Monday, June 21, 2010

Who is your character? (How We Write.)

Here’s a secret: I don’t have a clue what Virginia Kate’s favorite flavor of ice cream is. If I thought about it, maybe I’d have her go into the ice cream parlor and she’d step up to the counter and she’d order a . . . *kat thinks* . . . chocolate dipped cone. There. She doesn’t like pistachio like I do. She’d eat strawberry, though, yeah; we both like strawberry with real chunks of strawberries in there.

Sometimes authors make detailed “character sketches.” They know their characters so well, up to the minutetednest detail—their favorite foods, their favorite movies, how they look from the top of their head to the souls of their feet—every detail about their physical appearance. They know every like and dislike, every nuance, every place the character has been or worked or gone to school, etc etc etc.

When I first began writing fiction, I thought there was This Way I was supposed to write and think and do and be, and if I wasn’t This Way, then I wasn’t a Real Writer. I might as well have put thick gloves on my hands and tried to write that way. For thinking “what we are supposed to do” versus “what is comfortable and real and instinctual” for us creates boundaries where there should be free space.

For me personally, when it comes to character, I learned I have to discover my character(s) as I write, and even in that discovering, just as it is with meeting real people, I never know every detail about them, and may never ever know every detail. Even now, with two Virginia Kate (Graces) books written, I am still discovering who Virginia Kate is. If I have an ice cream scene, that’s when I find out what flavor she chooses and likes (chocolate dipped cone or Strawberry! Now I know!). Maybe she’ll talk about her favorite movie and then again, maybe she doesn't have one or doesn't know herself or doesn't care. I know she loves books, and has a special place for her Black Stallion and Black Beauty books, but what does she read as an adult? Well, I don’t know yet. She hasn’t had time to read because she’s going through her families’ archives (their letters, journals, photos) and storytelling their lives.

Writers love to give advice—heck, that’s what I’m doing here. We do it because we want to tell you “it’s all okay; really!;” we want to support you and help you; we want to give you guidance; we want to perhaps make things a bit easier on you where we had to muddle our way through; and we want to talk about the craft, the language, because it is important to us and we love it so.

How you write; how the process is for you is an individual decision. If you like to discover your character as you go along, or if you like to write detailed character descriptions, or somewhere in between—who can tell you/us which is “right or wrong” because no way is “right or wrong.” If you read how a writer does his or her thing and then you try to duplicate that and in that trying to duplicate you hit wall after wall—your character becomes wooden, or doesn’t seem real to you, or something just isn’t right about this character dang it all!—then take off the gloves and feel the flexing of your own fingers, the feel of the keys, the freedom of ungloved hands.


Janna Qualman said...

I've got to remember this. With my WIP's revisions lately, I've been feeling constricted. I need to just lose myself to it, and trust the process.

Thanks, Kat.

Teresa said...

I love this! I think we're all so different in how we write and to me that is what makes the whole process so wonderful. I can't write like Kat, because I tend to lose the thread of my story. I need a more structured approach, but I'm finding it's easier to do as I practice.

I like giving and receiving advice on how to do things differently and love trying new methods. If it doesn't work for me, then I move on to something different.

There is something interesting I'm finding about my second novel, which is in first person and that's my MC's voice feels more natural to me. I'm connecting with him very quickly.

So I think different novels also take different approaches. Thanks, Kat!

Judith Mercado said...

I used to develop those in-depth a priori descriptions and, guess what, the resulting novel never got past page 100. Now I start out with a pretty good idea of a novel's character(s) and their issue(s) needing resolution. Then as the characters come to life, I keep track of the details that arise so that I can at least keep the characters consistent throughout. It's more fun writing this way. It's like I'm reading my novel as I'm writing it. I can't wait to find out how these characters resolve their inciting issue.

Analisa said...

I was thinking on this today in a way. Remember the old tv show Bewitched? Well there came a time when Samatha started wearing this pretty heart pendant. She wore it all the time no matter what.I noticed as a kid. They never said why, but in real life it was given to the actress playing her, Elizabeth Montgomery. She decided to wear it all the time even when she was filming the show. It reminded me that we don't have to explain or know everything about a character. They also had this big candlestick like in the Jewish temple on their hall table. I wondered about that too. :)

Petula said...

I'm so glad I stumbled over from Diane Estrella and saw this post. This is probably one of the main things that has held up novels I have started, stopped and started again. Once I tried laying out all the details of the characters - that didn't work. Then I tried writing down the details as I learned the characters - that irritated me. Since then I haven't come up with a new way. I have two manuscripts where I am, what I call, halfway complete and I can't get past that point.

It's so frustrating. But, besides a writer's block or fear or whatever it is, I am glad to get support in not doing it a "right" way. Fabulous!

So glad to meet you. Excellent post. Thanks.

Karen said...

Oh, good advice. I took a fiction class last year taught by two writers. Each shared her particular way of writing. Both were right, yet both were different. Made me feel okay, just like your post. :)

Donna M. Kohlstrom said...

I'm with you on this one!

I like it when the characters develop along with the story in the books I read and in what I write.

I also like it when the reader has the room to "see" the character from their perspective from the descriptions and not be told for pages upon pages of details from how long their fingernails are to if there's gum on the bottom of their eight year old sneakers!

Ellie said...

Wonderful advice. Thanks for posting at my blog.

I need to remember what you said there and this post. Which is one of the harder parts I think.

I, too, have thought based on different things I've read on writing that I should have detailed character sketches to where I know every like, dislike, and birth mark they have. That I should have my chapters and scenes, locations and all the players sketched out in detail. And all I'm finding is that puts me in a very small, tight box. I can't write like that. I've also been told by a lot of people that read a sample of my WiP that I need to show not tell. BUT...if it's my WiP and I'm just trying to get the story down and out of my head does that really matter? That can be fixed in editing, or so I would think.

I think it's time I dusted off my WiP, pulled myself out of the box and just work on it. Anything that needs fixing can be dealt with after it's done.

Thanks again *hugs!*