The Heart Of The Matter

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A brief disclaimer: I'm still fiddling with my new template, so if you notice your comments showing up where my header should be or vice versa, please be patient.  With any luck I'll get this all straightened out in a day or two.  Next time I'll have better sense than to choose a template where some of the code is written in Italian!

As I mentioned recently, I'm just jumping into the first few chapters of my first-draft WIP.  Thus and expectedly, beside working hard to spell all the words properly and deploying my punctuation with both great accuracy and great verve (!?....:;), I am also devoting considerable brain power to the characterization process.

Part of our job as writers, in my opinion, is to put hearts in our characters. Each character's heart is made up of a plethora of details and behaviors, some of which make it to the page and some of which simply influence how the writer "hears" the character. Choosing the proper details can be one of the most critical steps in the writing process.

At the moment, I am still getting to know my WIP characters.  We're chatting, getting shot at together (the setting is a warzone), having a cup of coffee together (tried to include a Starbucks but it seemed out of place); we're just starting to settle into a warm mutually beneficial writer-character relationship.  They haven't yet figured out that it is I who sends them off to do all these dreadful things, so progress is good.

Back in college, one of my fav professors used to talk about the value of observing behavior in real life as a guide to getting your characters to act more believably on the page.  In one writing exercise, he sent us out into the world to write down snippets of conversation we heard or overheard (or underheard I suppose).  The whole process provided great fodder for learning to observe more closely how human beings interact, and also for beginning to frame in one's mind how best to convey those happenings--how to separate the wheat from the chaff (or chaff from chaff as the case may be).

As a result, as I get to know my WIP guys, I am considering my recent experience in Baghdad, but also looking at photos, reading about war experiences online and in books, and also observing the interactions of those around me.  So far, all of these have been fairly fertile ground, and I'm happy with where things are headed.

How 'bout you?  How do you go about putting hearts in your characters?  Other than observing "real life", what process(es) do you use to put the pieces of your characters together?  How do you ensure that the different characters in your story create conflict?  What is the most difficult part of characterization?

19 bolts from the blue:

Liza said...

Nice template JP. Since I'm so new to the characterizion process, I think I'll simply ponder your questions rather than answering them.

Lola Sharp said...

Looking good, my friend. Getting fancy on me.

As for my characters, they sort of come to me fully formed, in color and as I write my first draft, they reveal themselves to me, I get to know them pretty well by the time I'm done with the first draft.

I love writing the first draft, it's a lot of fun.

Not so enamored with subsequent drafts.

I'm excited to continue hearing about your progress with this story. :o)


Jon Paul said...

Liza--Thanks. I suppose what is a little intimidating for me at the moment is I've never thought about a character arc (or set of character arcs) which span so many pages. I've written plays, but they tended to be over a shorter period of time, and because the work is done by dialogue, you can get away with less backstory.

I said all that to say that I find this process exciting in its newness.

Lola--Thanks also! Ah, I remember reading about your process and your fully formed characters and I am envious. I usually start with a scrap of an idea, but it's a lot of work to get them to start talking to me.

As an aside, I read somewhere that when M. Night Shyamalan was writing the script for Sixth Sense, he didn't know the MC was dead until the 5th draft! My stuff is kind of like that.

Thanks ladies for stopping by.

Postman said...

Man, I can't tell you how timely a post this is. Characterization, I think, is what I have the most trouble with as a writer - and that's saying something, as I have a lot of trouble with the other stuff, too. Characterization is also, I feel, the weakest part of my newly-minted MS.

As for putting hearts into them, I try to make them want real things, not pies-in-the-sky. I try not to leave them alone, so they can show other characters what they're made of inside. Mostly I just go by what "feels right." I use James N. Frey's (author of "How to Write a Damn Good Novel") "would-he, wouldn't-he" test. If it seems like the character would never do something like what I just made him do, I take that bit out. If otherwise, I leave it lie. I could probably stand to get out more and take down some real-life conversations, though...I might have become detached from reality in my little room in the foothills.

The most difficult part of characterization is dialog. So far most of my main character's speech is flat, trite, static. The straight man is too straight (he comes across as a downright doofus sometimes) and the bad boy is a profanity-spewing machine. He has no other function. Somehow I have to make their words be more real, and then they will be real. Then they should create conflict almost as a matter of course. Straight man-bad boy are best friends, and in an extreme situation together.

Q: What's black and white and red all over?

A: Two opposite character archetypes who get thrown into the middle of a battle.

Postman said...

Nice template, too, by the way.

What I could also do is what James N. Frey suggests and sit down and interview my two MCs. You know, pretend I'm having them over for a magazine article I'm working on or something, and pick their brains.

Jon Paul said...

Postie--That's some good advice right there. I've been meaning to pick up Frey's book for quite sometime; thanks for the reminder.

The interview works great. Two other ideas that have worked for me in the past:

1) Put the character in some completely compromising situation and see how they behave. Ex. MC is tough guy, but he has to help his girlfriend's mom go lingerie shopping or something like that. Does he get angry? Stay cool? Walk out? Bear down and get it done? Somehow under pressure, the cracks start to show.

