uncomfortable. I hate knowing I have flaws!

kah said...

This is where it comes in handy that I have lived in quite a few places and met so many interesting and different people. :)

Great post!

Miss Good on Paper said...

I spend a lot of time thinking and observing people. Writers, like you said, need to know people. Maybe that is why so many writers are introverts (because we live in our own heads so much, analyzing people and situations).

-Miss GOP

Laila Knight said...

This is true. It's really important to know people and ourselves, and for some writers it's not fun to get out there and mingle. I still maintain that we're all a bit nuts, but that's a point in our favor.

Tabitha said...

Kelly - so many people forget about revision, and then go crazy trying to write a perfect book the first time around. :)

Catherine - yeah, I actually considered going into some form of psychoanalyzing in high school. Then I decided I'd be happier inventing people with imaginary problems instead of solving real people's problems. :)

Lee - I think many people forget about the minor characters, but they're just as important as the main character. Without them, the story as a whole will feel flat and boring. We need a well-rounded world filled with real people.

Tabitha said...

Karen - yes! I haven't lived in many places, but I've traveled all over the world. It has done wonders for my perspective. :)

Miss GOP - yeah, I wonder that, too. So much of writing requires internalization, and introverts are experts at that. So it makes perfect sense. At least, as an introvert, that's what I tell myself... :)

Laila - yeah, I have to agree that we're a bit nuts, and I totally agree that it's a point in our favor. If we can't think outside the box, we'll write some pretty boring stories. :) I love an author that can take several aspects outside the box, and then tie it to the things within that box. Genius. :)

The Writing Goddess said...

One thing that's difficult, sometimes, is being hard on your characters if you must.

I have a MC who was unafraid to enter into short term relationships, terrified to enter a monogamous one. So I had to explore WHY, as I was stuck writing her forward from a certain point, and ended up last weekend writing her ugly backstory. Molested beginning at 10 and then raped by her stepfather at 13, then portrayed by his defense attorneys as a slut, this carried over into her high school years. She's reclaimed (to a certain extent) her sexuality, but inside, she's not sure she's worth a real relationship.

It was rough - but it totally fits her. Sometimes (Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket) we as writers have to put our characters though some terrible things, even before our story starts. I want to be gentle with "my people" - but life ISN'T gentle with people, most of the time.

Komal Kant said...

This makes so much sense to me, it's crazy! You defined an author's eccentricity perfectly!

Author Dawn Brazil said...

Great post, Tabitha. I agree, revision is where you truly flesh out the character. For me it took a while to get to know my MC. It was weird because my minor characters weren't that difficult but maybe that's a good thing because my MC is complicated.

Theresa Milstein said...

I agree with this post. There are people who have a really hard time doing this. And it's probably the hardest thing to teach yourself.

Courtney Koschel said...

I recently saw a quote that said "Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia." - E.L. Doctorow

It is so true! Great post.

Tabitha said...

Writing Goddess - yep, we definitely need to understand where our characters are coming from, and then we can write their stories organically. Otherwise it comes across as contrived. Sounds like you're on a roll!

Komal - thank you!! :)

Dawn - I have an easier time with my minor characters, too, but they don't need to change nearly as much as the main character, so they're usually easier for me. When it comes time for them to change, though, I have to do some exploring so the change matches their personalities.

Theresa - so, so agree! I think many people don't fully get this, and then they get frustrated that their writing reaches a plateau and stops improving. When that happens, we need to dig deeper within ourselves, which is really hard to do.

Courtney - ha!! Love it!! I have to add that to my list of quotes. :)

Suze said...

'You also have to know yourself. Really know yourself. Your strengths and weaknesses, neuroses, biases, quirks, likes and dislikes, emotional scars, etc. And, you need the ability to dig deep within and pull out experiences from various aspects of your life.'

This is something I was unable to recognize for a long time, even after having written three novels. Blame it on the whole forest-for-the-trees phenomenon.

An excellent post.

Tabitha said...

Thank you! It took me a long time to realize this, too. I actually thought that, since I write for kids, that I wouldn't need any part of me in the story. How wrong I was! :)

Krispy said...

I think this puzzle analogy is great for talking about characters. We shouldn't think of them as "types" because then they'll come across that way - as "type" of character rather than a person. Thanks for this thoughtful post!

Sherri Hunt Smith said...

Thank you. I'm just beginning, but there are times I swear my character is speaking to me, begging me to tell her story. But now I know that the years of observing people's little quirks are a good thing!