Friday, 18 March 2011


Hello, dear readers, it's Friday again - which means I am dredging out yet another post from the dark, murky depths of my archive for your delight and edification. Enjoy! Today the RetroPost of choice is:


Today, by popular request, I'm going to show you the stages I go through to get to know a character.

Like many writers, I sometimes have this weird feeling that all my characters actually already exist out there in some alternate dimension. It seems that and that I'm not so much inventing them as, through the process of writing about them, gradually tuning in my aerial until I can see/hear clearly who they already are.

And if anyone here is secretly thinking 'Is this the B*tsh*t Crazy Lady thing she was on about before?' - I'm aware that not all writers feel this way. Just take whatever you find useful from my process (and also, Ursula Le Guin and Robin McKinley agree with me, so nyer!).

The problem with the gradual tuning method is that you often get nearly halfway through your book before you really feel that you're inside the character's skin. That can lead to stress early on - getting blocked because things don't feel right but you're not sure why, writing a lot of words that later have to be deleted because you realise your character would never do that. So it's best to try and get to know your imaginary people as well as you can before you actually start writing.

I don't make character collages - writing High Fantasy, I find it difficult to gather images that seem right - but I do like to sketch my characters. And I enjoy filling my notebooks with clippings and cuttings of images that evoke their thoughts or who they are inside. Anything you can do to make yourself feel close to a character is good. Below is my own checklist. 

1. What are they like physically, and how does this affect them?

I've seen character surveys on the internet where they basically expect you to list every freckle on a character's back, and some people find it useful to be specific about this. I don't go that far myself, but I do like to have a think about the way a character is percieved by others and by themselves. Often physical details will be the first thing you describe to your reader about a character, so you need to be aware of:
  • How a reader will react to the traits you pick. I've learned that red hair and green eyes will make many readers brand your character a Mary-Sue automatically, no matter how flawed and complex they are. Bear this sort of knee-jerk reaction in mind.
  • How do other characters within the story react to those traits. For example, if your character is very attractive, are other people kinder to them because of it, or have they often encountered jealousy? If they have a disability, how have they adapted to this, and how do they feel about it - not just on the surface, but deep inside?
  • How have these traits affected the development of the character. If the character has encountered special treatment due to their beauty, does this make them big-headed, or so ashamed that they play down their appearance? If they have suffered abuse or neglect due to a disfigurement or unusual appearance has that made them bitter, or defiant, or forced them to develop a profoundly distant or compassionate attitude?
Quite often your first thoughts about a character's physicality will unconsciously lead you to create a cast of characters who are very like you, or who resemble the characters you have read about and seen on TV and in films. Many writers never question this, which is why, especially in Fantasy and SF, the majority of characters are white, subscribe to traditional gender roles, and don't suffer with any significant disability or disfigurement.

When you realise this, you might feel tempted to add token characters, like a fiesty black, gay or disabled best friend, whose background and experiences don't really have much impact on the story of the main character. Resist this urge. Instead, try to open your mind to the stories of the vast variety of real human experience. Have the courage to imagine a life, a culture, a world utterly different than yours. Allow unique and different perspectives to inform your world and plot. You'll write richer, truer and more interesting stories.

2. Who are they?

These are usually the second details that will come out about a character:
  • Name. Again, be aware of reader reactions - people will instinctively feel differently about an Augustus than they do about a Billy, or even a Jenny vs a Genevieve. Nicknames, or the refusal to accept nicknames, are a good way to show how a person reacts to their own name. I personally own many baby-name books, and use Behind the Name, because I like to pick names according to their meanings. In The Swan Kingdom, everyone's names have hidden meanings - for example, Branwen is the name of a doomed queen in Welsh mythology.
  • Age. This one is self explanatory, I think! For children's and YA you need to make sure that at least the main character is a child or young person, just because publishers will give you a hard time otherwise.
  • Occupation. What they do for a living or with most of their time. The eighteen year old character who left school at thirteen to work at a garage is a different person than the eighteen year old who is doing a degree at a prestigious university is different to the eighteen year old who never went to school at all and herds camels for his father in the desert. I love to incorporate the unique skills and strengths brought about by a character's occupation into their story, and give them a chance to shine.

