Thursday, August 28, 2008

Does It Have To Be That Hard?

I recently saw an online discussion about the process of building your character. It was suggested by one writer that a stagnate storyline, or lost motivation, implies you've not learned your character well enough. Likewise, a non-fiction book about writing mentions doing a full write up on your characters; that to really understand who you're writing about, you have to get in their head, know every facet of their personality, history, future.

Does it really have to be that hard?

I've never been one for structured outlines, so it goes without saying that I don't lay my characters out on paper before I begin my WIP. Oh, I sort of do it in my head, create their appearance and general state of being. But I "see" my characters so clearly, sometimes (okay, most often) because they're based on people in my life, that their personalities, their mannerisms, how they behave in certain situations, play out in my mind's eye. I don't have to refer to notes or files to understand them.

My goal with this post isn't to say "Look at me, I have it easy" or to knock other writers' habits. I'm just wondering why the perception is that a character has to be so thoroughly sketched out before one can begin. Yes, I get that if your course isn't planned out you may well get lost. But is it a crucial technique for virtually every writer? We all know each writer is different, with varying habits and methods. Our techniques may at times overlap, but who's to say we have to follow the same unwritten rules?

What about you? What's your method for building characters?

And do you think writers make things harder for themselves?


Melissa Amateis said...

I am a very firm believer that what works for one writer may not work for another. Some of us have hugs character biographies or make detailed lists or plot out every scene. And some of us don't. Yet each method works for that person.

I think it's perfectly ok to NOT follow the unwritten rules. There are really no hard and fast rules. Even punctuation and grammar can be changed if the story calls for it (and if you can really pull it off!).

When I create characters, I like to write down certain things about them - but filling out all those character charts can be daunting. So I've created my own system, I guess. I definitely have to have their GMC's in place (goals, motivations, conflicts) otherwise, I can't move forward.

Melissa Amateis said...

Ok, that should be "huge" and not "hugs"! hahaha

Janna Leadbetter said...

Yes, I was trying to figure out how hugs fit into the equation. ;)

Thanks for your input, Melissa. I couldn't agree with you more.

colbymarshall said...

Well, I've done both- I've written some stories where I've made thorough profiles for the characters, but often that's just so that I don't forget anything I might fleetingly mention (like a birthday or something). Other times, I just write and go with it. I always feel like I know my characters well without the profiling, but the profiling is just more so I have a record of little details just in case I forget.

Janna Leadbetter said...

Sure, I can see the relevance in that. I make occasional "notes," too, like you said, so as not to forget a pertinent detail.

Joanne said...

I like to have a decent profile of my character b/c then I incorporate those traits/interests in the way the char expresses herself thruout the story. It's almost a way of coloring in the character.

Janna Leadbetter said...

Interesting, Joanne! I love how our techniques can be so different, yet we're each able to put out works of quality.

Terri Tiffany said...

I guess my character grows as I go. I have a general idea and then I am surprised as he or she takes shape as I write! We each use what works for us, I think!

WendyCinNYC said...

I spend a lot of time getting to know each of my main characters before I get too far in the story. For me, it makes the writing much more controlled.

If I don't take the time to do this, then my characters all sort to sound like me and have the same reactions to things that I would.

And I'm really not that interesting.

Angie Ledbetter said...

Write/right on, Janna! Blow up the "rules" when they don't apply to or fit you. Every writer knows when he/she is in the groove with a WIP. Personally, I did a basic outline for chapter & plot structure, and like you, my characters are heavily based on real people (or combos of people), so I knew them inside and out without having to lay it out on paper first.

Whatever works!

WendyCinNYC said...

I should add that I do agree with the "whatever works for you" sentiment. Thinking about characters beforehand works for me, but it might block the flow for others.

Barbara Martin said...

I think up my main characters in my mind, coming up with characteristics and personalities gleaned from astrology signs with certain traits. With anyone's astrological sign, there are other factors such as rising sign which compliments the sun sign, while providing conflicts.

For secondary characters, sometimes I keep a brief chart list if there are several, and need to keep a record of their interaction within the manuscript.

Nor do I outline per se, but have an idea for each of the four acts to cover. Once I outlined a story sequel and lost interest in it shortly thereafter. I had to scrap some of the ideas I came up with (put them aside) and by returning to the four acts idea was able to finish this manuscript.

Melanie Hooyenga said...

Janna, I've often thought the same thing, that it seems like a lot of extra work. Not meaning I don't want to put in the necessary effort, just that I don't think that step is something that would help me. My character notes consist of half a page with character names, plus a brief description of who they are, and that was mostly so I didn't duplicate names.

That being said, my story is about a man on a journey so most of the other characters are only present for a short period of time. My next (*gasp* next?) novel might require more analysis ahead of time.

Jen said...

Let me also add my dittos to "Do whatever works for you!"

That said, I've learned the hard way that for me, I have to know my characters as well as I can (though I don't do character charts, it's more like scribbled notes and a lot more in my head)because my stories tend to ultimately be about THEM more than the plot. For me, the plot is a means to an end, to reveal character, to see how they change, and so on.

Hopefully, not navel-gazing stuff, though! Because the plot DOES matter, absolutely. But that's where I'm coming from when I write, so that's why knowing my characters is so important for me and my "process", I guess. :)


Janna Leadbetter said...

Jen, it's great you've got your technique figured out. I think that's half the battle for us, really.