Monday, August 27, 2012

Get to Know Your People

Characters: Get to Know Your People

Stories are about people. Even if there are no people in the story.

Huh? Hey, did you ever see Wall-E? For the first half of the movie…no people. A few images of them on an old tape, sure, but no people as characters.

Well, but wait, you say. Wall-E and Eve are sort of like people.

Exactly. They have personalities, so an audience can relate to them as though they were people.

Stories are about people.

Beginning writers sometimes have trouble with that. They don't get to know their people well enough before they launch into a story. Take the time to learn about them.

You don't want the reader to be unsure who a character is. Raoul? Have we met him before? Oh, yeah, he's almost like Guiseppe. I can't keep them straight…

Uh-uh. Each character, major or minor, should in some ways be individualized. This especially goes for the protagonists and second leads. Take the time to work out their histories. You're the writer. You should know more about the characters than you ever tell us.

So make the basic decisions: the character's gender (and gender preferences, if that matters in the story); physical description (age, height, weight, hair color, eye color, build and physical condition, some idea of facial features); place of residence, job, marital or dating status and so on.

Then…ah, then. Begin to think about the character's background. Parents, birthplace, siblings (if any), schooling.

Not nearly done. Now think about the character's values. What is the character's most treasured possession, and why is it so precious? What is the character's greatest fear? Why? What is the character's fondest wish—if he or she could summon a genie, what would be the request?

Get close to the bone. What is the character's greatest need? Does he or she realize this is so vital? What obstacles would stand in the character's way of satisfying this need?

Now write out the character's biography, making it as short or as long as you're comfortable with. Act the role of your character. Find some goofy online personality tests…and fill them out as your character. Think about minutiae: How sould the character answer the phone? What kind of shampoo does the character prefer? What lies has the character told, and to whom?

When you get under the skin of this person you've created, you may be able to write about him or her. But you have to get there first. If you can't believe in the character, how can the reader?

Ross MacDonald (Kenneth Millar) said something that I thought was profound. Asked if his detective Lew Archer was in fact himself, he said, "Lew Archer is not me . . . . but in a way I am Lew Archer."

Invest your character with that kind of belief. Now you're ready to begin a story.

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