Monday, October 17, 2011

Topic: Writing and Characterization

One of the things I've never had a problem with is creating and developing a character. I've always been pretty good at creating a character and knowing what their motives, fears, goals, hobbies, strengths, and weaknesses were. Like having perfect pitch, it's something that I normally take for granted. So, when I was asked in my short story class a few weeks ago how I create such believable characters - even when they're doing unbelievable things - I had to stop and really think about it. "I just do" or "I'm not sure" aren't acceptable answers, especially when someone is looking to you for help. I've been spending a lot of time recently thinking about my own character development exercises, and I've come up with a really, really loose list of things that I do. Check them out; they're under the break.

  • I spend a lot of time people watching, and jotting down things that people do. I'm kind of a creeper in the fact that I sit around in mall food courts, or aimlessly wandering around just to see what people do. Then, to add to that factor, I write them down. Children misbehaving in grocery stores and how parents react, how the Bro Brigade tries to be manly when a group of girls walks by, then immediately becomes a group of madmen once they pass, old people pretending not to know what's going on then mocking the people helping them behind their backs... I've seen it all. Until, of course, something comes up and surprises me all over again. 
  • I eavesdrop on strangers all the time. I've developed the ability to listen through white noise and pick up on faint conversations in libraries, in the hallway, in the cafeteria, you name it. I've taught myself how to listen to more than one conversation at a time. And if something interesting comes up - you guessed it - I write it down. Even if something interesting doesn't happen, if there's a topic that comes up, I make note of it. You'd be amazed what you can learn by listening to other people's conversations, and I'm not just talking about how fat that girl over there looks in her denim mini... Oh hey, I think they're talking about me. Moving on.
  • I actually use character development exercises. I'm not so hotheaded and elitist that I think I know it all when it comes to characterization and development. There's a lot to learn if you're willing to admit that you have things to learn. Yes, I use all of those resources up there. And it's not just online, either. I own books on the topic as well. And those are just a few of them.
  • I write every day, whether I want to or not. I use prompts, I freewrite, I write about absolutely nothing. I bore all four of my subscribers with posts like this one. It counts; I'm still writing.
  • I work with my own experiences, fears, inner ambitions, and taboos. By using parts of myself, I'm able to ensure that my characters remain "human" and never cross the border into "Sue" territory. No one is perfect, ever. If you think that, you're not looking at the person, but something you've superimposed over them. Anyone can seem perfect at first. It's when you get to know them that you see all their flaws.
  • Sometimes, I just jump into writing without any ideas on character at all. At times, the best way to get a character to react and flesh out is throwing them immediately into a situation that they need to find their way out of. I'm going to be honest: I'm one of those writers who "lets their characters do the thinking." I'm the kind of writer that puts my characters in a bad situation and lets them figure it out for themselves. "But characters can't think," you're telling me. I say that you're wrong, but that's a topic for another day. For now, we'll agree to disagree.
  • Most importantly, I read. A lot. All the time. I read all different authors, in all different genres. I expose myself to all kinds of writing that I can, to learn what works, and what doesn't, and how I can better improve my own writing. Good writers read. And there's a good chance that avid readers can write.
It seems like it should be more complicated than that, that there should be more to a good character than just those things. But there isn't, not really. Sometimes, though, my best characters come from taking a dive and just starting to write. I'll be honest, I had no idea where my short story, 21, was going when I sat down and started writing it. It wasn't planned, it had no direction, no plot, no anything. It started with the action that I had performed minutes prior: "I looked at the clock." Everything stemmed from there, and the character that was born (Jonathan) revealed a lot about himself in that short span of writing. None of that was planned.

Long story short: don't overthink anything when character drafting. Don't freak out when a character you're working with changes. Good characters - just like people - change over time.

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