Monday, September 1, 2014

Novel Writing—Character Creation for Beginners

A couple of years ago I posted about getting to know you characters by using the free YWriter5 software. The problem is, you still have to really get inside the character’s head to stay true with writing the character’s reactions, thoughts and decisions. Please bear in mind that I’m no expert and can only share what appears to work for me.

There is loads of information available on the internet and in “How-to” books, but not everything will work for you—and that’s all right. Every writer is different just like every character is different. 

Some characters you create will be like a succulent flower ...

Some characters are like succulent flowers while others will resemble a prickly cactus. Over the years I’ve gathered character sheets from many different people and took what worked for me from each one. Some character sheets were just too detailed for my liking while others had very few points that I thought was pertinent to the character I wanted to create.

Depending on how I came up with the idea for a character, I’ll either work backwards to his or her history or forwards from the history to get to the character I wanted. Let me explain.

Let us start with a character named Brenda. The first question I ask is: What must Brenda learn through this story? In other words, what is the theme of the story? In this story, Brenda must learn that she deserves to be happy. Now we know a couple of things straight away—she is unhappy at the start of the story and that she thinks she doesn’t deserve to be happy. This leads to why she is unhappy now and why does she think she doesn’t deserve to be happy. In other words, something in her past had such an impact on her, that she still bears the guilt thereof.

Now we get to flesh out the character’s history. Brenda grew up in a middle class family with slightly over-protective parents. Before going off to college, she wanted to take a year off to ‘find’ herself. Her parents had saved for most of her childhood to be able to offer her a good education and an argument erupted while Brenda was driving the family to a restaurant. She lost concentration on the road and caused an accident that led to the death of her parents. She only learned afterwards that her parents had mortgaged the house and sold some of their property to raise enough funds to meet ends meet and send her to college as well. According to Brenda’s thinking, her parents had sacrificed their own happiness to allow Brenda to be happy and Brenda thanked them by killing them. And just because she was selfish. So, to her own mind, Brenda didn’t deserve to be happy—ever. This is a melodramatic example, but it illustrates that by asking why, you get to the history of the character without a lot of questions.

What did she do after the accident? Where did she go? Why? How did this influence her choices leading up to the start of the story? Where does she work when you start the narrative? What caused her to choose this particular employment? Is she happy in her job? Is she good in her job?
The job a person has, often explains their way of dress. If Brenda is an accountant, she is going to dress differently than someone selling beauty products, a cash clerk or a mechanic. Her choice of employment often influences how she speaks and thinks. Does she choose her words carefully, weighing the consequences like a good accountant or is she a blabbermouth? Does she socialize with her co-workers or mostly keep business and pleasure separate?

At the start of the story, you need to know what your character’s greatest wish and greatest fear is because you will use this knowledge to put your character to the test. Every test must be in essense a failure until the last one where the character triumphs to come to the realization that she deserves to be happy. Notice I it has to be a failure in essence—not a complete failure. The character must learn something about herself with each test so although she sees it as a monumental failure, it actually takes her closer to reaching the end goal.

Now that you know what type of person your protagonist is, you can decide on physical appearance.  You have to decide if the way that your character looks is going to play a major or minor part in the development of the character. Brenda might be beautiful with a face unmarred by the accident and that could increase her feelings of guilt. Or she could bear a scar from the accident that serves as a permanent reminder of the horrible thing she had done.

This is usually enough background on a character for me, but the final step is to ask my character a direct question and let him/her answer in their own voice. This sounds stupid, but it helps to establish the character and his/her speech patterns firmly in my mind.

As the story progresses numerous other things usually come to mind that adds depth to the character, but at least I know that at the start of the story, I had the basic facts sorted.

This method works for me, but like I said at the start of this post, it might not work for you. Maybe other writers will share their methods of creating real characters with us as well.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Yolande, you put a lot of thought into creating characters!