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Characters: When They Won't Talk To You...

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Characters. They’re tricky little monsters, but you can have the best plot and the best setting in the world and without characters, not much is going to happen.

Many people have many different ways of figuring out how to make realistic characters. Some people’s characters talk to them, which sounds to me like a really great way to get to know a character. However, my characters don’t talk to me. When I’m sitting there, eating lunch, I don’t have a character randomly say, “Hey Kaitlin! I like oranges and am really messy. Just so you know. Also, I’m totally not feelin’ Love Interest. Pick me a different one, would you?”

This led me, over time, to the whole “character profile” method. Google “Character chart” or “Character profile” and you’ll find tons of them. Even those MySpace survey type things work. The problem is, you can spend hours on these things. It’s not like you can do it for just one character. You should know your supporting characters as well as you know your main character (or at least close!) because they’re all in the story for a reason. And, honestly, I didn’t feel like I was learning enough about my characters filling out profiles. It was fun. I liked imagining what my characters’ favorite colors were and where they liked to hang out after school (if they were in a contemporary setting, that is), but I didn’t feel like I was learning anything useful about them. And really, some of these character profile things have GREAT questions. How characters feel about themselves. What would throw their lives the most into turmoil. Greatest weaknesses and strengths in their personalities. I'm definitely not anti-character profile, and in fact still have one saved in a word document for inspiration.

So I asked myself what I was really trying to learn by doing character charts, or by willing my characters to speak to me (willing them to do it doesn’t make them any more likely to do it, by the way. This seems to be an ability you need to just…have), and I discovered what I was missing: the why.

I could give my characters personalities. Could even give them some motivation to be that way. But what I was missing was the deep down dark inside reason why they were like they were. Because everything we see and do and hear and watch others do affects what we do, whether good or bad. Once I started thinking about that, really thinking about it, I started to feel like I understood my characters better than I ever had before.

It sounds totally simple in retrospect, and maybe some of you reading this are wondering, what on earth is she rambling about and does she have a point?

I do have a point. And that point is: if nothing quite seems to be working for you, ask yourself what’s missing. You might feel like an idiot for having to wonder, but you’ll feel so. much. better. when you figure it out.
Kaitlin Ward

Kaitlin Ward is the author of Bleeding Earth, Adaptive Books 2016, and The Farm, coming 2017 from Scholastic.

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8 comments:

  1. For me a characters personality really shows itself with how they react to certain situations. Different personalities have different reactions.(Hugs)Indigo

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  2. I usually don't try to start a new story without all my MC's figured out completely. I usually start from the prologue, so one I get the plot completely figured out, I begin imagining scenes, starring my MC's, before I go to sleep: it helps form their likes and dislikes from the very beginning.

    Also, my sub-characters only have general characteristics and names so they get to decide what to do for themselves later on.

    Anyway, it differs from one author to another.

    Good luck!

    By the way, is it normal to imagine sending queries to agents (and daydream about your fav. agent) when you only have about 5,000 words done? It's true that I'm a published author, but I haven't got an agent before (I know, I know) so I think I might be ---- is that normal?

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  3. Tricky indeed!

    I've never been able to do those profile things for my characters. I'm not sure why. They make me headachey.

    I love freewriting about my characters, who they are, where they live, the people they're surrounded by, and the stuff they tell them and the stuff they don't tell them. I think I do that for the same reason as you: to look for the why.

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  4. I've always struggled with the minor characters, making them fully developed. I like writing a scene with them interacting with the MC (even if it won't make the final cut) just to tweak and see how they mesh.
    Great post :)

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  5. I've never been a fan of the myspace-style surveys, because learning my character's favorite movie when they were five and who they saw it with never seemed directly important. I realize it can be, especially with flashbacks, but I never got into it. I'll have to try again this NaNoWriMo after reading this post.

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  6. I let the depth and detail of my characters emerge as I write the first draft. Not only do they talk to me, but they'll tell me to go jump if I try to make them do something they wouldn't do. Following them can give unexpected twists, makes them and the story deeper, and more interesting.

    I guess I'm lucky. I did a post about one of them yelling at me recently.
    http://publishersearch.wordpress.com/2010/09/22/recalcitrant-characters-%e2%80%93-i-love-them/

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  7. I've been really struggling with my characters, so I definitely needed to hear this today! My characters are usually very secretive and don't like to share things with me. But you're right -- it's all about figuring out what's deep inside of them that makes them the way they are.

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Item Reviewed: Characters: When They Won't Talk To You... Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kaitlin Ward