Tuesday, June 26, 2012

18 Crafting Multi-Layered Characters

If you’re a writer, it’s pretty much a given that you love to read. But when’s the last time you really sat down and observed an influential character in one of your favorite books? I mean really went through the book and took notes on the many facets of your character that the author intentionally crafted. If you’re like me, that would be never. It’s been a whirlwind starting the first week of my M.F.A. in Children’s Literature, but doing this very exercise was revealing and well worth it.  

Using a popular middle grade novel, I combed through the pages looking for five methods of characterization that, when put together, made the characters memorable and realistic. You may be saying, I don’t have time for that or, “I’ve read it and I can tick off things I know about the character.” But consider this a crucial task in developing as a writer so that your characters don’t fall flat.
So what exactly can we observe about memorable characters to demystify why they work? It breaks down to the following five items:

·    Physical descriptions: These are usually scant and easy to start with because good writing includes a somewhat limited idea of what a character actually looks like. But memorable writing hooks the reader with at least one thing they can hold onto for each character.

·    Actions: How does your character move? Do they have a physical hobby or a way of moving when interacting with someone else? What they do reveals a lot about your character by showing, not telling.

·    Dialogue: This is a two-step process. Not only are you looking for what a character directly says, but delve deeper into that speech. Is there something they’re really saying but not coming right out with it? Is there something they’re not saying? Read between the lines, so to speak.

·    Effects on others: Take a close look at how characters are responding to the character in question. Are they influenced by the way your character is behaving or speaking? Does your character compel others to act or speak like them? Unlike them?

·    Beliefs or thoughts: Good writing is likely not going to come right out and tell you about your character’s belief system or values. You will have to read between the lines again, maybe using some of the features listed above to draw your own conclusions. Are they optimistic, fearful, conservative, liberal, faithless? This is hard to pin down, but will pay out in dividends because as you write your own characters, you’ll be able to anticipate their reaction to an event you craft.
The idea is that in closely studying why you fell in love with (or blatantly despised) a character from another book, you’ll be better equipped to craft your own memorable characters. You’ll be amazed at how much double-duty your writing is doing to reveal character while moving your plot forward.
We’d love to know what you think. Can you recall a memorable character from a favorite read that you can hold onto through one of these methods of characterization? Have you studied these facets of the characters you’re currently writing? Please share to comments.

Happy Character-Crafting,
Marissa

18 comments:

  1. Today must be the day to discuss character development. This is the fifth article I've read this morning. Guess great minds really do think alike. ;D

    I love your last note: reading between the lines of our characters to discover their beliefs and thoughts. Great point!

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  2. Thanks, Sheri! I'll have to hunt down the other character articles for the day :) I tend to write in a more plot-driven fashion, so I think it helps to really go through and see why we love certain characters in the amazing work that's in print ;)

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  3. Hmm..."effects on other" seem to be an important part of both of my protagonists, so I might have to think of it a little more.

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  4. Chihuahua Zero, isn't that an interesting way of looking at your character? I tend to think of my characters in a bubble at times, but we can learn a lot about them from how they inspire those around them or cause someone else's mood to change. Good luck!

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  5. Great things to consider when reading. If a book is good, I tend to just read it as fast as I can to know what happened. On occasion, I have reread a book and outlined it to see what works.

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  6. Totally agree, Natalie. I'll walk away knowing I loved (or despised) a certain character, but I'm not always able to pinpoint what made me feel that way. It's an exercise to go through and truly search down the details, but it makes a big difference for our own writing.

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  7. This is a great suggestion. I have put much time into developing my characters -- using your character worksheets, the Myers Briggs personalities, and Bookshelf Muse's Character Traits Thesaurus. This exercise will only add depth for a more realistic character. Thanks for all your wisdom! I truly appreciate all the time you ladies put into making this blog so great.

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    1. Erica, Martina (my blogging partner-in-crime) developed those sheets and I think they're gold. Same with Angela Ackerman's emotional thesaurus and blog. I'm so glad you found the post helpful. Thanks for the sweet words about the blog, too! We love doing it :)

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  8. I must be a weirdo. I look at my favorite characters like this all the time. I have to find out what it is that makes me love them or hate them so I can learn the tricks and apply what I've learned to my own writing. Thanks for the most awesome post. I pinged it on my blog as well.

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    1. Ha, Jenny! Kudos to you for doing close character analysis. It really is a great habit to have! Thanks for spreading the word :)

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  9. This is great. Thanks for posting this. I don't think we can think too much about developing our characters in ways that allow our readers to understand them as well as we do.

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    1. You are most welcome, Rosi! I'm getting great writing advice during my Children's Literature MFA program so I'm trying to faithfully share the knowledge. Happy writing!

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  10. The convict in 'Great Expectations' had a deep impact on me when I read it as a young and fanciful child. This character first appears ‘from among the graves’- an image bound to stir the imagination of a child and his words to Pip inflamed my fear: “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat.”
    I was still young enough to believe that adults treated children with gentleness so the convict’s words to young Pip shocked me. I immediately imagined a great threatening man with an evil look. Dickens’ description that follows was almost irrelevant, although my mind seized the image of the missing leg and added that to the picture. That hair-raising character stayed in my mind year after year. JB :-)

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    1. JB Rowley, such a vivid example. And while I think my tendency is to focus on my protagonist, I think you've hot upon an important point- your antag should be round and well-defined to make an impact, too. Thanks for your comment!

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  11. I am a new follower to your blog and I love what I'm reading.
    I was a mentor in a writing community for many years and I can't tell you how many times I have guided writers to flesh that character out! Give him/her life, breathe them into existence!
    Most memorable characters that stand out to me? (too many to list) but Eleanor of Shirley Jackson's Hauntiing of Hill House!
    How whimsical and downright zany, almost insane character she was!

    Odd Thomas is another character I love!

    I pick apart every book I read. :) It's the writer in me!


    Great blog!!!

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  12. joni, glad to have you with us! What excellent perspective you must have since you've worked as a mentor for writers. We'd love you to chime in during the discussions. So true on "breathing life" into your characters. Through close readings for my MFA program, I've really been able to see those tiny, tiny details about characters that make up an overall impression. Thanks for the kind words on the blog. So glad you're joining us!

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  13. Hi, I came to this post via Rosi Hollinbeck. Wonderful share. Very useful points to consider. I always mean to go through a book and take notes, but now you have motivated me to do just that. Thanks for a good post.

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  14. This is one of those posts I'm copying and pasting in a Word doc for reference. Great stuff here!

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