Friday, September 24, 2010

Writing Compelling Characters

Elana Johnson, Jen @unedited and Alex are having a Writing Compelling Characters Blogging Experiment today. Here's my little entry. 


No matter what genre a reader prefers to read--some want fast-paced action, others want a slower paced voyage, perhaps even a love story--but EVERY reader wants to care about the main character(s).


Compelling characters, I believe, are THE most important part of any story. Without rich, intriguing, believable characters, it doesn't matter what stunning plot or adventure the book may have in store for us. We won't be reading it.


I'm a very character driven writer (and reader) and as such I work hard to bring my characters to life. I want my readers to believe my characters are so real they could smell them, reach out and touch them. I want them to think about them and care about them long after the last page.


So how do I (try to) do this?


 I know this may be unusual, (or not?) but  my main characters usually come to me out of nowhere, fully formed. It is then up to me to get to know them and understand their journey and motivations. (A lot of my first draft is spent doing exactly that.)


Here is my basic process before starting a novel:


*First, I won't bother starting any process until a character has bugged/niggled/begged me to listen. If I find I can't get him/her/them out of my head and I'm genuinely interested in knowing more...then I know it's time to hang out with them.


*I sit with my notepad (yellow legal pad or spiral notebook) and we chat. I take notes. I ask them about their past and their favorite foods and movies. I ask them about their fears and regrets, their hopes and dreams. But, usually, they tell me to shut up and urge me to get to the story...they have a lot more important things to tell me and show me. Usually they grab me by the arm and say "hurry up, slowpoke, let's roll!". 


*This is when I KNOW I'll have to learn the basics about them and their character flaws and favorite movies etc., during the journey. Because now my laptop is open, a new document is open and I'm typing furiously, trying to keep up with their story.


This goes on until I come to the end and have completed a first draft: a beginning, middle and end. 
During this rough draft I have come to know my characters quite well and have the basics of what their story is about. I know how they dress and why. I know what they like to eat, and where they live and if they're tidy or a slob or somewhere in between. I know their friends. I know if they have any pets. I know their jobs, economic status and spending habits. In fact, I know most of their habits, good and bad, by the end of my first draft.


Then comes the HARD part... *sigh*...


*The second draft (the first round of revisions) is where my work really begins. This is where I hack at the cliches, the plot holes and, most importantly, fine tune the character's emotional arc.
Before I start on the second draft, I interview ALL the characters, get to know them better, deeper. I get invasive in the extreme. And I don't let them talk me out of it.


I go back to that notebook and do a thorough bio on EVERY character in the book. (which I can also use to make sure my story is consistent in future drafts) I want to know everything that makes them tick...their mommy/daddy-issues, what their childhood was like, do they have nightmares, did they ever wet their bed...everything. Deep stuff. Stuff that pisses them off. Stuff that they often try and lie to me about or at least underplay it. But, this too tells me a lot. Most of this won't make it into the book, but it helps me know how a characters would react in a given situation, what choices they would make. This Deep Bio helps me know why and how they came to be the person I have spent time with, their deep, dirty secrets. (which I may get to exploit later! He he!)


* Regarding names: I find this to be one of the most important components to my character. I cannot write the first word until I know, am sure of, my MCs names. There's a lot at stake with a name. We can tell a lot about a person by their name and any nicknames they go by. I work hard to get names right.


*Just because you now know every detail about a character and her surrounding, doesn't mean you have to bore your reader with every little detail. Less is more. The point of you taking the time to learn every detail about your character is to know their motivations, what makes them tick. 


*I love unique (but believable) characters with quirks and depth. These are the characters that I remember for years to come. 
(Who doesn't remember the neurotic, guilt-ridden, quirky reluctant hitman, Martin?)


*Flat, cliched characters stop me from reading no matter the promise of a fantastical plot. The hard-boiled, heavy drinking detective? Really? *yawn* The clumsy, shy, smart, high school student? *yawn* 


*When writing your character's emotions, make sure you SHOW us, not tell us. As readers, we want to feel them with your characters.


These are some of the ways I work to make my characters believable and memorable. (I didn't get into antagonists, but to be sure, the process is the same) 


Want to read everyone else's take on writing Compelling Characters? (YES!) Link here


What do YOU do to make your characters compelling, believable?


Love,
Lola



Edited to add: I'm sorry for all the typos! I wrote this post quick and hit 'publish', because I'd forgotten about the 'experiment'/non-blogfest. *blushes* *sigh* *hangs head in shame*

108 comments:

iZombie said...

