Thursday, June 17, 2010

Letting Your Characters Be Themselves

I've heard most authors discuss characterization in one of two ways. Either they make it sound simple and almost boring, or they make it sound like a completely mystical experience that has little or nothing to do with the writer's own effort.

Some authors claim that all you have to do to create a character is jot down a profile, answer some questions about his or her background, and then write about the character based upon this predetermined information. This is the boring, easy answer. Other authors claim they can hear their characters' voices inside their head, almost like muses, and sometimes these characters will just "write the scene" for themselves. This is the mystical answer, implying that an author becomes some sort of empty vessel for their characters, channeling the voices of fictional creations like they're real people. (It also makes people think that writing is some sort of magical gift that you either have in abundance or inherently lack, which isn't actually true.)

As for me, my process of characterization lies somewhere in the middle. When I prepare to write a novel, I first come up with some ideas for my characters. I figure out how many I need (ex. main character, character's parents, character's best friend, etc.), and get a basic idea of what I want each character to be like, such as their general appearance and personality.

After that, I usually come up with some ideas for character names, and then I write out a profile for each one, including any information I might find useful later. I try to include all kinds of things in this profile, such as occupation, birth date, height, and eye color. Sometimes, I come up with this information before I start writing the profile. At other times, I make it up on the spot, often to change it later. Nothing is set in stone in the planning stage. When I'm finished, I have a pretty detailed concept for a character.

That's the simple part. The truth is that anyone can come up with a character profile. Most creative people do at one time or another, whether it's to write a story, draw a comic, or join in an online roleplay game. The tricky part is to take this information and use it to write a character who is not only consistent with the characteristics you assigned, but is like a real person, in that they have specific quirks, speech patterns, and motivations. Unfortunately, that's not the kind of thing you can list in a profile, and even if you try, it won't help you much... You still have to figure out how to convey it through the character's words and actions in the story. After all, that's the only part your audience will read, so that's the part that really counts.

So... how do you do that? Well, each writer seems to have a slightly different answer, but here are my thoughts about my own writing process.

For me, it's important to decide in advance what each character's basic motivations are. I use those as a kind of guide for how each character will act in a given situation. When I'm writing a scene, I often realize that a certain character is acting "out of character"... In other words, I made them react to a situation in a way that doesn't line up with what they want, or what they've experienced in the past. For example, if they have a prejudice against a certain kind of person because of a bad experience, and I write about them interacting pleasantly with another character who fits that label, then that would be "out of character."

Of course, that's a pretty simple example, and sometimes it isn't so clear-cut. In those cases, I usually get a strange feeling that something about a scene is "off," but I can't quite put my finger on it. Later on, I often realize that one of the characters was speaking too eloquently, or reacting too impulsively (or not impulsively enough!), or something along those lines.

I think this is where the "mystical" part of the characterization process comes in. You don't have to hear a character's voice inside your head in order to write about them, but the character needs to seem real enough to you that they will only act in a certain way most of the time. If you understand how and why they act this way (and in which situations they won't!), so much the better. Ironically, I've found that the more I sense that a character is acting out of character, the more I'm coming to a deeper, more complex understanding of that character. By making mistakes, I'm figuring out things about them that I didn't realize before. And of course, the more complex a character is, the more real they seem, both to me and to potential readers. So it's always a Good Thing, both for that reason and another one...

See, when I start to understand my characters on a deeper level, that's when the real magic happens. That's when a character will seem to "take over" the scene, when I suddenly realize that it makes sense for the character to do something I didn't expect to happen at all. And that's when the real story begins to come out, a story about people who make their own choices, rather than letting the predetermined circumstances of the plot control them.

In my opinion, the plot of a story should always be driven by its characters. That's because I don't read stories just to find out what happens. I read stories to travel to beautiful places I've never been, experience incredible things I'll never do myself, and most of all, to meet fascinating people I wish could exist in real life. And that's why I write, too. You can call it "escapism" if you want. In my opinion, a good fantasy story should be an escape on some level, and since I write fantasy, that's my goal as a writer.

But at the same time, if you understand your characters and make them complex as well as interesting, even a fantasy story can be based in reality. Oddly enough, I think the more a story's characters seems realistic to us, the more we as readers want to get to know them. After all, if we can relate to the characters in a fantasy story, it creates the wonderful illusion that perhaps our own world could be just as magical as theirs. More importantly, I think it reminds us that as addicting as fantasy can be, our complexity as human beings is even more interesting. But the key to creating that kind of story is understanding your characters, knowing what makes them "tick" and how they're different from you (as well as how they're similar).

In the end, it's both as simple and as difficult as letting your characters just be themselves.

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