Friday, May 31, 2013

Wait, you did what? With who? WHERE??

This month's Ramble topic is about Getting to Know Your Hero/Heroine, (not heroin, that's a whole different subject...)

If you're writing a story, there's a pretty good chance you have characters in it. Even if your tale is composed entirely of inanimate objects, there's going to be some personality, some history, some purpose to those objects. So how do you make them believable people? How do you portray them in a way that will make your readers not only understand them, but care about them?

There are several ways I go about this in my own writing. One way I find effective is to picture my story as a movie that I'm watching in my head, and then try to decide which actor/actress would play the role of that character. Then I develop my own character as played by... Robert Duvall, or Al Pacino, or whoever fits what I'm writing. Now, typically I don't base my characters after the Hollywood stars themselves, (unless I'm writing a contemporary story about drug addicts and alcoholics.) Instead, I pick a role they have played in a movie I've seen and loosely base my character on the character from that film. I say loosely because I don't want to straight up steal someone else's character... more like I just suck the soul of them and create my own monster.

Thanks for Taking the Time:
Another great way to create and get to know your characters is to interview them. As the creator of their world, you're already imagining your characters in all sorts of situations, scenes, and relationships. It shouldn't be too much harder to imagine them sitting in a chair across from you answering a list of interview questions such as:

  • What's your name? Do you have a middle name? A nickname? Where did your nickname come from?
  • Where are you from? What was it like growing up there? Do you have any favorite stories from your childhood?
  • Do you have any secrets? Any that you're willing to share?
  • How did you end up where you are today? Do you like your life, are you satisfied? What would you change, given the chance?
  • What are you looking for in life, in relationships, in employment? What are your inner dreams and deepest fears?

You get the idea. Now, chances are, 90% of the answers you get from your characters will not end up in the story. At least, not directly. But now you have more than just the cardboard cutout of a person. You have a fully fleshed-out, living, breathing human being with fears, hopes, a past, a future, etc. (Side Note; I recently learned that "etc" really stands for: End of Thinking Capacity, hehe) So even if you don't use most of the answers from you interview, you've created the information so that, as you're chugging along in your tale, if a detail suddenly pops up about your character, say someone wants to know his/her middle name, you've already learned that fact in your interview and can more readily plug it into the story and move on.

That Was Supposed to be Me?
Another way you can create believable characters is to base them--again, loosely--on people you know. This is the easiest, and I think most common, way for new writers. After all, they say, "Write what you know" and who do you know better than your friends and family?

However, this is dangerous ground to trod. You may think you're portraying someone you love in the best light possible, but the fact is, you can never truly know someone else's inner thoughts, feelings, motivations. You may think you got the details right, only to find that your loved one doesn't see themselves that way and is offended at their portrayal.

So, two suggestions if you're going to model characters after people you know: Don't tell them, and don't ask permission. If you tell them, they may be offended at what you wrote. If you ask them first, they may then try to take over your writing and say things like, "I wouldn't react that way" or "Man, it would be so much cooler if I..." The bottom line is, this is your story, and these are your characters. Don't let someone else try to control what your characters are doing. Your plot will suffer for it every time.

So what if someone recognizes himself in your story? Simply say, "Wow, I'm glad you found that character so believable that you could relate to them."

In his book, "Character and Viewpoint", Orson Scott Card warns against using loved ones as character models and talks about how to create characters who've done things that you don't know anything about, such as murdering someone. He says:
"There is one person you can always interview, however, who will tell you much more of the truth than others ever will--yourself. You can imagine what it would take to get you to behave in a certain way. 
So what if you've never murdered somebody? Haven't you ever been blindingly angry? Haven't you ever longed for cold revenge? You've felt all the emotions, all the motives. All you have to do is imagine those feelings and needs being even stronger, or imagine you inhibition against violence being even weaker."
As the author, you need to know your characters. Be they people, animals, spirits, rocks, or whatever your story needs, there should not be a single person in existence who knows more about them than you . After all, they're going to change the very world you've created for them. Take the time to get to know them.

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