Monday, November 26, 2012
Your Characters - Get to Know Them!
Do you talk to your characters? Really get to know them? You should.
Keith Kreager stops by with a very interesting take on knowing your characters.
How well do you know your characters?
I bumped into Chloe Horton the other day when I was picking up a plunger at CVS. Chloe is one of the main characters from my soon-to-be-finished novel, and she looked exactly as I thought she would: maybe five feet tall, long, brown dreadlocks, big, green eyes. She wore a backwards DC cap and had a couple Mountain Dews tucked under her arm. I got a quick whiff of cigarettes and perspiration as she passed.
“Chloe,” I said, “it is so nice to meet you.”
“Hey,” she replied. (I knew she would say that.)
“I’m so sorry for all the stuff I’ve put you through. I know I’ve been kind of tough on you at times.”
She shrugged and set her sodas down. She eyed the cigarette display behind the counter and then counted the change in her hand.
“Listen,” I said, “can I maybe take you to lunch? I want to thank you for all you’ve done, and I’m just so tickled that we bumped into each other. Do you like Mexican?”
She gave a wad of coins to the cashier and gathered up her Mountain Dews. “I don’t know,” she said finally. “You never told me.”
I didn’t really meet Chloe at the drug store, nor did I buy a plunger. I did, however, realize that there is quite a bit I don’t know about her. Does she enjoy Mexican food? What is her favorite color? Does she own a dog? Maybe a more important question: do these types of details matter?
I tend to be a very functional writer, almost too functional at times. Characters are tools, I would tell myself, and their purpose is to advance the plot. While there is some truth in these words, I have discovered the hard way that characters are much more than tools. Their words, actions, and characteristics move the story along, but those characteristics must be interesting and real.
I’ve been working on my book for a little over three years, and I thought I was close to finishing. Two of my sisters-in-law read it last summer, and each gave me similar feedback: I like the plot, I like the way things move, but I feel like I don’t know your characters. WHAT?!
After I un-friended them both on Facebook (I grudgingly added them back a few days later), I sat down and thought about my characters. My readers don’t know them. How well do I know them? Are they people, with lives and problems, or are they a bunch of cardboard cutouts?
My challenge was to give my characters some depth, put a little flesh on their bones. So…just add a few random characteristics, maybe? Chloe wears Channel No. 5 and is engaged to a British prince. She and her family hunt bison, sell the meat, and donate the proceeds to PETA. Is that enough? Do these details make sense? Who should I ask?
I did some searches and found an interesting article by Tina Morgan. If you want to know your characters better, she said, then you should talk to them. Interview your characters, and find out what makes them unique.
The first step is to answer some background questions about each character. Next, go through a series of probing interview questions with them. Finally, compare the answers with what you already know. Are the answers consistent with their personality? Did the interview reveal some things you didn’t know?
Here is part of my interview with Chloe:
Where do I find this person when the interview begins?
I find Chloe at a skateboard park in suburban Detroit. She is wearing a GreenDay t-shirt that is ripped in a few places, and she smells like the perfume counter at Macy’s. She kicks the end of her board and catches it in her left hand.
Do you like your job? Why or why not?
“It’s OK, I guess. I work at The Bean Press in Ann Arbor, but I’d rather be outside, skating.
“I get to drink a lot of coffee, which I like, but sometimes it gets pretty busy and there are lots of things to do. Too much to do. I like seeing the people, though. That’s my favorite part. There’s the morning regulars – older guys, mostly, and then the younger crowd comes in after school. The old guys are nice. Most of them tell me I should ‘fix’ my hair. I just smile and tell them that I’ll think about it.”
What is your idea of success?
“Just getting through the day, you know? My parents, we never talked about college or anything like that. My dad…he doesn’t like me much, and my mom does whatever he says. I’d like to go to college someday, I guess. I don’t know if that would make me successful, though. I don’t think about the future very much. Having a place to sleep every night is success in my book.”
What do you hate?
(Eyes well with tears.) “I…hate that my dad…doesn’t accept me. I’m a lesbian. Not sure if I mentioned that before, and he just…can’t accept that. He wants me to…be different, you know? Not be myself. I just wish that he…could love me. Not even for who I am, but just love me.”
What do you do in your spare time?
(Wipes her eyes and laughs.) “Skate! My friends and I spend every day in the summer at the skate park. I love it! I love being outside, picking up speed. I like going to concerts and clubs sometimes, too, but this is what I love to do.”
What did you have for breakfast?
“Um…I think I had some toast. Bread, really. The toaster is broken. Some coffee. I took a few beans from work. That really got me going today.”
These questions helped me to gain some good ‘Chloe insights’. I knew quite a bit already:
- She works at a coffee house.
- She loves skateboarding.
- She lives a very ‘day-to-day’ existence.
Some of the more subtle stuff did not occur to me at first, though.
- Chloe is a very sensitive, perceptive person, and there are times she almost knows what people are thinking. This characteristic is very important, and I use this to advance the story.
- She can be shy, and in spite of her memorable appearance, she sometimes disappears in a crowd. I use this as a baseline for Chloe, and I then move her through some changes throughout the story.
- She survives by avoiding conflict. Whether the regulars at the coffee house are making snide comments about her hair, or she’s dealing with her overbearing father, Chloe survives by not making waves. This skill has served her well, although it has also been a barrier to intimacy. This changes when she meets Maria.
I’ve interviewed most of my main characters, and this has really helped me to gain some important insights. The trick now is to weave this newfound depth into the story in a meaningful way.
If you would like to find out more about the character interviewing process, please visit the Fiction Factor website. A link is below.
Chloe and I went our separate ways a few minutes later. Being the enabler that I am, I loaned her a few dollars for cigarettes, along with my Visa card and the keys to my wife’s new Ford Focus. As Chloe drove away, I told myself that we would meet again. I’ll make sure to ask her about Mexican food next time, and I’m positive she’ll know the answer.
A little about me:
When I’m not writing or spending time with my family, I play video games like a fiend. Time permitting, I go to the office and keep the email flowing. I’m a big fan of Google +, I got married on Halloween, and I can still play “Stairway to Heaven” on the guitar.