Solid Advice... great post!
:)
Jeremy
[iZombie]

Mara Nash said...

I love quirky characters with unexpected characteristics. You're right...cliched characters are *yawn* inducing!

clp3333 said...

Love the Grosse Pointe Blank reference.

Kerri C at CK Farm said...

Lola GREAT post! I think a great character propells the story! If I don't care about a character by the end of the first chapter--ba bye book. I will keep reading if I like a character even if the plot is not interesting to me. Bottom line I'm a sucker for great characters lol!

Thanks for sharing! Ten blogs read and not one the same so far.

Jen said...

Loved this post! Very different from the others I've read but all the same it's still true! This blogging experiment has been a huge success, even though I have 130 more to visit. Oh well it was all worth setting up and joining forces with Elana & Alex!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I work out all the details about my characters first as well. The main characters need names before I write, but I confess, secondary characters don't come until much later.

Julie said...

Great post! Ah, Martin. **sighs** Now, you've done it. Gross Pointe Blank just went on the "What to Watch While I Make Fresh Cinnamon Rolls this Weekend" List.

Marty: I'm a professional killer.
Paul: Do you have to do postgraduate work for that?

Old Kitty said...

Great post, fab Lola!! Knowing your characters inside out, upside down and any which way but loose is a definite plus to writing in a less is more way - as you say, compelling characters!!
Oh and getting the names right - that's enough to give me a headache - but it must be the right name for the right character!

John Cusack - yum.

take care
x

Laurel said...

Great stuff here, Lola, especially tuning in to the deep stuff of character beyond the surface details. Like you, I also do tons upfront in developing the story people before I can delve into the story events.

Crystal Cook said...

Awesome post Lola! I love how you describe how you get to know your characters. I found out that that's a lot of what my first draft is, just getting to know my character. So your advice for the second draft was very helpful for me, cuz that's coming up for me :)

Shallee said...

Thanks for sharing your process! I find out a lot about my characters in a first draft, too. It's a lot of fun that way!

Tere Kirkland said...

LOL, love how you don't let your characters boss you around.

Thanks for telling us a little about how you roll. ;)

~Tere

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

I agree with you that the compelling characters are the ones that force you to write their stories!

Jaydee Morgan said...

Great post. I love the way you learn everything you can about your characters to truly bring them to life :)

Quinn said...

I'm right there with you in regards to names. I can't start writing until I have the character's name. A name is so much a part of a character. Great post!

C. N. Nevets said...

My brain works backwards of most people's. Most people are inductive. They pull the pieces together in order to understand (or create) the whole. For some reason, I'm deductive. I get an encompassing picture of the whole and then work through that to get at the pieces.

It wasn't really until I read your post here that I thought about how different that makes my approach to characters. If I started like you do, I would go absolutely nowhere. I have to start with the *snap of the fingers* big picture of the character and then work out all those other details through the story.

As a matter of fact, now that I think about it, that may very well be the entire point of my books. Hmm...

Thou hast provoked much great thought, Lola.

Meredith said...

Such good advice! I try to do character bios before my first draft, but they always change as I write, so doing the bio after that first draft as well is a good idea. I love digging into their pasts and discovering their secrets! Thanks!

Michelle McLean said...

Excellent post! And yes, the real work starts after the first draft doesn't it LOL I never realized that until I sat down and actually wrote a novel. Typing "The End" is really just the beginning :D

melissa said...

Great Advice. I sort of do the same thing, only instead of a notebook I use a spreadsheet because I'm a huge nerd like that.

I agree you need to know your character inside and out before anyone reading about him/her will be able to care.

Dawn said...

Awesome post. Thanks! My character resumes are fairly padded. I may not always know where my plot is going, but my characters are alive long before I put pen to paper.

Elana Johnson said...

Awesome process! I don't do this, like at all. In fact, it gives me hives to think this hard about my characters. Mine don't come fully formed, and I have no idea who they really are -- until that first draft is written. Then I can go back and during the second messy-clean-up second draft, really get my story and character down.

Hannah Kincade said...

I love that you took us through the entire process. From conception to revisions! So so helpful. This experiment is turning out fantastic! By the end of today by brain is going to explode but I will know how to create a damn compelling character or 50. ;P

Nicki Elson said...

Hi Lola L-O-L-A Lola! Thanks for sharing your character process. I can take some good queues from your discipline.

