Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Crafting characters

Unlike some authors, I don’t “see” my characters before I put them on paper. They come to me a bit like spirits; colorless, odorless, shapeless forms in the midst of doing whatever it is I’ve concocted. But, how they influence or react to the central situation is carefully constructed. In this way, characters are very much my designer babies.

Using the plot, I select their temperament, attitude, experiences, backgrounds, secrets and romantic partner in order to choose an archetype and personality profile that helps bring them to life. Then, based on their pre-selected strengths, flaws and role in moving the story forward, I begin to outline their physical presence.

I will admit that my heroes and heroines tend to be tall because at 5’ 8”, I’m taller than average. I haven’t grown since I was 12 and I don’t have a clue what it’s like to be short. That’s just one writing tidbit I choose not to research.

That said, I determine their physiques, their coloring, their hairstyles, eye color, nervous habits, and wardrobe. It usually isn’t until the second draft that I even describe them in the story, because it takes me that long to make them materialize. Quite to the contrary, I’m great at sketching a word-picture of minor characters. They have a specific, defined purpose and aren’t going to evolve the way the hero, heroine and villain will over the course of the story. The main characters may indeed transform their appearance by the end of the story to support their developmental arc. How they end up, physically, may depend on where they start.

Still, beneath it all, whatever, shape, hue or hairstyle they possess, what I must get right from the start is the WHO of my characters. To do that, I rely on a couple of books that I consider priceless resources: The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines, Sixteen Master Archetypes, by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever and Sue Viders; and Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein, Ph.D.

And, since, I write paranormal, I must make sure the stars align for the man and woman at the center of my story. While real world mortals hook up with people astrology would deem incompatible, I couldn’t do that to my characters. For all the drama I’m about to put them through, I need to start out knowing they’re not only meant to be together, but destined to live harmoniously.

If it looks like I spend a lot of time on this, you’re right. Researching what makes my characters who they are, to me, gives them depth and makes them genuine. Not perfect, but real. Do readers care? I think so. Even if they don’t recognize a character’s depth for what it is in the context of the story, I think they notice when it’s missing.


Phyllis Bourne said...

I tend to know my characters really well inside, but not so much on the outside. Which is probably why my editorial letters say, "What do these people look like?"

I also use The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines, Sixteen Master Archetypes, by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever and Sue Viders.

Farrah Rochon said...

[i]"What do these people look like?"[/i]

I get that, too. I have a very vague idea of what a character looks like. It's never an actual face. That's why it's so very hard to give physical features to characters.

Stefanie, I love the Edelstein book.

Genella deGrey said...

My characters come to me and demand I tell their stories - and at the oddest times, too.

Not that I'm complaining . . .

Beth Caudill said...

Yeah, I'm not totally weird with the amorphous characters. :)

Characters are really the hardest part for me. Describing them...I know what they do...just not how they look.

Unknown said...

Phyllis, Farrah, Genella and Beth --
I see that I'm in wonderful company!

I'm thankful my writing process allows me to circle back and fix not only plot and prose, but the people themselves.

Liane Spicer said...

Hey, I'm taller'n you, Stef. 5' 10", and the family midget at that. :) Now that I think about it, my characters do tend to tower...

Ooh, more books for my list! Thanks for the recs!

I think the WHO worked in tandem with the appearances in my first novel, but there was a distinct lack of physical description in the second, as my critique partner was quick to point out. He couldn't 'see' the lead characters so I had to go back and do some work on that.