But of course, who they are is more than these details. Are they impulsive or cautious? Loud or quiet? Vibrant and well-liked or introverted and a little lonely? Kind? Sadistic? Misunderstood? These details aren't as easily established in a book, even once you yourself are sure who the character is. Characters display these traits through their actions and dialogue. You can establish who a character is with a big splashy display on their first appearance, but this can also work against you - if they make a big impression of being a jerk you'll need to work overtime to change readers (as well as the other characters) minds.

People don't always act according to their natural inclinations either. A kind, loving girl could become hardened and ruthless in her quest for revenge - but she will still chose to go about that quest in a different way than a naturally sadistic person (not necessarily a kinder way, just a different way). A naturally quiet person may force themselves to act outgoing to hide their vulnerabilities, but their speech and actions will be different to a naturally outgoing person's speech and actions. They might go to far and risk being called a bully in their quest to seem confident. Again, over the course of a book, it's your job to show readers who the character REALLY is, not just who they seem to be.

3. What do they want?

This is where we start getting down to the real crux of a character, the stuff that will affect the course of the story the most. Your first instinct here might be to state what they want materially. For example, in The Swan Kingdom, you might say 'Alexandra wants her brothers back and to save her Kingdom from her stepmother'. But that's only the most obvious answer, and if you stick to that, you will find it hard to get to know your character really well.

Ask yourself: WHY does my character want this, this particular thing, more than anything else? Why is Alexandra so desperate to find and save her brothers, even if it means horrible pain and sacrifice? That's an easy question - because she loves them and misses them. But why is she so determined to save a Kingdom that was never really hers, even if it means facing her most deadly enemy? Why doesn't she, like the heroine in the original fairytale, leave her past and her father's land behind and dedicate herself only to freeing her brothers? There are a million possibilities as to what desires and instincts might drive your character to make the choices they do, to have the priorities they do. Go deeper. Figure out what drives your character at the core.

For Alexandra, WHO SHE IS - her deep loyalty to her family and her sense of responsibility - drive her on her quest. But underlying those traits is a deeper need: a need to get back what was taken from her. What Alexandra wants more than anything is to go home again. Alexandra wants this enough that she is willing to risk anything to accomplish it, despite her general lack of confidence and the fact that she isn't sure she can ever defeat the evil Zella.

Find out what your character truly wants, deep down, more than anything, and you're well on the way to knowing them.

4. How do they go about getting what they want?

This intersects with all the traits and characteristics you've already laid down - but it takes them further.

Remember, we're talking about what the characters want deep down at the well of their soul. Now, for some people, they might go about getting a takeaway chicken sandwich in exactly the same way as they go about getting their heart's desire. For others though, when faced with achieving or losing something important, they sometimes start to act in ways which go against their normal behaviour and even against their own best interests.

A person who has always seemed easy-going and even a little weak might display an unexpected backbone of steel when faced with losing someone they love. This could be great - or the new stubbornness could endanger their beloved. A cool, calm and collected person could completely go to pieces when she thinks she might be publically humilated. This could cause the character threatening her to rejoice - or feel unexpected pity. Thus, the course of the story would be changed.

Both these reactions would be linked not only to the character's deepest desire - WHAT THEY WANT - but also to their surface traits - WHAT ARE THEY LIKE PHYSICALLY - and their life experiences, instincts, and deepest characteristics - WHO THEY ARE.

How a character goes about getting what they deeply and desperately desire tells the reader - and you - everything about them. If you know that your character is a person with no confidence, who is normally crippled by self-doubt and fear, who is young and not physically very strong but who does have excellent healing skills and wildcraft, and that they will do anything to get home again, working towards that goal with utter dedication and disregard for their own suddenly know everything you need to know to tell their story. Plot becomes character, the events of your story revealing new layers to the character with each twist and turn of the story.

