Monday, November 18, 2013

Developing Characters—Getting Started

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

My daughter has been horseback riding on the weekends for years now. I love that she loves it, I love the way she excels at it.  I love that it’s an outdoor activity in a digital, indoor age.  The barns are interesting places and the people who hang out in barns are very different from the people I’m ordinarily around, so that’s very stimulating.  And, of course, the horses are gorgeous.
But I really just didn’t get the whole horse thing.  My daughter would talk about the horses while we were at the barn and continue talking about them during the week.  There was lots of personification going my mind, anyway.  “Dusty worries about the jumps when they’re in different locations than usual.  That’s why he kept trying to look at them as we were cantering around the ring. I had to really make sure he was looking straight ahead,” she’d say.  And I’d nod and ask more about Dusty’s proclivities and his outlook on the world, and think, “What a creative child I have!”  Because I’d look at Dusty, the largest horse in the barn, and all I got out of it was… “My Lord, what a massive animal that is.”  And hope she always stayed on the horse.
I’m perfectly capable of telling people what’s on my dog’s mind and my cats’ minds, but I couldn’t get into the horses’ heads at all.  Until my daughter started riding Sweet Pea a month or so ago.  That was when I started getting into horses.
Sweet Pea was curious.  My daughter would be trying to tack her up and the horse would hear someone coming and crane her head to peer around and see who was there with this intelligent, interested, curious look on her face.  She attentively watches  the pasture, when she has a view to it, to spy on her horse buddies.  Actually, I guess Sweet Pea is more nosy than curious.  
With characters, we’re doing the same thing.  We’re trying to find some way for readers to connect with them.  How can we bring them to life, especially if they only have a minor role in a book (protagonists, hopefully, we’ve got nailed).  How do we keep our book’s characters from becoming just another horse in the stable?
I like to start out simple and then build from there…maybe even in the edits if I don’t have the character fully-developed as I’m writing him.  Having something small to build around…like Sweet Pea’s nosiness…is helpful when you’re starting out on a new book.
At this point and after over a dozen books, I look for ways to keep characters and plots fresh.  I know writers who’ve written upwards of sixty or eighty books and I marvel at their ability to keep their books from getting stale or exploring the same types of characters or subject matter.  Sometimes when I’m brainstorming, it’s almost as though my brain is trying to follow on the same course…I’ll immediately come up with something I’ve done before (even if it’s a few books ago) and dig deeper.
Sometimes, I need a prompt.   Get me started with a direction that’s different from the well-worn track I’m trying to steer down again.  At that point, going to a site like the Inspiration for Writers site, can help to just jumpstart your own process.  There are lists of character traits there that can just help get your imagination in gear.  The site Read, Write, Think , a resource for teachers, also has a nice sample list.
Sometimes I’ll go on sites like Pinterest…and be careful there, because that place is a major time-suck. Set a timer.  But you can see so many pictures of different types of people there that it can help break you out of any particular pattern that your brain is bent on repeating. People's appearances in the pictures suggest different types of personalities.
My standby is ‘collecting people’ out in public.  Just being at the library gives you the opportunity to see many different types of people—and attitude and personality tends to show itself easily, even to casual observers (especially after you do this kind of collecting through the years).
Most of us have written amalgams of different people we know—family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances.  After a while, though, unless we get out and meet more people, we’ll have run through all the folks we know.  At least…I have. :)  I didn’t know that many people, even starting out. But making amalgams can be helpful for a while.
You can also twist it around and build a character from what they want most.  Because sometimes, what someone wants most suggests certain traits about them.  If what someone wants most is money, for instance…it's easy to dream up particular traits for them.  What if it’s respect, power, love, friendship, shelter, faith?
What if you dump a bunch of challenges/problems on some of these characters?  How they react to that and deal with it will indicate some of their traits…traits that can also be shown in other parts of their life and relationships with others in the story.
So…lots of different ways of doing this.  And this is just getting us started…the next drafts we can add to the skeleton first draft and fill them out even more.  The whole point is just to make the characters stand out from each other to readers and make it more likely that readers will foster connections with them and relate to them and just plain get them like I finally got Sweet Pea.
How do you set your characters apart from each other and provide them with unique traits and personalities?