Saturday, June 27, 2009

Characters Who Take Root




By Terry Spear
http://www.terryspear.com/

Just like a seed buried in the soil for any kind of plant~ ground cover, tree, flower, blade of grass, our characters start out as kernels of possibilities. The environment the plant grows in shapes the plant. Too dry, the plant has to adapt or die. Too windy and the tree must bend or break. Just like our characters, they often don’t choose what life throws in their path. But with our characters, they have to make choices that often puts them at more risk.

Some authors make detailed sketches of their characters before they launch them into their books. They have a neat concept of what their characters are all about before they write the opening scene.

But for me, being a pantser who writes as the scenes come to me, I could no more do that, than I can plot out a book. What I envision is a character with a mission, with some big motivation as to why it is imperative that they must accomplish this task, and it has to have some time limit, or there’s no urgency. They have an occupation that further defines them. And they must have a fun way to meet the hero early on. That’s it! Then the trouble begins. And how they deal with it reveals their character. We then go from a named character who the reader knows nothing about to a real person who they can fall in love with or hate to their heart’s content. Hopefully, it’s the villain they hate and the hero and heroine they fall in love with!

I just finished teaching an online writing workshop and one of my students mentioned that in her last several books, all her heroines sounded the same. So here’s the dilemma. We want to have unique characters in all our books. If some are in more than one of our books, we want to show the same characterization from book to book so that it doesn’t seem they have multiple personality disorder, although with a caveat. People act differently in different situations around different people. So we can have a cool dude who is rough and tough around the guys, but when it comes to the girls, he’s a marshmallow. Or maybe he’s at home on the range, but put him in a ship and it’s another story. Or maybe he’s a real daytime character, but make him work the nightshift and we see another side of him entirely. Or better yet, maybe he’s playing second fiddle to the main character, and this time…he’s got a chance to get the girl.

But what about having characters that are similar from story to story? Let’s say I write spunky heroines, which I do. That’s what my readers expect from me. If I had a moody, laid back chick who waited for others to do her bidding, would readers be disappointed? Probably. Still, I can write lots of spunky heroines and make them completely different from one another. How? Their life experiences, their motivations, their goals define them. And how they deal with conflict further illustrates what kind of character they are.

When I begin the story, I don’t know all the trouble my characters are going to get into, only that they will. I don’t know how they’ll react, but I consider lots of different avenues they can take. Often I don’t even know what troubles they’ve had in the past, but as I write, it comes to me. And as they venture into the unknown, they become real people…or wolves, as the case may be.

So what do you think is the best way to go? Character sheets, or wing it???

20 comments:

  1. Truth time... I've tried the character sheet route, and it just didn't work for me. I talked about that in my blog entry The Guilty Author:(http://donnaleasimpson.wordpress.com/2009/06/15/the-guilty-author/)

    So though I think I should do character sketches or character interviews, I don't. I know the people I create in the same way I know a person I meet for the first time, I find out little bits of them, and gradually their behavior begins to make sense. I don't write down the characteristics of real people, why should I do that with my characters?

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  2. I wing it. It might not be the best way to write a character that is very consistent, but they do grow and change as the work progresses. I like discovering new things about them as I go along.

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  3. Absolutely, Donna, I agree with you. It's like meeting a stranger on the street. :) Heck, I even often do that with my villains. Who is the villain in the story? Not sure. Sometimes I love a character too much to make him a villain in the end. LOL

    I think it's the best way if it works for us, Cheryl!! :) If I tried to write up character sheets, the character then becomes this person I really don't know, just a bunch of stuff on a piece of paper. It's the trouble they get into that helps me define them. Sure it can be fun to know they eat chocolate mint chip ice cream, but unless it's crucial to the story, what difference does it make?

    I was talking to my co-workers about my wolf tales, they are so sweet to listen to my ramblings on wolves and not mind at all, and I was mentioning chocolate as an aphrodisiac. "But," one of my co-workers said, "wolves can't eat chocolate." Ah, but in their human form, they are strictly all human, so chocolate can be an aphrodisiac. Our temporary hire who is earning his library science degree, is a young man, and his face turned totally red. No comment on the topic. :) Now, both would make a great study in character just from their reactions to the subject being discussed. :)

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  4. I've never done a character sheet in my life. I'm all about the WING, baby!! :-)

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  5. woohoo, Marie, good! Sometimes I think I'm doing it wrong, even if it feels so right! :)

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  6. Like you said to Cheryl, Terry, if it WORKS for YOU, it's the right way to do it. That is why I'm very protective of my process and don't allow a lot of outside influences in via workshops, books, etc. What I'm doing is working for ME, so it's the right way. I put my hands over my ears and cry LALALALALA any time someone wants to tell me how THEY do it. Don't want to know. I sat thru a plotting workshop at my chapter last year that seriously gave me HIVES. I couldn't get out of there fast enough when it was over.

