Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Know Thy Characters

When I was working on an article about writer’s block a few months ago, I got a wonderful tidbit of information that I only touched on briefly in the article. I felt it was worth holding out and using as a topic all its own.

When I asked Pocket and Silhouette author Roxanne St. Claire about writer’s block, she sent me an email full of great advice. The part I’m expounding on today is “Know Thy Characters.” This is a timely topic for me because I’ve realized that one of the reasons my novel isn’t progressing is that I don’t really know my characters. And with the new guidelines for Silhouette Desire, the line this story is targeted to, I’ve had to tweak my hero and now I know him even less.

Here’s what Roxanne wrote:

Generally, when the story has gone awry, it's because these people I've invented have done something they shouldn't have...or wouldn't have if they were real. Being a plot driven person, I sometimes want to drag them and force them to go my way to expedite the plot. Not unlike what I do to my puppy when we are walking and I want to move and burn a calorie or two and she wants to sniff a dead frog in the middle of the road. I yank a little (not too much, please don't report me) and she will eventually do what I want...but she's not happy. And neither am I. That frog was there to be sniffed, damn it, and a good terrier stops, sniffs, licks and perhaps takes it to her secret hiding place regardless of what I want her to do. When I'm blocked, it's usually because I am forcing the story in an unnatural direction. My gut is screaming, but my fingers fly...until they stop. And then I have to back track and go sniff that dead frog after all.

So… how do you get to know thy characters?

Some writers use character charts. I’ve seen everything from simple one-page questionnaires to a system that contains twenty-seven separate Word documents, including examples from a popular romantic comedy movie. I've tried the simple questionnaire.

I’ve heard other writers say they use the hero and heroine archetypes found in Tami Cowden’s book The Writers Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes. My hero is a bad boy with a streak of conscience and a promise he made to a dying friend.

Still others use horoscopes or Enneagrams. Haven't tried this yet.

Visually oriented writers will search magazines or websites to find a picture of what they imagine their hero and heroine to look like. I admit to surfing countless modeling websites in search of Max Cameron and Maddie Prescott. And I’ve tried some of the questionnaires to try and uncover what makes them tick.

I also hit the motherload on Charlotte Dillon’s website with her page on “Building Fictional Characters.” This site has a list of helpful books, links to other sites and even has tips on naming your characters.

But Monday I learned something very valuable about my hero. And you know how I did it? I sniffed a frog, that’s how. Well, proverbially. I let my mind wander while I was riding on the back of my husband’s motorcycle. There’s not a lot I can do BUT think while on the back of that bike. So when we went for a ride on Monday I decided I was going to ponder on Max and see what might develop. Turns out he isn’t originally from Atlanta like I’d tried to make him. He’s from another state and grew up with a mother and grandparents who were textile mill workers. He spent one summer working in that mill and decided as soon as he graduated from high school, he was getting the heck outta Dodge so they wouldn't make him work there any more.

In the course of sniffing Max *g* I’ll probably discover lots of little things about him that will never make it into the story, but they are integral parts of him and have shaped him into the man who DOES make it into the story.

Have you sniffed a frog today? How do you develop your characters? Feel free to share.

I’ll start by sharing Max with you. Isn’t he handsome?


Instigator said...

That's my problem!! I haven't sniffed my frogs :-) This is really great advice PM. I know that time and time again I've been told that believable characters - ones that a reader can identify with and root for - are the key to success in this business. Unfortunately, it's kind of an intangible thing that's difficult to pin point or learn. But you've done an excellent job of giving us all a starting point.


blueberri said...

Great advice! Thanks for sharing this article, M.{{{Hugs}}} to you and Rocki!

I've just learned to dig deeper and it makes a great difference. Before I was skimming the surface. It's great when characters reveal themselves and they do have their own minds.

Problem Child said...

Can we call it something other than "sniffing the frog?"



Playground Monitor said...

Can we call it something other than "sniffing the frog?"

It is what it is. *g*

Charlotte Dillon said...

Thanks for visting my site. I'm glad you found my character page so helpful. A whole mother load, right? :-) Great blog by the way.