#AuthorToolbox 06: oh character! how thou meow?

Via: Daily Prompt – Loyal

 

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Image: Max Pixel

 

 

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Image: Tenor

In preparation for the new season of Supernatural, I was recently watching some of the casts’ Comic-Con videos on YouTube when this member of the audience got up and asked if Jensen Ackles ever falls into his character Dean when handling everyday situations such as, if his car was to be overtaken by another vehicle and he needed to vent his frustration, would he shout at the offender and say – ok, I can’t write that here. But the fan did a perfect imitation of Dean Winchester, from words to tone to pitch, that even Ackles had to praise it – though with startled bemusement. In any case, it got me to wondering, how well do we know the characters we write? How often do our characters reach that level of consistency and distinguishability where a reader would be able to immediately connect a dialogue or thought to a particular character? Because that, my friends, is where we know we’ve got it made.

 

Earlier this year, I blogged about what the writing voice is and how I discovered mine. In essence, to me, the writing voice is the culmination of one’s writing style and their purpose of writing. The same goes for the voices of the characters we develop. Who are the characters we write really and why are they even there? To reiterate the above, in order to ensure each of our characters have a distinct and consistent voice, we need to truly know them – know them the way we would know how a really close friend or relative will react to a situation and know them outside of ourselves so that the author’s voice does not overlap with the character’s.

Easier said than done but not impossible. Here’s how:

The Interview. To an outsider, it might seem totally nutty that an author hosts little tête-à-têtes with his/her characters but this is one of the most common advice I have received at any writing circle, official or among Twitter friends, whenever I stumbled across a block with a character. What better way to find out who your character is than to simply ask them, am I right? This, of course, would have been easier if the character in question (excuse the pun) wasn’t a figment of my imagination. But to make the process less convoluted, a good place to start asking questions is their opinion of other characters they interact within the story and the various issues they face. The various lookouts (list below), then, during such an interview would be to monitor the emotional intensity with which the character responds to each question, make notes of the nuances delivered, and then ask follow up questions based on the responses.

 

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Accept Them For Who They Are. Your questions answered, you must learn to not become judgmental by what you have discovered about your character. You may ask me, how can an author disapprove of the character he/she has created but I have seen this happen in works of others and have been guilty of it a few times myself. It is that moment in your story when you start to exposit on why a certain character behaves a certain way to distance yourself from that character – to show that this character is obviously not you and that you would never behave that way. Don’t do that. Remember, you are not in the story so your readers know better than to attribute your character’s flaws and fears on to you. More importantly, your character is the way they are because the traits they embrace are relevant to the plot as well as the relationship dynamics of your story. Let them be who they are, for authenticity’s sake. Also, if you do not remain faithful to your creation, no one else will.

 

Take Them Out For A Spin. If an interview does not do the trick, it’s time to really get crazy. Do a little exercise with your character such as having them over for company for a week and taking notes of how you imagine they would behave in everyday situations, positive and negative, that you face during that time. It will allow you to become accustomed to their reactions to the world and help you get into their mindset. You may crank it up by actually behaving like your character and then including in your notes how others respond to you as well. [Full disclosure, while actors do it all the time, I have to really bring out my inner prankster to get that wicked.] Alternatively, something simpler like having the character write a letter to you or another character in the story to see how they relate to others is also useful though perhaps not as stimulating.

Ok, I’m fresh out of techniques here, really. Truth be told, the interview method has been working well for me so far. On that note, here is the query form I have pieced together over time that seems to get me through to my characters (or is it, get my characters through to me):

  • What is the character’s mode of address? Formal or informal? Does the mannerism persist from their upbringing, education, or profession, etc.?
  • For that matter, what kind of education has the character received and how has this affected their level of intelligence and intellect, thought pattern and speech?
  • What is the character’s cultural background and what impact could it have on their vocabulary? Does it fall into a particular dialect? Does the character allow this vocabulary/dialect to show during their speech? If not, why not?
  • What is the character’s speech pattern? Do they use short or long sentences? Are the words they use vernacular or profound? Why?
  • How emphatic is the character? Do they emphasize on their words to prove their point?
  • Is the character cynical or naive, full of satire or respectful? How do they observe the world around them? How does it affect the way they speak? Are they gruff or humorous, edgy or laid back?
  • What is the character’s general disposition towards others? Is the character prone to profanities or graciousness?
  • How quick to response is the character? Does it make them naturally witty or aggressive?
  • Is there any maxim that the character lives by that affects their behavior? Or else, does the character resort to any catchphrase or verbal tics?