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  7. LOL, Marie, I know just what you mean! We had a workshop presenter at our local chapter that told us flat out that if we weren't plotting out our whole books we weren't doing it right. Huh? I could look at a blank screen for hours and never get anything done if I tried to plot first. But she told us how she had "saved" a newbie writer friend from disaster because she had been writing from the seat of the pants. When I give my workshops, I emphasize that writers MUST do what works for them!!! I think there's this notion that there's a secret formula that makes it all come out right. Not. :)

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  8. No secret formula, that's for sure. Butt in seat. Hands on keys. Write. That's the formula. I have the attention span of a gnat, so I live in mortal fear of losing interest in a book halfway thru if I know too much about what's going to happen. Right now I'm writing a full synopsis for a book I haven't written yet for a proposal. I worry that I'll be ho-hum about the book if I have to write it--LOL

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  9. I'm pretty much a pantser, too. But sometimes I stop writing and start....daydreaming about the main characters' backstory. I don't necessarily write notes about it, but it helps fill in the picture. I have a writing friend who's almost the opposite, with very specific character traits that she jots down before/as she writes.

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  10. Maybe we all landed at Sourcebooks because we all have in common the trait that we let the muse take us where it wants to.

    I know some authors even want to know their characters' sign--nothing wrong with that for those who do it--but that's too deep for me. :-)

    Amelia

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  11. I don't do character sheets--I can't imagine it really. I think to myself, okay I need a character who will fulfill this or that story funcion and they appear full-blown.

    It's magic.

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  12. I know what you mean, Marie!!! Attention span of a gnat. Love it!!! I had to run to work and it's a MAD HOUSE here today. I'm on my lunch hour but closing will not come soon enough!

    I do that, Libby, too. Kind of like brainstorming. What I hate is when I think of a terrific scene when I can't stop to get a pad of paper (like when I'm in the shower), and then by the time I can get a pad of paper, I've forgotten it!!

    LOL, Amelia! Now, I did that with my YA vampire story, only because she has a patron water demon so I wanted the heroine to be a water sign to fit with that theme. Then the hero was able to speak to the demon also, so I had that he was a different water type sign...so that was fun. :)

    Mary Margret, what appears full blown? Sorry, I couldn't resist, rough, rough day at work and still have another 3 hours to deal with the madness, hehehe... But that's neat, the magic part. I was having fun making my heroine in the current WIP, Seduction of the Wolf, see the hero in a sexy light and the more I added to it, the more her character was revealed and the more fun it is! If I tried to write this down in the beginning when I first started writing the story, it would never happen!

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  13. Fun post, Terry!

    Amelia, you may be onto something... I'm strictly a seat-of-the-pants writer too. :-) I've never done a character sheet, or one of those long and involved character interviews. I can probably answer all the questions about my h/h, definitely can by the time I finish the first draft, but why would I write all that down in advance? It's much more fun to find stuff out along the way.

    AC

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  14. Hey, Cindy, I keep figuring there's a plotter amongst us. :)Just keeping quiet though. :)

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  15. Totally a panster who wings it and goes with my gut. I think you have to be, but then I understand it really comes down to what works for each writer. Interesting that you bring up "formulas" - I just met with a group of lovely writers who went on and on about the various "rules" of writing. All the dos and don'ts. Of course I quickly realized that I broke all of them! LOL! Panicked me for a few minutes, then I came back to myself and remembered that it is what is working so far! I think I'll be very cautious of the workshops and formulas. Glad to hear others feel the same. Indeed, Marie, lalalalala....

    We never tire of talking about our characters! Great post Terry!!

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  16. I agree about all the do's and don'ts, Sharon. Have you heard not to use "was" in your work??? Have you ever tried to avoid writing any "was's" in a mss??? :)

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  17. I've gone from a patser to a hybrid plotter, that's changed a bit but the one thing that hasn't has been they way I write characters.

    My characters appear out of nowhere, they're three dimensional, they have a heck of a backstory, and they are always giving me a hard time. Hmm...sounds a bit like my kids.

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  18. Aha! I knew there was a plotter amongst us! Except where your characters are concerned! Thanks for sharing, Robin!

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  19. I couldn't even write a character sheet for myself. I guess I'd rather find out about my characters as they talk and I write. It's rather comforting to find real writers can wing it.

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  20. I'm glad we can do it this way also, Sheila!!! :) Or I'd be in real trouble!

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