And that is how I go about building characters. I ask myself:

1. What are they like physically?
2. Who are they?
3. What do they want?
4. How do they go about getting it?

At the end of that process I still may not know everything is there is know about the character. For example, lately I realised that a character of mind was a complete neat freak - but this didn't come out of the blue. It came from knowing about how his physical appearance affected his childhood, which formed who he is, what he wants and how he goes about getting it. It's amazing how often 'inspiration'
is exactly the same thing as 'working really hard'! 

How do you guys go about building characters?


Vivienne said...

I shall be keeping this post open today, as I need to make my characters more indepth. Thank you for you wonderful words of wisdom. BTW you have very neat handwriting!

Zoë Marriott said...

Glad to have been useful! I should point out that my handwriting is always neat when I do character profiles because that's right at the beginning of the notebook. By the time I'm a third of the way in, and I'm scribbling notes for the next chapter, desperately trying to capture some inspiration, my scrawl needs to be seen to be believed!

Isabel said...

Great post! This method is a great way to get the "big picture" of the characters in your story, instead of just making a list of traits. Definitely far more helpful. And it certainly seems to work for you! ;)

And I agree with Vivienne. Your handwriting is very pretty. :)

Zoë Marriott said...

That's right. Certain fine details, for me, are always going to come in the process of writing, and things will always change. But getting a firm grip on the big picture before I start hopefully helps me to keep wasted words to a minimum.

My teachers would laugh if they could hear these compliments to my handwriting. I was always getting told off in school for having terrible writing!

Elise said...

Sounds like great fun! Character development is my favorite part of story building. :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Me too! That and world-building. It's alway the plotting that causes me to want to rip out my hair.

Isabel said...

I agree. I hate plotting.

Wow, that's hard to believe, bad handwriting! It's very nice now. I wish I had such pretty handwriting.

Zoë Marriott said...

I still always compare my writing to my mother and sister's, and both of them have such a beautiful copperplate style that mine seems terribly scrappy.

Elise said...

I apologize for posting a completely unrelated comment, but...
I was browsing through your archives when I saw that you are an Imogen Heap fan, which is funny 'cause, a year and a half ago (a little more actually) neither I nor most people I knew had ever heard of Imogen Heap, until it was announced that our marching band show would be "Have You Got It In You?" which led to about two hundred nerdy band kids from Texas having "Hide and Seek" memorized within a month. (I exaggerate slightly.) I find the coincidence humorous. :) You can check out our show by searching "Reagan Band Have You Got In It You?" on YouTube. I promise it's way cooler than you'd expect marching band to be. (although the sound on the recording is a little wonky, and this year's show[RE-] was way cooler, but that is neither here nor there.)
I apologize for this shameless promotion; being a confirmed band geek, I think everything about our band is awesome and feel the compulsion to tell anyone about it whenever the opportunity arises. We're all like this, it can't be helped.

Zoë Marriott said...

Ha ha - that's fine, Elise. I'll make sure to Google that when I have a spare minute - I'm sure it *is* awesome.

Anonymous said...

Great post! And I laughed when I saw your handwriting because I can hardly read my own in notebooks. Inspiring post all the way around.

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks - I guess with all these compliments it turns our my handwriting really IS neat. What a shocker...

Isabel said...

199 followers! I just convinced Sadie to become a public follower -- just one more to go!!!

Isabel said...

200 FOLLOWERS!!! Okay, Zoe, we've been waiting for months -- go make that video!!!

Zoë Marriott said...

Well &@%$! I suppose I'd better figure our what to sing then. I don't even know any blues songs...

Isabel said...

LOL well I don't either, sorry! Go look some up on YouTube and pick the one that would be the least embarrassing. XD Looking forward to the video!!!!

Isabel said...

I've finished chapter eight! Huzzah! Plus I've hit 15000 words.

Zoë Marriott said...

Well done.

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