Excellent point about not needing to share all the details with readers. Too much detail is a sure way to kill reader interest, but that doesn't mean it's not worth the time to get to know our characters that in depth. Thanks for the post. I'm loving this experiment!

Faith said...

I find it really interesting that you don't write down a character bio until after the first draft is done... and that you write a really, really detailed one at that time!

I usually have an outlined sketch before I get into the first draft and fill it out as I go, then cross-check for consistency during revisions.

Love that you outlined your basic process! Great insight.

Also, I LOVE THE SQUIRREL.

Thanks for stopping by today :D

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

Oh man, you wait to write up bios until after the first draft? Whoa. Although I bet it comes more easily then, though, since you've already been hanging with them so much. Don't you just love it when they practically write the story for you though?

Jen Chandler said...

Great post! And thanks for the reminder that I signed up for this! LOL!

I love it when I'm slapped in the face by a quirky character. Sure, we all love to cheer for the underdog, the nerd, but when a character hits you with a trait so unique, so bizarre, I sit up, take notice, and (love them or hate them) I am pulled into the story until the end.

Thanks for the follow!
Jen

PK Hrezo said...

Interesting that you don't interview your characters til after the first draft. You may be on to something there. :)
I'm your follower number 499 ... really wanted to be 500, but I'll be the stepping stone to get you to 50. :) Happy writing! And thanks for visiting my blog.

Colene Murphy said...

Great advice and so very true! Love your process too.

Kelly Dexter said...

Thanks for taking us through your process! I love the idea of interviewing characters. They can take you places you never imagined they would go.

Lisa Potts said...

It's fascinating to see the process of another writer. Thanks for sharing yours.

Susan Tiner said...

Lola, thanks for sharing these ideas about characters. I am not a fiction writer but would imagine that characters come from real life -- people you already know -- then are adorned and modified to claim them as your own. But it sounds like your characters are born in your head. Very cool.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Wow...outstanding post, Lola! I'm really enjoying learning how other writers delve into their characters. :)

Have a lovely weekend!

Nicole Zoltack said...

Interviewing your characters sounds like a great idea! Plus you could then post some of it on your blog to get readers interested in your story. Win-win!

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Yes, yes, and yes! This is a wonderful post - so much good stuff there, Lola! :-)

Ishta Mercurio said...

Wow - you take the same approach to your characters as me! (Except for the names - I`m picky about names, too, but I go ahead and start writing without them and figure them out once the story is well under way.) I like the way you presented this post. Thanks for the tips!

Mary said...

Bios worked best for me if done first. I think it's great all these different routes to the same point.

Susan R. Mills said...

Thanks for sharing your process. Oh, and I love your profile pic! :)

Susan R. Mills said...

Oh, and I tried to follow, but the follow button is working. I'll be back to try again later.

Carolyn V. said...

Awesome! I totally agree with the show not tell! It's so hard to love a character when you can't feel what they are feeling, too. Great post Lola!

Elena Solodow said...

I like how you interview your characters. They should have to prove your worth before you guys hang out.

Nice post.

Fran said...

Good advice, Lola.

Jennifer Hoffine said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing your process. I get to know my characters during the first draft also.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I'm in awe of your second-draft process. Interviewing every character. I've interviewed MCs and found that amazing but never tackled the whole cast. I can see how it would add great depth and eliminate any cardboard-character situations.

Solvang Sherrie said...

Wow -- you do a LOT to get to know your characters. That's awesome advice.

JEM said...

Dude, I am super intimidated by your character approach. I am a plot driven kind of girl, and as such have sometimes left my characters to flounder in the squalor of undefinition. Yeah, that's a word. Maybe. But I am learning (painfully) that compelling characters are really what drive a story forward. Siiiiiiiiiigh, soooooo much work.

Karen Lange said...

Great post, thanks for the info. I agree, a bio is important, otherwise, how do we really know who our characters are? I have a standard bio sheet I use, and keep adding things when new ideas come along.
Happy weekend,
Karen

The Golden Eagle said...

I love writing bios of my characters--it just makes them so much more real if there's something more to them than words. Excellent post!

Danyelle said...

Names are very important, I think. And I agree--the characters are the most important part of the story which is why it's so important that readers can connect to them. :)

Pam Torres said...

I have had a hard time with the name of one of my characters. It was good to know that I am not wrong to be concerned about getting it right. Great post! Thanks!

welcome to my world of poetry said...

