Thursday, March 3, 2011

4 tricks for getting to know new characters

With my third contracted book off my desk and in my agent’s hands, now seems like a smart time to do nothing but kick back and stare at pictures of shirtless men online.

I never claimed to be smart, which is probably why I’m preparing to start a new book.

I’m a pantster rather than a plotter, which means I typically have little idea where a story is headed when I dive in. One thing I do like to have before I start is a basic understanding of the characters. Who are they? What makes them tick? If we went out for drinks and the waiter said there was only one glass of Stoller 2008 JV Estate Pinot Noir left, who would win in a swordfight for it?

These are crucial things to determine, so here are a few tricks I’ve tried for getting to know new characters.

Job hunt. One of the first things I usually decide is what my characters do for a living. From there, I try to learn as much as I can about those professions. What’s her daily routine like? What schooling would he need to have? Does she go out for martini lunches or huddle in a corner of a dimly lit break room eating a peanut butter sandwich? Understanding what my characters spend most of their time doing is a big part of understanding what they’re like as people.

Roleplay. Sadly, this isn’t as kinky as it sounds. Grab a friend or critique partner, sit down with a cup of coffee, and pretend you’ve just met. Not only have you just met, but you are your character. Ask each other typical “get to know you” questions. Where did you grow up? What’s your family like? Do you prefer boxers or briefs? You won’t always have the answers in mind before you start, but giving fast, gut-level responses to questions like these can help get you into the mindset of an unfamiliar character.

Get crafty. Some authors make collages for books they’re beginning to write. It’s a practice I’ve long admired in theory, but have never pursued due to inherent laziness and a general lack of craftiness. Even so, I like the idea of having something visual to start my wheels turning, so I recently spent an hour browsing online for photos that matched my mental picture of my new characters. I printed out the pictures and pinned them on the bulletin board beside my desk. This comes with the added bonus of having them staring disdainfully down at me as I spend an hour dicking around on Damn You Autocorrect instead of working.

10 things no one knows. Sit down with a pen and paper and make a list of ten things about your character that few people know. These things don’t have to appear in the book – in fact, it’s sometimes best if they don’t – but they’re a good way to gain insight into the character’s inner self. Is he secretly afraid of the dark? Does she refuse to eat apricot jelly because it reminds her of that unfortunate incident with the jumper cables and the guy who insisted she call him Marsha? If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble over a few surprises as you go.

What do you do when you’re trying to get to know new characters? Do you prefer to become acquainted gradually as you ease into the story, or do you perform any sort of preliminary groundwork? Please share.

And don’t steal that apricot jelly thing. I think I’m onto something with that one.

28 comments :

Lori M. Lee said...

What a great list! I especially like the last one, and now I plan to do that for all my characters. Thank you!

Adriana said...

I love these! Thanks so much! I'm going to take them out for a test drive ASAP :)

Patty Blount said...

One thing that works for me is to take my characters shopping. As the mother of boys, shopping is always a solo activity for me. Boys would rather donate organs than go to the mall. I LONG for a shopping buddy I don't need to contact three weeks in advance just to get schedules aligned.

So, me and the voices in my head head off to a local department store. "Julie", the MC in SEND, favors enormous purses so she can always carry her dead brother's toys with her. "Dan" wanted to buy her a purse for Christmas so I took Dan shopping. Spent hours browsing for the right bag and ended up with a weekender.

I also discovered Dan is just like my sons. He HATES shopping.

Current WIP features a teen model as the MC. I'm having a BLAST taking her shopping.

Linda G. said...

I've tried doing something similar, but my characters tend to be coy. They might tell me a thing or two about themselves before I begin a new book, but once I start writing I realize they've deceived me. They pop out with all sorts of stuff I had no idea lurked within them. Disconcerting, but entertaining. ;)

Leah Petersen said...

I typically dive in and learn about them as I go along. But I love these ideas. I'm trying to get back into a book I've written 40k words on but haven't touched in a few months. This sounds like a great way to get back in touch with my characters.

One thing I have done in the past is write a random scene with that character that has nothing to do with the plotline of the current story. Or re-write a scene that's in one character's POV from the POV of a different character. It can help you learn things not only about the new POV character, but about the original POV character, from the way others perceive them.

Lola Sharp said...

I LOVE that you have JT as a model for your male MC. Yummmmmm.

My process is pretty organic, instinctive (read: lazy and wing-it). My husband says I go into some kind of method acting head space and become my MC while I write. I think he may be right. Sometimes it takes me a while to shake it off after a writing session. Anyway, I don't do any of the above. I suppose I write my first draft in their stead. By the end of my first draft I know my characters very well and have the bones of their journey (plot/arc) figured out.
Of course there are plenty o' holes needing filled, thus this 'method' of mine leads to lengthy, soul-crushing revision hell. Revisions I focus (fester) on structure and mechanics. Being an unorganized perfectionist is a special hell.

Have a wonderful trip! Enjoy getting leid. :)
Hugs,
Lola

Sarah W said...

I do dialogue scenes, either between two new characters or a new one and an established one (sometimes from a different story). This helps me understand the differences between what they say and what they think.

