A Different Characterization-- Defining Who We Are by What We Do

Oct 16, 2013

One of the hardest things about my most recent book has been my main character. It's not like she's a pain in the butt or anything. Though, to be honest, she could have been a pain in the butt and I just didn't know it. That was my problem: I had no idea who this character was. And it's pretty freaking hard to write a story when you've got no idea who it's about.

I have a typical process for my characters. I usually have a general idea of who they are, based on the story concept. So I spend a little while going places and trying to see the world how they would see it. This usually gives me tons of character fodder, which I then use to write out a very detailed character information sheet. Backstory, favorite food, character traits, it's all there.

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But this girl. Seryn. I had nothing. I couldn't even form an entirely coherent outline for the plot, because how could I know what she would do if I didn't know her?

Then I had an idea.

What if I played this one backwards? Instead of figuring out who she was, and then deciding what she would do, I would return to my pantser roots (kind of). I had a detailed world, a fleshed-out magic system, themes that meant a lot to me, and a general idea of where the story was going to go. I would start writing, and throw out some conflicts. Give Seryn some choices, and think about all the possible decisions someone could make in that situation.

Her choices would tell me who she was. Once I knew what she would do, then I could fill out my character sheet about why she would do that. I guess it hasn't been an exact return to my pantser roots. I've got a sort of structure where I know some of the key conflicts and choices, and then I'm let Seryn decide where to go from there. And it's SO FREAKING FUN.

I love discovering who she is. I love finding new conflicts that are stemming from her choices. I love playing with a new story and a new character in a new way. After all, if who we are is defined by what we do, what better way of developing a character is there?

So, my friends, how do you approach characterization? What are your techniques? How have they changed from book to book?

24 comments:

Melissa Hurst said...

That's an awesome idea. I'm currently plotting my next book, and I have no idea what my main character is like. I had the same problem with my last book, too, and ended up having to rewrite over half of it!

Rosalyn said...

I'm still working on this--I feel like characterization isn't one of my strong points! But I always find it heartening to remember that even authors I really admire (like Shannon Hale) have publicly admitted they don't always have firm grasp on character until the 4th or 5th draft. Like you, I start with a general idea and then figure them out as I go. I already know that my next revision is going to have to focus a lot on clarifying characters!

shelly said...

I love it when our characters surprise us. Die-hard panster here.

Hugs and chocolate,
Shelly

Saumya said...

This is so wonderful! It's taken me a lot of time to get to know my characters. Not sure if this makes sense but even when I had a clear idea of who they were, I had trouble showing those traits. Your point about choices is so true. I asked myself what type of friend/family member/ co-worker they were and how those could be challenged with conflict. Great post!!

Danielle Raye Zeissig said...

I think I start out with an initial feeling of who my character is, and then as I plan my story and the events that are going to happen, the character becomes more defined. I also consider the journey I want them to have and how I want them to change and grow and that helps to define them and their choices a little more clearly.

Kittie Howard said...

What you posted causes one to think, the sign of a great blog. I'm not quite the panster I used to be, but when it comes to characterization, I let the keyboard fly, step back, and take a long look--like at who a newborn baby looks like.

Have a fab weekend!

Kami McArthur said...

Glad things are getting better. I have one character in my story who has been crazy for me to figure out...but we're making progress.

David P. King said...

Awesome that you figured her out! For me, I give characters a wide array of issues and a history. Makes me so glad I went into psychology. :)

akossiwaketoglo.com said...

I have yet to use a structured way to get to know my characters. Usually I follow them around, watch them make mistakes, do things, until I get a good understanding of their personalities. The downside of that? it takes forever. lol

~Akoss

Emily R. King said...

Sounds like this character doesn't want to be "characterized." Ha! Glad you're having fun, Shallee!

Haneen I. Adam said...

well that's one way, tell us how things work out in the end :)

Peaches Ledwidge said...

I like what you said about going back to help figure out your character. That's a good way once you know the ending. I usually have a picture of my main character, but that's easy for me because I've mainly written nonfiction so the work was easy.

Have fun.

Mark Noce said...

I find the best way to get into a character's head is to decide how they make choices. When a character makes a decision about something it should reveal their personality/character, especially their flaws. Once this happens, both the writer and the reader tend to know who the character truly is...or so I've found:)

alexia said...

My approach definitely changes for each book. But with the exception of one book, I've had to do along the lines of what you do and create the world and the plot and such, and let the character unfold later. Characters are hardest for me. I'm a plot and description gal. So, I usually do all my organizing and character profiles after the first draft.

Glad you're having fun with yours!

Suzanne Furness said...

I love discovering unexpected layers to my characters. I make outlines of characters, factual stuff like hair and eye colour, distinguishing features etc. Then I tend to go with the flow a bit. Seat of my pants - definitely! Great post Shallee.

Cherie Reich said...

Yay for having fun writing and figuring out the character, even if she wasn't saying who she was until you started writing.

Usually plot and main characters grow in my mind around the same time. I know what's going to happen in the story because the characters say it'll happen. So it's hard to separate the two.

Romance Book Haven said...

Seems like you know which way to go with the help of your character.

All the best!

Nas

Lynda R Young said...

My techniques change. Sometimes I know exactly who my characters is, but other times I have to spend some quiet time with them to get to know them, or like you, throw them in and see what happens.

Elizabeth Seckman said...

It's like truth or dare for make believe people! How fun.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

That's actually a great idea. I usually know who my characters are before I write. That's how I determine my plot.

Julie Musil said...

I'm so glad you found an approach that's working for you! I'm plotting and filling out character work sheets right now. I like figuring things out as I go, but before writing the first draft.

Milo James Fowler said...

Stick to your pantser roots! Everything in moderation, right? I like getting to know my characters as I write about them, then I flesh out certain aspects of their personality during the revision stage.

Valentina Hepburn said...

Mostly, I decide what I'd like them to do within the plot and whether they've got what it takes to do it. Then I look at their back story and personality and see if they fit in - the name has to be right, too. It's good to change techniques sometimes because it can give us a different perspective.

Medeia Sharif said...

If I'm stuck with a character, I journal in his/her voice to see how s/he fits into the plot realistically.

I like your technique.

 
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