Hello Lola, I am Yvonne. I thoroughly enjoyed your post.It was interesting what makes a writer write and what you expect of the characters you create.
I decided to sign up fir this blogfest on the spur of the moment today, I write poetry and most poems consists of my life's expereiences, I have one book to my credit called Negative V. Positive, called because I started out as a negative person and ended up positive.
Good luck with your writing,
Yvonne.

Hart Johnson said...

My characters ALSO seem to come mostly formed but MAN do you do a lot more work than I do to get them down! I guess I need to see them in action to know all the details, so I put them in a couple scenes to get to know them.

Eric said...

I'm glad this exercise has exposed me to your blog, because I've obviously been missing out. This is a great post on the subject.

Red Boot Pearl said...

Great post, I really like your idea of a second round of interviews, that's a fantastic idea. It's hard to know everyone super well before you write the story.

Lyla said...

Names--yes, I completely understand. I hate not knowing a character's name. I made the fatal mistake of writing a whole novel with temporary names, just to get it done, and now I have a cast of characters with the *wrong* names, but I can't figure out what to replace them with... I associate the bad ones with the characters too much, you know?

lettucehead said...

I liked this, Lola. I can tell you are very loving towards your characters and most importantly you appreciate them! Thanks for sharing your view :)

Vicki Rocho said...

Excellent advice! (And I loved that hitman movie, though I can't remember the name of it)

Bish Denham said...

Nice job Lola! A great example of how to use one my tools.

Misha said...

Very good advice!

I also start stories when characters walk into my head.

Today, on the advice of a blog I decided to interview Darrion, the first one that walked into my mind. It went something like this.

"Tell me about your childhood..."
*frowns* "No."
"Come on. Give me something to work with..."
*tilts head* "Did I stutter?"

Trust me to get stuck with the difficult ones...

Elaine AM Smith said...

Thank you for taking my hand and guiding me through your writing process. It reminds me of mine, a lot.
I do have to "see" the character whole before I can start the whole process.

Summer Ross said...

It sounds like you really really thrive on characters, which is an amazing talent- I've just learned about interviewing my characters and getting to know them better.

I agree that showing is seriously important, the reading gets old fashioned and my eyes get tired after too much "telling"

Thanks for posting

Jeff King said...

My characters jump from my mind to the page, their whole range of emotions, dialog, talents, quirks, demeaning qualities and the rest come with them.

All I have to do is convey what come across to best I can… if I had to think it up on my own I wouldn’t know where to begin.

Like all writer I assume we bring or characters to life with true and unique dialog with the appropriate actions.

Great post, keep it up.

Melissa said...

YES! I am so incredibly happy that someone else is as unusual as I am!!! I always fret about everyone always talking about needing to discover their characters, shaping them, creating them, making character sheets so they know all of this stuff about them. I always felt like I was a fraud or something because I never had to do any of that. My characters all came to me fully formed, bugging and harassing me and never shutting up. But I never made them, they just were. I got to know them by spending time with them, hanging out - like normal people.

Great post Lola.

RaShelle said...

That's a fun way to get to way to get to know your characters. Yes, cliche' can be boring- I agree.

Kittie Howard said...

Great post, great advice. I work out the characters in my head until they are so real we're walking side by side. Enjoy your weekend.

Elizabeth Briggs said...

I love your process. I wish the characters came to me that easily!

P.S. I am totally in love with Martin. Grosse Pointe Blank is one of my all time favorite movies.

DLCurran said...

You've a great system there! My characters don't come fully formed, sadly, but I do keep notes on anything and everything I think of to flesh them out. Fantastic advice Lola!

Kelly said...

Great advice and I loved seeing your process. I have notes on my main characters, but good idea to have the info on all of them!

paulgreci said...

Thanks for sharing your process. It sounds very thorough!! I write my characters backstory--a few pages--before starting my first draft. Good luck with your writing!

lbdiamond said...

GREAT POST! Sounds like you really take the time to get to know your characters--I"m sure they come across as very lifelike as a result. Thanks for sharing! :D

Lola Sharp said...

Vicki--Grosse Pointe Blank is the name of the movie...one of my favorites. (even the soundtrack is awesome)

Elizabeth--One of my favorites, too. :)

Misha--You crack me up. ;)

EVERYONE--Thanks for stopping by. I'm trying to make it around to visit everyone.

HAVE A WONDERFUL WEEKEND, friends!! ☼

Lola Sharp said...

Oh, and Julie...Mmm... cinnamon buns and Martin! I don't think life could get much better. :)

DaniSue said...

