Getting into Character

Getting into Character

Have you ever wondered about how authors come up with characters? I’m sure every author has their own process, but I can guarantee you, it is similar to making new friends. In the beginning, you don’t really know much about them. Sometimes you’ll have a name, sometimes not. The same goes for descriptions, personalities, jobs, etc. They are just this person that is sort of an enigma, and it takes work to get to know them.

 

While I struggle to make friends with people existing outside of fiction–I can’t say real people because my fiction characters DO become real to me–I always get very excited when it comes time to meet my newest characters. I thought it might be fun to take you through a little bit of my process as I get to know a character I’m developing for a short story. At this point, I know VERY little about my character. I’ve already brainstormed a few ideas with my critique partner, but Harriet is still very flat on the paper.

 

What I do know:

Harriet Carmichael is a bit of an outsider to the upper-class society in which her family partakes. She goes beyond avid gardener to more of the botanist level, and she relates better to the plants than people. In fact, most people find her odd even though gardening was a perfectly acceptable hobby for upper-class women of the time.

 

She is forced to attend the Christmas party of a woman who is skilled at double-edged compliments and making Harriet feel even more insignificant than before. However, while at this party, she receives a note or a gift (not sure which yet) from a secret admirer. No matter how much she wishes it were true, she can’t believe its authenticity. However, something happens (again, don’t know what yet) will send her on a hunt to discover the true identity of the letter writer. Was it another cruel joke of the woman, or had someone really seen her and wanted to get to know her better?

 

That’s it, that’s all I really know right now, but I’m really excited about writing this brief story. Depending on how it turns out, it may be my Christmas gift to my newsletter subscribers. But I digress…

 

After attending the Online Character Summit this weekend, I am determined to take some of what I have learned and carve Harriet into a deeper more human character that we can all relate to on some level. So here we go:


Getting to Know Harriet

 

This portrait by George Clausen is how I physically envision Harriet at the moment. She’s nothing extraordinary, and her clothes are rather dull. She tends to wear browns in order to disguise her constant work in the soil. From here, it becomes sort of an interview process.

 

Me: So Harriet, who are you? Why do you feel you that you don’t fit in? It can’t just be your love of plants.

 

Harriet (rubbing hands together and then tucking them behind her when she finds dirt under her nails): I don’t really know much about people, and honestly, I don’t understand them. People are unpredictable. Plants follow certain rules, I know what they need to coax them into vibrancy, which ones to pair together, and which ones to plant in order to entice or repel certain insects or animals. I love being able to create and work within God’s creation. Plants are exactly what they are supposed to be. People? Not so much.

 

It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s that I don’t know what to make of them. Some are genuinely who they appear to be, others opposite from what they present to the world. I have a few friends, but mostly, I am uncomfortable around people. I don’t know what to say. I don’t enjoy the same things as my peers.

 

I like books about gardening, plant life, and even scientific articles about altering plants to be more sturdy against the elements. Miss Austen, Mr. Dickens, and the such leave me baffled. I can play cards, play piano, and embroider as required, but why would anyone want to do those when you can be outside? In fact, I hate winter. I spend most of it planning my next garden or tinkering in the greenhouse/conservatory. The best days are the days I can go to the university and work in the botany department (need to check that was a thing then).

Oh, thought! Have her compare different people/personalities to different types of plants!


 

And so it will go for a few days. Harriet and I will be having some deep conversations and some lighter-hearted ones. What are the things she likes? The things she fears? What does she want more than anything? What does she believe about herself? What does she need to learn? etc. These are hard questions to draw out, but I love the excitement of it.

 

Just so you don’t think Harriet is fully developed before I put words on paper, this initial examination is rarely what she ends up looking like as I actually write. Harriet will grow and define herself, shedding some of the things I thought we decided in the beginning. She will develop her own voice and become a real person. Even scarier, she will start making her own decisions and direct my story in ways I never envisioned.

 

I hope you enjoyed a little sneak peek of my process in developing characters, now I really am going to get off here and dive into uninterrupted conversation with Harriet. I’m starting to get caught up on reading, so look for more steady book reviews in the coming months. 🙂

 

Do you like gardening? What things do you think Harriet will need in order to rightly portray someone who loves plants, maybe even more than people?

 

 

WCW: Creating Well-Rounded Characters – Dark Moment Stories

Characters are more than just the sum of their actions.  In the previous weeks, I discussed character archetypes and negative/positive personality traits, but all of these really just boil down to actions. So what more do you need to create a living, breathing, well-rounded character?

 

storyequationTo give your characters the breath of life, you need to give them a past full of good and bad experiences, even though their full back story will never be revealed to the reader. Susie May Warren does a fantastic job of explaining how she does this in her book The Story Equation (SEQ), and I highly recommend getting it. For the meantime, here is the basic process derived from her SEQ.

 

Developing Character History

Your character is who they are when they walk on the page due to their histories. As an author, it would be impossible create a comprehensive life story for your character from birth to the time they walk on the page. Many of those details are not important.

 
woman-1006100_640.jpgThe important details of our lives are those life-altering parts. Those moments in time that end up wounding you, burying a lie deep into your heart, and creating fears. Susie May Warren calls these Dark Moment Stories.

 

Dark Moment Stories

These dark moment stories aren’t as vague as “my parents divorced.” As bad as divorce is, moments within the divorce will be what really shaped the experience of your character. They are the stories that can be retold in detail to another character.

 

 

For example, take a story of a four-year-old boy whose father walked out on him. That memory is so painful, so poignant it becomes immortalized in the mind, twisting and growing roots down to the soul.

 

He can remember his Dad loading up the car, ignoring the son as he followed behind asking questions.

“Daddy, where are you going?”pain-1164308_640.jpg

“Can I go, Daddy?”

“Why is Mommy crying?”

“Can I help?”

Then it happened. Dad closed the door, separating the boy from him forever. The boy runs to the window and watches as the car putters off into the distance without one backward glance from the driver.

 

Imagine the wound developed by that. What fears would develop from that experience? The fear of abandonment. The fear of being unworthy. The fear of being out of control.

 

Lies will develop from this experience. I’ll never be good enough. I am unlovable. I can’t trust people. People I love will always end up leaving.

 

These lies and fears developed from the wound determine the actions of our characters and make them believable. The wounding story is what makes us sympathize the character and even connect with the character. You don’t have to have your father abandon you to understand the feeling of abandonment.

 

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Bringing your characters to life means giving them experiences that readers can connect to and identify with. Give them experiences that define who they are at the beginning, but are overcome and redefined at the end.

 

Exercise Your Brain

This week, come up with your own dark moment story for a character (or use a real experience, we’ll never know!). Then tell us the possible lies and fears developed from that dark moment story.  Come back and encourage one another and comment on the different stories.

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