But I'm all about the soundtracks, too. If a character resonates to something on the radio (or wherever), I'll add it to my playlist and try to figure out why.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Your methods sound a lot more productive (and sane?) than mine. I jot down initial thoughts about my characters, but when I'm working on a story, it's like they take up residence in my head. No matter what I'm doing, they're lurking there in the background, and continuously intruding into my thoughts, until they become as "real" as the people living outside of my head.

Nutso, huh?

Susan

Matthew Rush said...

This just won post of the day for using the term swordfight. Yes. I'm serious.

I tend to get really anal about this. I use spreadsheets. Though, as you know, I kind of shoot myself in the foot from the get go by trying to juggle too many characters.

Terry said...

I start out with a character outline but Linda they keep me suprised along the way. I write romantic suspense and one piece of advice I got early on was that every character should have a secret. Sometimes I know what those are, sometimes they tell me!

Sharon Axline said...

I use some note cards (virtual) for some of my supporting characters. I tend to fall back on an old acting trick where you write a backstory for your character - Thank you Uta Hagen. But I still find that characters I never even thought of suddenly pop up in my WIP. I'm like...well hello there where did you come from. Ok take a seat over there and I'll get to you as soon as I can

Danica Avet said...

I love these ideas, Tawna, especially the roleplaying one (in more ways than one). I would've never thought about doing something like that to get to know my characters. Most of the time when I'm starting something new, I get to know my characters as I write. Since I like to write a follow-up story, I already know a good bit about at least one character and try to find a love interest who'd be a good fit. It doesn't always work like I want it to, but sometimes, it does :)

I loved the apricot line. *snaps her fingers* Darn it.

nutschell said...

Awesome tips! I usually make a character profile before I even start. One thing I found very helpful was using a birthday book and the archetype cards as a starting platform for creating my characters.
I found them so helpful, I'm actually giving them away as a prize! http://www.thewritingnut.com/contest/characters-count-contest-extended/

Laina said...

Marsha, Marsha, Marsha...

marysgate said...

I now blame you for the time I just spent on Auto Correct lol I have never heard of that place, but it's hilarious!

Usually when I'm working with new characters, I talk to a friend who basically interrogates me on my new 'buddy'. As we yack I learn about my character and pick out what I need to change ^_^ I also tend to doodle them once in awhile.

Malin said...

I never think much on my characters. When I have tried to consciously craft them, it's backfired and the story went to pieces. I've come to terms with that I need them to gradually build up, and that I should let them be who they are.

And I learned not to listen to who my critiquers think my characters shouldn't be. That has ruined a better part of two years trying to build a plot on a character that was no longer herself. I've never managed to salvage that manuscript.

Mary said...

I start with a picture--plus, it's a fab excuse to look at hot guys!

But I'm a cut & paste girl and do create a collage with words, scenes, things that represent my characters. I need the visuals to get a good handle on them.

Gabriela Lessa said...

I think who would play them in a movie! That tells me a lot about them - and gives me the excuse to dream about a movie deal when I haven't even finished the damn manuscript.
Now, I'll tell you about this character of mine who has this weird thing about apricot jelly...

One country at a time said...

Love the tip about creating a collage book for your character. I'm big on visual aids.

Suz said...

I should probably create character arcs before I try to write another novel again. I'm not sure, but I don't think getting to know my characters as I wrote my first book was a good idea. They did surprise me with everything they did throughout the story, and I got to know them all so well by the end, I had trouble ending the book at all!

Hannah Hounshell said...

*laughs* My new characters usually just show up, grab me by the ear, and demand that I listen to them right now, thank you very much.

Unfortunantly, they hardly ever do this when I can stop what I'm doing and pay attention. Half the time I'm at work ringing up customers, and the other half will be one of the few times I either can't find a pen, a piece of paper, or a light to see by.

Once I get their insistant muttering written down, I start to flesh them out just enough to give thier voice a little more shape. Then they get tucked into my notebook and told to please be quiet while I finish the book I'm working on at the moment.

Sometime it works....or not XD

Patrick Alan said...

I really wish you would stop writing about me and pretending you made it up.

-Marsha

christinerice said...

I usually have a general idea in my head of who my characters are before I start writing, but they definitely take on minds of their own! I've also broken off my novel when I'm stuck or need some insight into a character or scene to write some backstory. It helps me see into why a character may be reacting a certain way or how a present scene might go based on past events. The backstory may or may not end up in the actual novel but it's fun to imagine another offshoot and that characters have lives outside of the present story.

Rahma Krambo said...

This is one of my favorite aspects of writing. The more time I spend with a character before I write them in, the easier it is to imagine what they will do or say in any situation.

I'm currently working on my antagonist which has its own interesting challenges, like how to keep from getting too creeped out while I'm in their head.

I like what you said about knowing things no one else knows about them. Great post.

BellaVida said...

Glad you posted this as I have a secondary character that needs to be fleshed out. I'm not sure how i will approach it yet but thanks 4 the ideas.

Sascha Illyvich - The Dark Wolf Lord said...

I don't bother with most of this advice, but then again I'm not a typical writer. But it's sound and quality advice especially for new writers who want to learn one process. The ten things trick is neat as is the "who would win in a sword fight" hehe

Shahkhan said...

Great tips. I love it!
Have a great day

Ivy said...

thanks for the ideas! for the collage idea, http://pinterest.com/ might be a route to try. I love the idea of a crafty planning session.