2) Give the character a trait that is completely against the grain/opposite type. Same tough guy, but he has a thing for gardening, or he likes French Literature. Somehow the opposite trait brings the traits you're trying to figure out into sharper focus. Makes it more interesting too.

Anyway, my two cents. Thanks for stopping by.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Hey Postman, I've interviewed characters before and it works like a charm--they spill all kinds of interesting things.

Jon, I love that photo stretched like the horizon over your blog. That fits so well.
I think the most difficult part of characterization is not letting author voice take over a character's voice. It happens sometimes.

Jon Paul said...

Tricia--Thanks! I looked far and wide (excuse the pun)for an appropriate pic and I was happy when I found that one.

I concur. Author intrusion is a real danger, and I think it occurs most often when we're not sure who our characters are yet--my current stage. :)

Thanks for stopping by!

Niki said...

Nice template! The pic isn't as chilly as the other one, and there's a smidge of sun :o) I don't feel the need to run and get a scarf and woolley hat when I look at your blog now! hehe

Donna Hole said...

I've been wanting to redo my blog also, but I'm not computer savvy enough. The best I was able to do was change the blogger template to a different color. I want one that has the blog in the middle, and gadgets to both sides. The idea is stuff about ME on the left; stuff about YOU (followers, fellow bloggers, contests) on the right. I like the new lay out. Very nice color.

I think characters are my strongest writing. I'm writing a contempory novel - trilogy actually - and much of how I write my characters comes from direct observation. But I'm a social worker, so I have loads of viable traits for my characters.

I also enjoy research, so when I need a character with a particular skill, flaw or mind set I hit the DSM IV, google terminology for medical/psychological articles, blogs and case studies.

When I stray from a specific character voice, I sometimes write the scene from another character's PoV; having the others describe how the see or think about another character.

I've also read Frey and liked his ideas. I haven't done an interview yet, but I may have to with the new fantasy WIP b/c its so different from everything I've written so far.

Thanks for all the suggestiong JP and Postie. I'm sure to get stuck with this new set of characters and need to refer back to this.


Emily Cross said...

Love the new template!!

Well for me, 1st draft = rough draft so i just jump in and see what happens. For me in regards to characters, a nice foundation is to figure out their personality. I did post on Myers Briggs on writer's chronicle.

Basically i found it really nice to do a MBTI questionnaire for free online and then look up the results - -
I could see how one character would process a situation, or whether they enjoyed social events or breaking the rules - I can take and leave some aspects of it, but it provided great information for character development

Jon Paul said...

Niki--We'll call the last template my "winter" template, and this one my "summer" template then, shall we? Yeah, I suppose that old b&w photo was pretty lifeless.

Donna--You've just given me an idea to do a post outlining some of the things I learned while setting this one up--maybe. We'll see.

The medical/psychological angle is a good one and one I don't use enough. Lots of great info out there to examine. Thanks for sharing that idea.

Emily--Thank you. Yeah, I have to keep reminding myself that I'm still in first draft territory. I hadn't though of Myers-Briggs, but that makes a ton of sense.

Having a character take an online test is downright brilliant!

Thanks gang for taking the time to drop by. Have a great weekend!

Lola Sharp said...

Hey JP...happy Friday!

I gave you some link love today. :o)

Make it a great weekend,

Jon Paul said...

Lola--Thanks! You just made my day! :D

Elana Johnson said...

I'm with you. I definitely think we should make sure our characters have heart. Ours or their own, doesn't matter. As writers, it's our job to make sure they're 3-dimensional, almost living, breathing people that create conflict and drive the story to it's conclusion.

Sounds so much easier than it actually is! For me, I have to write my first draft before I really know my characters. They come alive during the rewrite.

Jon Paul said...

Thanks Elana. Yeah, I do find that I have to remind myself from time to time that I'm still in first draft mode--to avoid not overthinking it too much until I have a better grasp of the broad brushstrokes.

Problem is, I love research, so it's a balance.

Have a great weekend and thanks for stopping by!

Pam Harris said...

Hmmm, I never thought about how I put heart into my characters, though I think I proabably should start. I want my characters to be more accessible, and I think I need to focus on ways to make them more empathic. I usually just let the characters speak for themselves, though. They tell me what to write, as strange as that sounds. :)

Jon Paul said...

Pam--I think one of my problems is that I tend to overthink what stories mean, and then when it comes time for the characters to talk to me, I am hearing them through the cheesecloth of those initial ideas.

This of course becomes a way of forcing the story, so I am learning not to do that. Especially during a first draft.

So I agree, letting the characters speak for themselves is extremely key.

Thanks for dropping in and for becoming a follower! Have a great weekend.

Meghan Ward said...

I used to write down conversations I overheard in cafes, and I used one of those in a story. I need to do that more often. Thanks for the reminder.

Waddaya wanna say?

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