3

I'm a plotter. I develop and plan my novels and characters well before I write them. When it comes to character development, I make sure that my characters (or at least the central ones) are people that the reader wants to read about. I make them people the reader will find interesting, and will cheer on past the end of the book. I achieve this by giving them details (certain traits, detailed and central inner conflicts, etc.).

I recently read an excerpt of a novel. The excerpt had a profound sense of character. The character felt like a real person, even though I was reading an excerpt and knew nothing about that character. The emotions, thoughts, and actions all just felt authentic. I can't really say why. That's why I'm asking this question.

I believe this is referred to as a sense of character: that undefinable something which just makes characters seem real. I'm not always missing this sense of character in my novels. Not by a long shot. Sometimes a character falls flat though, and I'd like to know what I can do about it.

How do I create a sense of character? Being a plotter, I'd obviously prefer a formula, a process that I can follow. I realize this might not be the case however.

Note: This question can easily be subjective, so please do not answer with just the opinion of one person. That method might not (and probably will not) work for everyone. I'd like methods that work for a wide variety of people.

5

Plotting out a novel is a wonderful way to prepare for writing. It helps an author identify which thoughts, events and scenes are needed and which are not. When significant effort is invested into plot development, tremendous amounts of time can be saved during writing. Scenes which seemed necessary during early contemplation don't have to be written at all, if they've been eliminated during the plotting process. Plotting is therefore a method which optomizes the writing experience; minimizing the total number of words which must eventually be written.

Charcter development is the exact opposite. Characters are organic. They only grow through experience and exercise. For characters living in a literary world, that growth comes in the form of written words (lots of written words). Ten to Twenty "never-to-be-published" pages, containing a freeform written monologue in a character's voice, will give you a real idea of who they are, what they value, and how they use words.

Your plot may help you realize who each of your characters need to be (for the sake of your story), but you will only discover who they are, by letting them rule your writing hand for a while. "Become Them" and let them write. Only by imagining the world as they might see it, can you truely figure out how each of your characters fit into the world that you are creating.

Here is my formula...

  • I usually extract a list of characters from my plot and sort them by importance. "Main Characters" will get the most development time. "Supporting Characters" will get a little less, and so on.

  • I then chart out which characters know each other, using colored arrows to summarize their opinion of or affinity to each other. A red arrow from Joe to Bill means that Joe hates Bill. The yellow arrow from Bill to Joe suggests that Bill is unaware of Joe's antipathy and only distrusts Joe but doesn't hate hime. The colors are arbitrary and I often scribble notes along the arrow's length to capture more complex emotions.

  • I will then write up a short 3rd party summary of each character, using omnipotent view. Sometimes I use a character profile form for this, to capture each character's occupation, wealth, posessions, etc. These are trivial facts but they set some ground rules which will later be followed by the characters, when each of their turns come to write.

  • Finally, I hand over the metaphoric pen and let one of the characters start to speak. I start a new word document for each character and try to keep the writing in that document to one character's voice, staying strictly in first person point of view. The characters usually start by introducing themselves and then babble on about anything which they choose. Sometimes they talk about other characters. Sometimes they share stories from their past. This can be very surprising and instructive to me, the author. I let them continue until they either run out of things to say, or until something strange happens. After each character leaves the stage, another takes its place.

    Strange things happen a lot during these free form dialogs. Other characters may walk out on stage and start discussing the current subject with the speaker. Sometimes there are arguments. Tears are a good sign that things are getting real. Laughter is too, to a lesser extent. Late in the process, pairs of characters sometimes fall into a smooth banter with each other, playing off of the other's word choice and style. Through out these events, I try to stay in the original speaker's POV. In this way, their private thoughts and responses can be captured, along side their public words. Later, writing the same scene from the other character's POV can be very really illuminate what was really happening on that stage.

The idea is to capture who each of these characters are... Their thoughts in their words, spoken with their particular subtlety or style.

The pages generated during these monologues are never included in the final novel directly, but I often go back and re-read them just before bringing a particular character on stage. It is helpful to remind myself of who they are and how they speak. All of it helps me to make them real when they finally get to visit the to-be-published page.

2

I think it is important to remember that fiction is not primarily a matter or invention but of observation. You are not creating new stories or new characters, you are discovering story and character in nature and sharing them through storytelling.

If you discover character in nature, then your reader can recognize character in your stories because they too have observed character all their lives. Then it only takes a few brushstrokes to establish character vividly because you are relying almost entirely on the reader's recognition and memory. Pull out the right poignant and telling detail to evoke the memory of character and your reader immediately has a fond and vivid reaction based on people they have known of similar character.

Almost any book would suffice to illustrate this, but take the opening dialogue of Pride and Prejudice and see how deftly the character of Mr Bennet is established by his gentle teasing of Mrs Bennet as she tries to persuade him to all on their new neighbour. In a few words, Mr. Bennet stands before us whole because we remember such affectionate teasing between man and wife (or between parent and child, or between siblings or friends). We know that guy. We remember him. You create a sense of character through an appeal to memory.

This is true across the board. Storytelling works through the invocation of memory. It does not create new sensations or emotions; it recalls to mind sensations and emotions that the reader has already had. If it builds new landscapes, it does so using pieces of the old. If it is truly skillful, it refines and concentrates sensations and emotions it a way that may feel new or more vivid than life, but it is all life recalled.

This is also, by the way, why we have to keep retelling the old stories: to recast them the the framework of memory of a new generation.

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