June 9th, 2008

A Pocket Full of Murder

Finding the heart of a character

I've seen a lot of discussion about how to generate and flesh out new characters for books, and I've dutifully worked my way through a variety of questionnaires designed to help me get to know my fledgling heroes and heroines better. Which seemed like a good idea in principle, but in practice turned out to not especially helpful, at least for me.

However, Editor Extraordinaire Cheryl Klein has a nifty Create-a-Character exercise, based on a workshop she just gave at an SCBWI conference, which incorporates not just the external "What does your character look like / Where does he or she live" questions I'm used to seeing, but also poses some questions related to the character's internal life and place in the narrative that look really fascinating and useful. In particular:

1. Desire: What the character wants

2. Attitude/Energy: The attitude the character brings to the situation in which s/he finds him- or herself

3. Action: What they will do within the novel; the result of Desire plus Attitude

To me, those questions of desire, attitude and action are the really crucial ones in the formation of a character, not whether said character's hair is brown or black or what their favorite food might be. Of course the smaller details are important to making a character fully real, but they can always be added in later; whereas the questions of Action are the ones that actually determine the shape and character of the whole story, and if you get those wrong you may end up not really having a good story at all. Think of all the manuscripts that get rejected not because they're poorly written in terms of mechanics, but because the MC seems to have no clear goal or desire, or because they fail to take any action to push the story forward.

Anyway, the whole post/questionnaire is worth reading, so check it out.

What about you? What techniques have you found useful in developing characters for your writing? Or if you're a reader rather than a writer, what makes a character "real" to you?