To wit, how the character thinks and behaves and speaks depends on who they are, for which the author needs to really sort out the attributes and backstory of the character. The character’s voice is very much also connected to the POV(s) used in the narrative and it is up to the author how much of the character’s voice they will allow to seep into the prose when writing from a certain character’s viewpoint. Whatever the decision, dialogue or action or thought, consistency and distinction is the key.

Before I leave off, I invite you to share any other method you use to find your character’s voice.

Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2Finally, a word on the Author Toolbox Blog Hop:
#AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event, hosted by the gracious Raimey Gallant, featuring various resources and learnings for authors written by authors. It is open to writers at all stages of their careers and the rules of sign-up are available in the overhead link. Also, if you are just interested in connecting with actual authors and see what they have got to say, the sign-up page has a list of participants to direct you to their pages. Happy reading and writing, fellow authors!

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  1. #1 by Louise@DragonspireUK on October 18, 2017 - 3:48 pm

    I’m a big fan of acting like my characters to try and sound them out. Only when I’m alone though, so I can pretend I’m talking to the supporting cast. It really helps me get into the characters heads!
    I’ll go through your checklist later for my NaNoWriMo characters, as character voices isn’t something I’ve considered yet. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • #2 by lupa08 on October 18, 2017 - 5:41 pm

      Welcome. Hope you find it useful 🙂

  2. #3 by miladyronel on October 18, 2017 - 5:44 pm

    I love chatting with my characters 😉 Thanks for sharing.

    • #4 by lupa08 on October 18, 2017 - 6:46 pm

      Thanks for reading 😊

  3. #5 by charityrau on October 18, 2017 - 6:13 pm

    Great questionnaire for characters! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • #6 by lupa08 on October 18, 2017 - 6:47 pm

      Hope it comes to your use.. Thanks for reading 😊

  4. #7 by donnagalanti on October 18, 2017 - 6:42 pm

    Great post! (any post is awesome with Dean in it – LOL!). And I am all about the characters myself. I can forgive a lacking plot if I love the characters.

    • #8 by lupa08 on October 18, 2017 - 6:49 pm

      Agreed! Dean does provide a solid to any post! And I’m partial to character-driven stories myself. Thanks for reading 😊

  5. #9 by lyndleloo on October 18, 2017 - 7:15 pm

    This are great tips Zaireen, I hadn’t thought about the possibility for over explaining our characters’ flaws as a personal defence, but I can totally see how we could end up doing that to distance ourselves from something we feel is too close to home. Also, I’m definitely rewatching Supernatural from the beginning all winter now! 😀

    • #10 by lupa08 on October 18, 2017 - 7:29 pm

      Glad I could provide some food for thought! Thanks for reading 😊
      I binge-watched all 12 seasons just a few months ago so I’m all set, lol.

  6. #11 by M.L. Keller on October 18, 2017 - 7:47 pm

    love the character interview. I often speak my character’s dialogue aloud as I’m writing. Fortunately, I’m usually alone when I do this. (usually)

    And thanks for the character questions. Great for getting the imagination rolling.

    • #12 by lupa08 on October 18, 2017 - 7:58 pm

      Welcome and thanks for reading! Hope you find them useful 🙂

  7. #13 by emaginette on October 18, 2017 - 8:23 pm

    I discover who my characters are in the first draft. Love the surprises that come with them. 🙂

    Anna from elements of emaginette

    • #14 by lupa08 on October 18, 2017 - 10:03 pm

      I love it when my characters flourish and become their own persons enough to surprise me as well 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  8. #15 by L.M. Durand on October 18, 2017 - 9:54 pm

    Sometimes, I create dialogues in my head with two characters just to make them more “real.” I feel like if I can’t host a dinner with a clear picture of all of them, then I need to work more on it. 😊 I love the concept of interview and it works. 😊

    • #16 by lupa08 on October 18, 2017 - 10:05 pm

      A dinner party for all my characters… Now there’s an idea I can on-board with. Thanks for reading 🙂

      • #17 by L.M. Durand on October 18, 2017 - 10:07 pm

        😋 Always a pleasure to read your blog!

      • #18 by lupa08 on October 18, 2017 - 11:49 pm

        Thank you 😊

  9. #19 by raimeygallant on October 19, 2017 - 12:27 am

    Character voice differentiation is one of the scariest parts of writing for me. I’m never certain I can make a voice unique, interesting, different from another POV character’s until I sit down and do it. The good news is that it is possible!

