Keys to characterisation

I’ve discussed charactisation before, but only in reference while discussing other thing — I think.  Honestly, by now, I’ve got enough posts it’d take me days of reading to be sure what all I’ve discussed already.  Not really sure what that says … hopefully something good, though.

Still, characters are important to a story.  Characters can give you a plot, they can give you conflict — if you have your characters and know them well, you absolutely have a story, because your characters will wander hither and yon to various adventures you never once dreamt you might find yourself writing.

How, then, do we get these characters?  These beings which live and breathe and carry the story for you such that you need only hang on to your pen for dear life whilst trying to keep up?

Believe in them.  Well, that’s step two or three actually.

Stan Lee‘s advice on this subject is good:  Start with a name.  I don’t always do this.  Sometimes I start with an idea.  This isn’t quite a description.  I might start with ‘video game playing nymph’ or ‘teen half-vampire’ or ‘high school aged ballerina’.  Then I … I suppose one might say I hold auditions.

Meet your characters.  Really.  Don’t force anything.  Don’t tell them, ‘your hair is green.’  Don’t tell them, ‘you hate chocolate.’  Never do this.  Let them tell you, ‘I dye my hair green.’  Let them say to you, ‘ugh!  Chocolate is disgusting!’

Why?  Maybe they’re allergic to chocolate!  Maybe their favourite colour is green.  Maybe they’re into punk rock.  Maybe they like to dye their hair green, then frost it, spike it, then put on a flannel & jeans to go out two-stepping to the latest by Tim McGraw, or jam to some reggae.

Of course you know what kind of story you want to write.  So you’ll guide them along, but more to the point — let them guide you along.  They’ll take a simple plot concept and give it depth and complexity, if you let them.  They’ll give you little touches, you’ll find yourself adding a scene of a game of poker, or a conversation about the merits of Astroglide versus K-Y.  You’ll learn that strawberries are ambrosia.

In short:  don’t build your characters, let them build themselves.  Tell their stories and describe them as you go along.  You might learn things abou them that don’t belong in the story — jot this down in a notebook for later — you’ll learn things about them that the reader will learn with you.  Somethings you’ll learn and will become more relevant later — you knew it before the reader did, it happens.

Does this sound crazy?  Possibly a little nonsensical?  Maybe it is.

Thing is, most things will go into long, long disserations on characterisation and how to build a good character, how to build them to be believable.  They’ll do things like say ‘you must give them three flaws’, or ask stupid questions about what’s in their pockets or refridgerator.  What’s in their rubbish bin, and other stupid nonsense.

Honestly, that gets you nowhere and gets detrimental.  If you have a complete dossier on your character before you ever put pen to paper (beyond that which was necessary to record said dossier, of course), you run a major risk — you could be inclined to try to use all of that data.  You could info-dump this dossier into your book.  Bad move.  I’m not saying you can’t, if you’ve the kind of mind that likes to gather all the data and such before you start — planning just isn’t my cuppa — but you must be cautious to a) remember to dole the info out only as it becomes important, relevant, or interesting — don’t offload it in chunks needlessly and b) don’t build it from a template, gather the dossier the same way an FBI or CIA agent might, by spying and observing.

If, in your mind, this person is a person.  Too complex to sum up.  If they live and breathe, if they have hopes, dreams, loves and hates, if they like to curl up with a bowl of cheesy popcorn and watch corny old westerns on Saturday nights …

Just don’t force it.  Don’t sit down with character questionaires.  Maybe sit down with them once you know the character, and see what they’d say if they were asked these questions (most of the time they’ll be much more flippant — Q: ‘what’s in your bin?’  A: ‘trash’).

People will disagree — to some, it’s important to build the character, that she grow according to a prescribed formula and that she be three dimensional according to very specific key rules.  C’est la vie, if there was any single right or wrong way to write all stories would be the same and one day a computer, fed a few data variables, would churn out novels in some production line fashion.

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2 thoughts on “Keys to characterisation

  1. I’m delighted you stopped by SL&S! How wonderful to meet a fellow writer! 🙂 Even more, shared my (minimal) knowledge. I hope to trade thoughts again in the future, and stay tuned, I plan on doing a Portfolio Builder every Wednesday, I’d love to bounce ideas off of one another!

    LaLa

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