Friday, September 18, 2015

Don't Speed Date Your Characters

I'm back! I can't believe I haven't posted since July. As you could probably tell by my mid-summer lament, I didn't meet my goal of finishing my rewrite by the end of summer. It was too difficult to concentrate on my kids and my work at the same time. When given the choice my kids will always come first. I put away my laptop for the rest of the summer, forgave myself for not meeting my deadline, and spent my time playing games and having water fights instead.

Now that school's back in session, I'm right back on schedule. I'm nearly finished rewriting 2/3 of the book. My new goal for completion is the end of October.

So, where were we?

A while back, I promised a post about getting to know your characters. That seems like a good place to start.

Sometimes when writers talk about getting to know their characters, we treat the exercise like speed dating. We sit down and knock off a list of traits in the span of a few minutes. To show you what I mean, I'm going to set a timer for two minutes and come up with a character from scratch. Ready, set, go...

Character Name: Krista Mahoney

-22 years old
-Short brown hair, bangs
-Blue eyes
-Small build, sometimes mistaken for a teen
-Crooked smile
-Wears bulky clothes she can "hide" in
-Parents are divorced, one brother
-Dropped out of college after one semester
-Likes cats
-Works at an ice cream shop
-Has no significant other
-Likes to read mysteries
-Eats a tuna sandwich every day for lunch
-Crawls under the bed during thunderstorms

Okay for two minutes work, I guess. Notice the kind of details I came up with--most of them are superficial. She's a little compelling but a bit of a stereotype. Could I write a story about her? Sure, but I don't have much to work with.

This list, dear blog reader, would not be enough information to know if you wanted to date someone in the real world, let alone spend time with them in a fictional one. A person or a character, is more than just a list of traits and likes/dislikes. Rather than just quickly sketching out the basics, getting to know your character should be more like those long, all night phone calls with a new crush; where you don't want to hang up so you ask every conceivable question that comes to mind. To truly know your character, to fall in love (which is a necessity for good writing!) you need to take some time and dig deeper. You need to know the answer to the following questions:

-What does this character want above all else?
-What is she willing to do to get it?
-What is she willing to lose?
-What does she need?
-How are her wants and needs in conflict with one another?
-What does she value most?
-What is her major weakness?
-How does she hide this weakness?
-What in her past makes her this way?
-What, internally, is getting in the way of her getting the goal?
-What, externally, is getting in the way of her getting the goal?
-What event causes her to change?
-How does she change?

Let's apply the above questions to Krista and see what happens.

-Krista wants to feel safe and secure.
-In order to feel secure, she is willing to avoid anything that involves risk.
-She is willing to sacrifice friendships and romance in order to avoid being hurt.
-What she really needs is to come out of her shell.
-Coming out of her shell will put her at risk of having her heart broken.
-Above all else, she values a peaceful, quiet life.
-Her biggest weakness is not allowing herself to trust others.
-She hides this weakness by avoiding social situations.
-She's this way because her parents divorced when she was ten. Her older brother, her closest confidant, sided with her father in the divorce and left to go live with him. Krista could never understand why her brother took her father's side. She felt betrayed. She lost both her father and her brother/best friend at the same time.
-Internally, she's unable to reach her goal of security because she's afraid to risk having her heart broken.
-Externally, she's unable to reach her goal of security because she lives alone and has a job that allows her to work in isolation (instead of an ice cream shop, maybe she's an artist?)
-The event that causes her to change is her work forces her to be in contact with a client/patron/philanthropist. If she refuses to contact this person, she will lose her livelihood. The person she is forced to deal with is unpredictable and difficult and keeps her on her toes.
-Krista changes by gaining confidence in herself. She realizes that even when she's involved in events  (or with people) she can't control, she is resourceful enough to handle the unknown and come out fine. With a little experience under her belt, she is now equipped to take bigger risks in her life.

I spent about 30 minutes on the above. Still not a huge time investment, but there's a lot more meat to work with here than on the previous list. Better questions yield better answers. The answers to these questions even suggest the outline of a story. 

You could make a list of character traits even before you start writing a story, but where this exercise becomes most powerful is when you use it on the characters in a story you've already started, especially a story that has stalled. Often when we're stuck it's because we have yet to make some crucial decisions about what our characters want. Take what you already know about your character and use it to answer the questions. Spend time thinking through their motivations. As if by magic, new plot ideas may suggest themselves and you'll be able to move forward.

Are you stuck on a story? Give this exercise a try. Let me know how it works for you.