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All right. I'll open this up: characterization.

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Hillary



Joined: 13 Apr 2004
Posts: 1767
All right. I'll open this up: characterization.  Reply with quote  

Chris, how the hell do you assemble your people? Do you just start writing and flush them out as you go or is it something you plot ahead of time?

Also, how do you keep your characters straight? Do you make profiles of them? A character bible? I find it hard to remember specific mannerisms, lilts in voice, sayings and such that distinguish one person from the next. I was wondering how a 'pro' deals with keeping the million imaginary friends straight?

Any words to the wise?

Gracias, AG.

Post Wed Aug 04, 2004 10:49 am   View user's profile Send private message Visit poster's website
chris
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Joined: 02 Mar 2004
Posts: 3833
Location: People Republic of Northern California
Re: All right. I'll open this up: characterization.  Reply with quote  

Chris, how the hell do you assemble your people? Do you just start writing and flush them out as you go or is it something you plot ahead of time?

Also, how do you keep your characters straight? Do you make profiles of them? A character bible? I find it hard to remember specific mannerisms, lilts in voice, sayings and such that distinguish one person from the next. I was wondering how a 'pro' deals with keeping the million imaginary friends straight?
.[/quote]

I generally begin, when the book is in the planning stage, with just a description of the character, a two or three word thing, something that can allow me to think about the character and what he or she needs to do; like "surfer guy", or "the old lady". I don't catalog gestures or idiosyncrasies of each character -- it's better for the reader to give the character one or two salient details about the character to identify them. I seldom describe them more than that, but I have a pretty good picture in my head. It helps to cast an actor in the roll sometimes -- although not such a good idea to tell the reader you did that. ("But for the club foot and the patches of mange, he looked exactly like Brad Pitt.")If you're describing physical stuff every time the character appears you're probably over-writing.

As soon as I can, I name the character. This will often help you with the dialog and the history of the character. You'll often know things about the characters that the reader will never know, like how many brothers and sisters he has, where his parents are, where he went to school. If these things are not relevant to the story, the reader doesn't need to know them, but you do. It's just fine to keep a list of these things. I often don't even know these things until they come up in the story -- that way I'm not trying to undo a history that doesn't work for what the character has to do. For example, if I say that a character grew up in a home with twelve children, then later on it's going to be hard for me to sell that that character has a problem living with other people. Not impossible, but if I don't reveal that detail needlessly, I'm not locked into anything.

The most important thing you need to know about any character, is this:
What does he want and what is he willing to do to get it?

This will dictate behavior and dialog, this will make the action in your story credible, this will make your characters move with their own agenda, rather than you pushing them around like puppets. The reader doesn't have to know this, even the character doesn't have to know this, but you have to know this. If, in every scene you write, you are aware of the hidden agenda of the character, it will be easy to make them talk. When you get stuck on a plot point, your characters will tell you where to go.

Kurt Vonnegutt said something like, "Make your character want something on the very first page, even if it's a drink of water."

This is great advice, and I took in Coyote Blue, where the book opens up with Sam Hunter wanting the girl, Calliope. There's almost an identical agenda in Fluke, although with mixed emotions, with Nate and Amy in the boat. Early on I also state that Nate wants to know why the whales sing.

With this, what you're doing is driving the story. You're engaging the reader. You're making them want your character to get what they want, making them wonder, "Will he get it? How will he get it? How do these actions lead to his goal?"

Suspense is the judicious rationing of questions and answers in the readers mind. And suspense drives everything Suspense is the engine of your story, and character is the fuel. There are a lot of devices you can use to create suspense, and we'll probably discuss them here later, but if you keep your character's agenda's in mind, as well as your own (which is to tell an engaging story) then you'll always have somewhere to go.

Don't be afraid to let your characters talk. Dialog scenes should always move the story and reveal something about the character (I would add, "and sometimes make people laugh") and while they should be pointed to these goals, don't be afraid to let your characters talk to each other. You can always cut later -- removing all but the most relevant lines, but in dialog, when you are hearing the conversation in your head, the characters will often reveal things. Sometimes you'll write a line that absolutely defines a character, changes your whole vision of the character, and sometimes it will change the direction of the story.

Now, to address the question of keeping characters straight, here's a couple of hints: one, if they don't have anything to do, you probably don't need them. If two or three of them look alike or talk alike, then they may not need to be two people. They might work fine as one person. Everyone in a mob, hit squad, or at a dinner party needn't have a unique personality. If they don't move the action along, they don't need to have a full bio, they may not even need to be there. You're writing fiction, not playing a role-playing game, where hundreds of characters can wander around aimlessly having adventures and saying hi to each other.

You'll find that it's a good idea to know where your characters are as the book moves along, especially when they are off stage. You have the luxury of simultaneous action by use the magic transition line, "At that moment", which obviously can be written a zillion different ways. You don't have to account for every minute your characters are off stage, but you can't assume that they stood in one place waiting for you to call them on stage. Again, the reader doesn't have to know where they are, but you may, especially if you're doing a multiple POV story where you may shift to another character at any time. So if you need to know, write it down. Otherwise the reader will assume that life went forward. And remember, now your characters have agendas, they will be pursuing them even when they are off stage.

So, the short answer -- sure, do a map. Give your character a 3x3 post-it for his or her bio, give them something distinct to identify them to the reader when they show up again, especially if you have a number of similar characters (put them in sunglasses, give them a prominent tattoo, make them the only red-head in the story -- stuff like that to identify them in one or two words.)

These techniques are mostly geared toward the novel, not the short story. With a short story the idea of an agenda still applies, but you usually won't be dealing with multiple characters over a large number of scenes. In a short story the revelation of the character may be the only thing you do. I've come away from very few stories with a memorable sense of the character. A couple by Steinbeck, perhaps, The Chrysanthemums and Tulericito come to mind. Faulkner's A Rose for Emily. Sci-fi and horror stories usually are so plot driven, and by necessity have to be focused on the unusual action or setting, that fleshing out a character is nearly impossible unless that's the whole point of the story. I'm not a short story guy, anymore, but these are my impressions. I like the slop and slosh of the novel. A short story feels like an equation for which there is only one answer. In a novel, you can bluff.
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Post Wed Aug 04, 2004 12:14 pm   View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail Visit poster's website
Goudron



Joined: 03 Aug 2004
Posts: 2570
Location: near Cleveland OH
 Reply with quote  

What luck. Just the night before last I was wondering why I'd registered on these boards besides to whine that the Illustrious Auther Guy never comes to Strongsville OH (it's real close to all those other Ohio towns, and very close to Cleveland).

Thank you for this forum, and for the preceding post. I've always had troubles with creating characters, and I think some of that migt be that I make them all too sacred. Just mush two into one. Hack 37 of them out of the story. Let them be off stage. Follow them offstage if you like. Give them motivation. Not some convoluted personality where you *have to* worry about pointing out facial ticks and obsessive compulsive habits every other paragraph.

I'll go post in one of those "who are you" posts when I get to it, but thanks again for the forum, and for stopping me from lurking Very Happy
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Post Wed Aug 04, 2004 8:44 pm   View user's profile Send private message Visit poster's website
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