Thursday, May 30, 2013

Knowing Your Characters

Depending on which theorist you listen to, there are only 6, 7, 10, or 20 basic plots for every story. But regardless of the number, the message is clear: there are a limited number of stories to tell. You don't believe me? Look at all the fairy tales. Basically they all follow this plot: a girl (usually a princess) gets in trouble, and a handsome young man (usually a prince) helps her out. But we still like to read the stories of Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Mulan. So why do we keep reading (and writing) the same stories over and over?

The characters.

We want to get to know these people and how they act -- and react -- to the world around them. That is what makes a story unique and interesting. We wonder how Sleeping Beauty's curse will destroy, or save, the kingdom. We want to know what Snow White will do when she is told to run and hide rather than be killed. And how will Cinderella exact revenge on her wicked stepmother? Or Mulan save her family's honor?

So if characters are THE crucial element to your story, how do make them so fascinating that your readers will want to finish your story and beg for more?

Become your characters.

This is a lot easier said than done, but here are a few tricks I have learned that help me get to know my characters:

  • Model your characters after someone you know. If your character shares at least one personality trait in common with you or a close family member or friend, it becomes much easier to anticipate how that character will believably respond in a situation.
  • Know more about your character than your reader ever will. Kirt Hickman has a great list of information to know about your character in his book Revising Fiction, including their religious attitudes, political perspectives, sexual orientation, education, family background, and countless other things to consider. Depending on the story I am telling, some of these categories become more important than others, but family relationships (or the lack thereof) are consistently significant. So much of our personality and perspective of life comes from our family background.
  • Constantly step into your character's shoes. Constantly check to make sure you are writing from your character's perspective as opposed to your own. As you write, you should always be asking yourself: "My character's personality is X. How would an X-person react?" For example, in a novel I am working on, I have a character who is rather intelligent, but not very confident, and a bit shy. She does not have low self-esteem, however. It's a subtle difference, but an important one, because as the story progresses, the influence of something else causes her to act the exact opposite of how she would normally. Rather, she is very brazen and brash. In this particular story, I have to frequently think about how a shy character would act/react, as well as a forward person, in order to make the dichotomy clear.
  • Have a basic understanding of human psychology. Knowing how people tend to react in certain situations, or the range of possible reactions, helps you make your character more believable as a real person. And it helps you find where your own personal experiences sometimes differ from the general experience.
  • Have a critique group/friend. Have other people read through your story and comment on if your character is believable, interesting, and realistic. Often others will see problems and successes that we don't see ourselves.
  • Daydream (or night dream) about your character. I often find my time in the shower or car becomes a great opportunity to run through various story scenarios to find the one that seems most logical and natural. As a result, when I sit down to write the scene, I have most of the significant details already worked out. And when your character starts invading your dreams and talking on his/her own in your head, then you realize that you really know your character. And that character will be more realistic -- and interesting -- on the printed page.