"Plot springs from character... I've always sort of believed that these people inside me- these characters- know who they are and what they're about and what happens, and they need me to help get it down on paper because they don't type."
- Anne Lamott
Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve shown you a few tools to get your story in shape to make good on all those new writing resolutions. Important stuff, sure. But all that pre-writing work is just a warm-up for the real thing. The story doesn’t really feel like a story until your characters come alive. Until they seem so real our nose wrinkles with the smell of acne medicine in the morning.
There are tons of awesome character cheat sheets out there. Like here. And here. And here. Also here.
Shameless plug, I know I know. But if you’ve got a shred of OCD in you, these worksheets are like chocolate-covered espresso beans in an empty cupboard. Are they necessary? Maybe not. Are they the equivalent to Match.com between you and your character? Totally.
Great! But… are they fun to do?
Well, depends on who you ask. It’s no Scrabble night, that’s for sure. But much can be learned during the discovery process of fine-tuning all the details you see and don't see on the page. There are writers galore who hug on their character sheets like they're…well, like they're chocolate-covered espresso beans.
For me, I always start out wanting to create a sparkly encyclopedia for each character, complete with charcoal renderings lovingly sketched by hand…or something. And the ‘character bible’ method is practically a must if you plan on writing a series with lots of characters or species, each with their own set of rules to track. I get it. I do. But it’s not really FUN-fun, you know what I mean? (Although I know there will be plenty of you who will still argue with me on this. I bet you also enjoy cleaning, huh? :))
So if, like me, you want the value of discovering more about your characters without the mundane task of notating where each birthmark, scar, or stray hair rests, then maybe this craft tip is for you.
My friend and 2011 debut YA author, Gwen Hayes, mentored me last year and as her first order of mentorly business, she told me I didn't know diddly-squat about my characters (she may have put it more tactfully than that). Obviously she had something up her sleeve, so I wholly expected her to send me one of those standard character worksheets to fill out. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t already sharpening my pencil to drive through my hand in an attempt to get out of it, but luckily she didn’t have me do that. Instead, her homework was this:
Create a blog (or Myspace, Facebook, or other social networking page) as if you’re your character.
• What is the blog called?
• What song plays when the page opens?
• Are there pictures posted of friends or family?
• Is it used as a public diary or more for updating friends with a quick recap of the day?
• What kind of wallpaper is in the background —does it ooze school spirit or flourish with artistic flair? Or maybe it’s bare bones with the generic theme.
What the blog/page looks like will show—not tell—how your character views herself and her world. Maybe she’s new and doesn’t have any friends yet, so she blogs like she’s talking to her old best friend who now lives hundreds of miles away. What would her first post say? Or maybe your character is an artist and she posts a poem or a random observation at the end of the day.
This kind of creative exercise helps you get into the mindset of your character while keeping it FUN. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time and if you’re worried about others viewing your page don’t worry – with both Wordpress and Blogger, you can set your blog as private so that only those you invite to view your blog can see it -- like maybe a critique partner who knows your character well. And...if you sell your book, how cool would it be for readers to feel like they're really getting a glimpse into your character's life outside the pages of the book?
Another advantage to creating a character blog is that it can also act as an online record of your character’s growth. Does it seem like the same person who wrote the last entry wrote the first? Are the differences evident in just the entries or has the opening song changed, too? What about the background theme or pictures? What about the frequency in entries/status updates?
If you’re a blogger, take a look at what you wrote a year, a month, a week ago. A year ago this week I wrote about getting to know my characters. Talk about coincidence. What’s even creepier is that in my post, I linked to a contest given by Nathan Bransford where the assignment was to write an intriguing fictional teen diary entry. I swear I didn’t plan this! But that was such a helpful exercise for me and just goes to show that you should always be thinking about your character and find ways to make getting to know them more interesting.
If you don't want to make a pretend blog for your character, then why not create a collage with magazine clippings of all the things important to them? Tera Lynn Childs talked about this during WriteOnCon last year. Not crafty? Try taking up your character's cherished hobby or interest for a week. Read books or watch movies you think your character would like. Or take photographs from your character's perspective. Maybe she always looks at the ground when she walks, or vice versa -- what does she SEE? Take a picture, print it, and tack it to your bulletin board to remind you when you sit down to write.
Tell us, what do you do to learn more about your characters? Does this make it easier or harder to write in their voice?
For this week's writing exercise, I’m going to do something different and not post a picture as a prompt. Instead, copy and paste your answers to this Getting-To-Know-You meme in the comments to introduce your main character to us. (You’ve probably gotten one of these in your inbox from a relative or friend who likes to send them out every other week with an ominous threat of bad luck if you break the chain. Next time you get one, put it to good use and have your character answer it on her blog. Maybe you'll learn something new about her.) As always, we’d love to hear from you even if you don’t participate in the meme.
1. WERE YOU NAMED AFTER ANYONE?
2. WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU CRIED?
3. DO YOU LIKE YOUR HANDWRITING?
4. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE LUNCH MEAT?
5. WOULD YOU BUNGEE JUMP?
6. WHAT DO YOU NOTICE FIRST WHEN YOU MEET SOMEONE?
7. WHAT IS THE LEAST FAVORITE THING ABOUT YOURSELF?
8. WHO DO YOU MISS THE MOST?
9. WHAT WAS THE LAST THING YOU ATE?
10. IF YOU WERE A CRAYON, WHAT COLOR WOULD YOU BE?
11. FAVORITE SMELLS?
12. WHO WAS THE LAST PERSON YOU TALKED TO ON THE PHONE?
13. SCARY MOVIES OR HAPPY ENDINGS?
14. WHAT COLOR SHIRT ARE YOU WEARING?
15. HUGS OR KISSES?
16. WHAT BOOK ARE YOU READING NOW?
17. WHAT IS ON YOUR MOUSE PAD?
18. FAVORITE SOUND?
19. JAY-Z OR KINGS OF LEON?
20. WHAT POSITION DO YOU SLEEP IN?
And before I forget, the winner of last week's giveaway of Rampant by Diana Peterfreund is:
Congrats Heidi! I'll be mailing out your copy this week.
Today's giveaway is a pre-order of Falling Under by Gwen Hayes. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post and fill out the entry form. The contest is open to US residents and will run until Jan. 17 at 8pm EST. The winner will be announced next Tuesday. Good luck!