    • #20 by lupa08 on October 19, 2017 - 11:40 am

      Yes, precisely. In the first draft, to me, it seems all my characters sound the same and I keep wondering what had ever possessed me to believe that I’m any kind of a fiction writer – Austen would be embarrassed to have me as her idolator. It is only when I revisit my manuscript to edit that I am able to add the nuances to each character that bring out the differences in their speech and thought patterns. As you may imagine, the relief I feel in such moments, as I reclaim my faith in my craft, is profound :p

  10. #21 by jcurtis618 on October 19, 2017 - 2:25 am

    Hey, I love the idea of an interview. Actually I’ve done that with my characters and have turned the interviews into blog posts. That way my blog readers can read what the character has to say. Your questions are deeper than mine, getting more into the character’s background. Mine are often about the story. For example. what was it like being up in the mountains and experiencing a murder. Things like that.

    I think it’s helpful to talk to our characters and ask ourselves what would my character do in this situation. This kind of in-depth analysis of the characters is good for the protagonist/antagonist as well as secondary characters.

    Thanks for sharing such good ideas!

    • #22 by lupa08 on October 19, 2017 - 11:51 am

      Sharing the interviews with your characters sounds like great blogging materials. Please do share a link here so I can visit and learn what I may from your examples.

      I ask my characters questions pertaining to the plot and characters of the story they are in too. The query form I provided here was the questions I ask myself as I listen to my character’s responses during the interview. They act as a sort of behavior index for me to rely on while I draft the scenes so that I maintain the distinction in their speech and POV as I write along. Whereas the interview questions (these vary according to the story) I put forth to my characters tell me how they would behave in any situation.

  11. #23 by Mica Scotti Kole on October 19, 2017 - 4:24 am

    The thing that has always told me the most about my own characters is their dialogue. So the interview advice has always made sense – although I prefer just to write dialogue scenes to learn about them. However, I love love LOVE judging my characters! The fact that I even CAN judge them means that they are dimensional, so I think that’s a positive.

    • #24 by lupa08 on October 19, 2017 - 12:06 pm

      I suppose what you say is true, after a fact. If we are moved to judge our characters, that would mean they are different from us and therefore we have created varied characters – hence the dimensions.

      However, at the same time, judging my characters, I would feel, is as much a reflection of who I am as who they are.

      In any case, when I said to not become judgmental towards them, I meant rather to not over-expose our judgment of them in our fiction as the author. The current reader-trend shows that it is ideal if the author does not interfere too much in the narrative. Therefore, to explain away actions and mindsets of our characters of which we do not approve would be counterintuitive to the plot. I hope I’m making sense here.

  12. #25 by cherylsterling1955 on October 19, 2017 - 4:52 am

    It’s helpful if you have an avatar for each character. In Red Riding Hood and the Lone Wolfe, Rosewyn was based on a TV character, so I knew her mannerisms, how she spoke, etc. The writers and actress did all the research for me, and I added my own spin on her.

    • #26 by lupa08 on October 19, 2017 - 12:08 pm

      That is a great idea, thank you! Since we are so often inspired by the characters we see, it would make absolute sense to rely upon our inspirations as the prototype.

  13. #27 by Erika Beebe on October 19, 2017 - 5:47 am

    I do love your list. I currently have only done one character interview which I really enjoyed. Mostly I go through question and answer lists from a couple of different writing resources I love. Then i write onea scene from different perspectives so I can really stop and think about reactions, body language and dialogue. I love diving into characters. It’s so important. Great post today 🙂

    • #28 by lupa08 on October 19, 2017 - 12:13 pm

      Thank you 🙂
      Yes, I do that too – the play out the same scene from different POV, I mean. I did not think to add that here because I usually do that when I have difficulty deciding which POV would bring out the tension in a scene to its optimal light. I mentioned it in an earlier blog about the use of multiple POVs in storytelling. Glad you mentioned it in your comment as I can now see how it may also be useful to discovering character voices.

  14. #29 by Adam on October 19, 2017 - 8:44 am

    I’ve often wondered to what extent characters change an actor, or author.
    I definitely think all of my characters have their roots in some part of my own identity, but it’s interesting to wonder if they in turn actively change me as well.

    I think there’s a lot to be said for the interview technique, though I like to mix it up a little by putting two characters, preferably two who will never meet in the story, in a room, and have them strike up a conversation.
    Everyday situations is another personal favorite.
    Sometimes I just like to delve into relationships. How does Karyn’s mother perceive her? What about her father? Her friends? Her coach?
    Often I feel a need to know the character better than they know themselves, delving into the whys that lie buried deep within them.
    Sometimes I get so focused on exploring the character I have to remind myself that there’s a story waiting to be written.

