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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Characters: Guest Post by Kate Brady, Author of Last to Die


            To me, creating character is the most important part of writing stories.  Even in suspense—which is generally considered to be plot-driven—the ability to get into each character’s head is critical.  Sure, the plot itself could exist without deep characterizations, but who would want to read about it? 
Last to Die                For me, knowing my characters—inside-out, from their childhood traumas to their adult dreams to their political views to their favorite color—is the silver bullet for getting into their heads.  To get to know them, I take a three-pronged approach:  (a) a little up-front character “study,” (b) a long flight into the mist, and (c) a longer flight through edits.
                I am not a plotter, so there isn’t much I like to do up-front.  However, I usually do jot down some background work on the three main characters—hero, heroine, and villain.  Often, I use a brief structure for identifying the basic character wants, needs, wounds, backgrounds.  Several different tools can come in handy for this:  Deb Dixon’s goal-motivation-conflict (GMC) statements, Michael Hauge’s identity-essence studies, Stanley Williams’s virtue and vice framework.  Answering the questions asked by all these approaches provides me with the basic knowledge of what’s making a character tick.
                Then I like to quit, though, and dive into writing.  When I do too much pre-planning, I find myself stuck writing only from that, and the characters aren’t free to think or behave outside their box.  I know that sounds crazy, but the way I really get to know the characters is by putting them in situations in the story and watching how they respond.  When I give them freedom, often they surprise me by saying or doing something I didn’t expect.  Those are really fun moments in writing, when I lean back in my chair, eyes wide, saying, “Oh, that’s what happened to her when she was little!” or “Oh, that’s the reason he’s such a jerk!”
One Scream Away                That all leads to my third stage of character-development:  editing.  Once I’ve written the book and discovered what it’s all about, I go back and re-write to make it work.  This part is a lot harder, by the way, than writing the first draft.  Because by this point, the personalities are fully-developed and I have to make sure their actions and reactions are fully in character.  Sometimes I find their backstory isn’t consistent with actions I need them to take, so it’s back to Square One to get into their heads.  This is when I might have to pull out the big guns and sit a character down at my computer and “interview” him.  Or I might have to write a scene I know isn’t going to show up in the book but that will tell me what led a character to behave the way she did.    
If you’re an aspiring writer, by the way, for heaven’s sake don’t take my method as a how-to manual.  I’m sure there are better and more efficient ways to get to know a character.  But that’s essentially how I’ve settled into the process at this stage.  Ask me a year from now, and I might be doing it differently!
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