June 10, 2013

Kill Your Blank Pages: Character

Meeting new people for the first time can be really awkward and uncomfortable, especially if you're supposed to work on a project together. You're on unfamiliar turf, trying to figure out what kind of people you're dealing with without offending anyone or making a bad impression.

Writing can have all the awkwardness of introductions if you don't know your characters well. This can totally kill your inspiration, making it hard to plot your story (or if you're past that stage) even to write.

Today we're going to explore how to identify whether your imaginary friends are your creativity's enemies, and how to put them in their place! 

Are Your Characters Slowing You Down?
It’s possible that your characters are at the root of your troubles if any of the following apply to you:

•You can’t explain in a sentence how your characters change by the end of the book.
•The problems your characters face only come from events they have no control over instead of from personal choices.
•You don’t know what your characters think of other characters.
•You don’t know what your characters imagine their perfect life would be like, or what they would do anything to avoid.
•You don’t know how their past has had an effect on them.

Many stories take a plot-first kind of approach, where the characters are only secondary—kind of like sticking a bunch of mice in a maze, where the mice are the characters and the plot is the maze. If your story is this kind, you still need to know your characters well because they will determine how the mice get out of the maze and how fast.

In character-based stories that follow the adventures of a specific person or set of people, it’s even more important to know your characters. Otherwise, trying to write will be like being forced to chat with a bunch of people you don’t know—awkward, forced, uncomfortable. It’s way more fun and inspiring when, every time you sit down to your computer or writing pad, it’s like getting together with your best friends (and enemies!)

How Do You Get to Know Your Characters?

By the time I get around to writing, I know my characters better than I know my best friend. I know how they would react in any given situation, and what their opinions would be of people and events. I know why they act the way they do, and what it would take to make them change their lifestyles.

This first step I often take in getting to know my characters is to find a picture of someone who resembles them or to draw one myself. It’s much easier to visualize a person and get to know them when you can see them, especially if you’re a visual person like me!

Next, I set out to fill in the information I listed above. How does my character solve problems at the beginning of the story, and how does that change by the end? How does my character’s initial outlook on life compare to their final outlook on life? (NOTE: if you use the Dramatica theory I mentioned in the last post, it will ask you whether your character is a steadfast character or a change character.)

Does your character recognize how they are causing problems for themselves? Does your character like/dislike certain kinds of people more? What kind of person really gets under their skin? Has your character been raised in hardship—are they tough, or bitter, or wise because of this? Or have they been raised in comfort, so they are na├»ve and/or struggle more to adapt? What is the best/worst life they can imagine for themselves, and are they trying to achieve it/run from it?

Asking all of these questions (and more!) about all of your characters will help a LOT to kill your writers block. Once you know all of this about your characters, you can play off of what you now know about them to come up with cool conflict ideas or to fill in plot holes, like so:

•Character A hates bossy people like Character B—what if they had to work together?
•Character C and Character D are enemies and need to be friends by the end: what goals/attitudes/experience/problem-solving styles do they have in common that they can base a friendship off of? What scenarios would help them to see this common trait in each other:?

Brainstorming becomes a science experiment: what if we throw all these chemicals in a vial—will they explode, or change color, or stink, or create a cure for cancer?

Final note: Discovering your characters has practical application in life, too. Once you learn how mindsets affect actions, it’s easier to understand why people do what they do.

If you have a hard time getting inside your character’s heads, start with personality typing, which attempts to help people learn about other people’s thought-processes. MBTI and socionics are the most useful theories—many businesses use them. Read the type descriptions to find the one that sounds the most like your character, and then learn about it to see how that type attempts to solve problems, and what they tend to like/dislike.

Make writing fun again-- make your characters people you want to spend time with and enjoy writing about! See you next week for part three of KILL YOUR BLANK PAGES: A TEN-PART SERIES ON WRITER’S BLOCK.

More Links:
More questions to ask about your characters:

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