    One of my current projects features a protagonist who thinks and acts in very assertive ways, until someone else engages them directly, then they become very bashful. It most certainly was not my intent, but for some reason whenever someone else takes them by the hand I find the character nervously submitting to the will of others. From a distance they can hate you with such passion, but once you say hello they can’t help but be polite. I don’t know why, but it feels right, and sometimes you have to just trust yourself, and your characters.

    • #30 by lupa08 on October 19, 2017 - 12:35 pm

      I, too, believe that our characters have the ability to help us evolve. After all, if something is our creation, then it serves to believe that a little of us resides in it. And the act of writing stories is such an enduring process, both in time and effort, that we are bound to evolve over its course and our characters with us, be it we change the character as we change or what we see of ourselves in the characters change us. Whatever the magnitude of this vector, what I can appreciate is that it is nice to have someone change along with us, however fictional they may be.

      Your current protagonist makes complete sense to me. I can see how a person may feel confident about a subject until they are put upon to explain their meaning. In fact, we authors are prone to second-guess ourselves even as we hold fast to the pretense of being creators of worlds (albeit in text only). In fact, I have met with people of such pseudo-extrovert nature who appear confident one moment and uncertain the next, simply because of the way they were approached. It may be a factor of their origin: an adult who always made them feel less than their capable self so that the very notion of an interrogation severes whatever confidence they initially possessed. But I must not put ideas into your head before you have discovered why your character is the way he/she is. I would love to see how it turns out 🙂

      • #31 by Adam on October 19, 2017 - 5:44 pm

        Thank you. It’s my hope to have it Ready for Glimmer Train by the end of this month, but once first publication has come and gone, I’ll be happy to share it on my site.

      • #32 by lupa08 on October 19, 2017 - 5:55 pm

        Lovely prospect. Happy to hear of it😃

      • #33 by Adam on October 19, 2017 - 6:04 pm

        Thank you. Here’s hoping they feel similarly after reading it. 😓

      • #34 by lupa08 on October 19, 2017 - 6:53 pm

        All the best 😃

  15. #35 by Katherine Barclay on October 19, 2017 - 10:47 am

    I’ve never had particularly good luck with interviews, but the questions you’ve got here have a different tone than anything I’m tried, so I’m looking forward to trying it out. And I’m not sure I’ve got the guts to go all-out on the invitation to crash on the couch for a week (my wife might think I’m nuts) but it’s also a concept I’m going to try to explore and see what comes of it.

    Myself, I’ve always enjoyed giving characters a chance to answer the daily or weekly writing memes you see on twitter. It’s surprising how often their responses catch me off guard.

    • #36 by lupa08 on October 19, 2017 - 12:45 pm

      I’m also a bit leery of people’s reactions to my having “imaginary friends” over for the sake of writing novels to go all out on this notion. For the most, so far, it has been to unpack my characters for a dialogue or two and then pack them away again. But one of these days I will conquer this!

      Using social media to help characters find their voices sounds very intriguing. I suppose it will give me an opportunity to note how others react to my character too, which should be useful. And definitely less intimidating than having them come out with me for a meeting at a coffee bar. Ah! the comfort of anonymity that social media brings… 🙂 Thank you for adding your idea!

  16. #37 by LHauser27 on October 20, 2017 - 6:33 am

    Hi! Interviewing a character is such a good idea. I created a reader profile to help the marketing effort for my debut and I’m using the same idea with my characters. I have all sorts of information about my characters that goes beyond the book. And I love it! Great post
    Leslie

    • #38 by lupa08 on October 20, 2017 - 12:43 pm

      Interviewing your characters as guests on your blog sounds like a great marketing concept. Don’t mind if I borrow it now and again 🙏

  17. #39 by jrusoloward on October 27, 2017 - 11:08 pm

    You had me at Dean! Lol! I spend a lot of time daydreaming about what my characters would do in a certain situation. I.m in the process of pulling together a spreadsheet about my characters with brief bios. The biggest problem is that for some of the characters, there is a lot of info!

    • #40 by lupa08 on October 27, 2017 - 11:38 pm

      Having Intel on your characters is key, isn’t it? One need not include everything in the story but knowing the characters better can only be a good thing to allow them to flourish on the pages.

  1. WRITING CHRONICLE #29: the art of conversing in fiction | The Romantic Quill

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