Thanks for following and commenting me! Great post, I love reading about the writing process others use, always gives me ideas :)

Lisa said...

Thank you for sharing your process with us. As I start to sketch out my ideas for NaWriMo, I can see that I must sit down and spend some time with my characters.

Jemi Fraser said...

Love your process! I don't write much outside of the actual novel itself, but I let the characters walk around inside my head for weeks before I even attempt to write about them :)

Lenny Lee! said...

hi miss lola! wow you sure do a lot to get your characters just right. i been reading lots of what people wrote on it and you got it down to a bunch of neat steps.
...hugs from lenny

Annette Lyon said...

Yes! I have characters show up in my head fully formed too! People think I'm crazy. Only other writers get it.

Elizabeth Mueller said...

Hi Lola! Great post. I love how your heart shines through your words. You and I are similar on a lot of the character developing process.

I believe that a character is compelling when they can make the reader fear for them. Make the reader cry, or angry.

I just love being a writer!

Come and visit me!

L'Aussie said...

I love it when a 'cliched' character breaks out of the mould. Good post..:)

Jai Joshi said...

Interesting post, Lola. I write my character profiles for every character in my story before I begin writing. That way I already have a strong foundation of knowledge about my characters as I start to write them. The words come easier to me then.

Jai

gargimehra said...

I have the same hangup about names. If I start a story without the right name for the character I feel uncomfortable until I set it right!

Len said...

Hi Lola! I love that you talk to you characters, too! I do! :) I like 'deep stuff' too and that you interview the characters just before you start writing! Great idea! Great post! :)

Jessica Carmen Bell said...

Really? You find the second draft the hard part? I LOVE the second draft. The first draft is always the hardest for me. I work much better and can get much more creative once I got the base written. Great post!

Tyrean Martinson said...

Great post!
Although my process might be a bit different - I have a tendency to jump into the story, then take notes about my character along the way - I agree with knowing the characters inside and out, knowing their backstories, and then just giving the reader tidbits through action, dialogue, and the way each character sees their world.
I love your examples too!

Cinette said...

Quirks make characters more 'approachable', more understandable. Great post!

Eleven Eleven said...

I think the best authors are a little schizophrenic and actually talk to their characters like they are real people. If they're real to you, they'll feel real to the reader.

Great post!

cindy said...

I love talking and listening to my characters, as well. Something only another writer (or your psychiatrist) would understand.

Thanks for a great post.

Janet Johnson said...

I'm just like you with the first two drafts. First is all about a character I've met. 2nd is the hard stuff. I don't write my deep bios down though. Perhaps I should . . .

Great post!

@llison said...

Sometimes my characters come to me fully formed, but not as often as I'd like! Sometimes it seems harder to fit them to a story than create a character for a story already in mind, though. I definitely agree with your take on a name - it often seems to be the most important thing, as a wrong name can make the character seem to be a person you don't want them to be.

Heather Spiva said...

Wow, I liked hearing about your writing process and creating characters. Very interesting.
Thanks!
-H

Lola Sharp said...

I hope everyone is having a great weekend.

Thank you for taking time out of yours to stop by here. :)


And, Lenny-- I hope you're feeling better. You are pure sunshine. ☼

Love,
Lola

Sarah said...

Hello! Yes, all very good points. I meet my characters in th first draft,then really get to know them in subsequent drafts. I think that's my favorite part of writing--getting to know the characters that inhabit my story. I interview them too!

DL Hammons said...

I love taking a peek inside your mind to see how your characters come to life. That's worth the price of admission right there! :)

Heather said...

Excellent experiment. Great entry! I love that you do a bio on each of your characters.

Rachael Harrie said...

What a fantastic post Lola. I love how you go into detail about your technique, and interviewing your characters is a great idea!!! Have taken on board all you said and I know it will make my own characters so much more real to me and my readers :)

Alleged Author said...

This is a great post! I love seeing how other authors work!

Botanist said...

Hi Lola, glad I found your post amongst the long list at Elena's blog.

That is one heck of a process. I haven't yet learned to be anywhere near as thorough with my characters, but all the advice is sound. You are lucky that your characters are so eager to tell their stories that you have to scramble to keep up.

I'm glad you mentioned character interviews, that has helped me out in the past. And I am so with you on needing to know their names before going any further. I blogged about both of those aspects earlier on this year. Glad to hear someone else feels that way too.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I love that squirrel picture- so cute!

Quirky characters are definitely fun- they're some of my favorite!

Jennie Bailey said...

Lola, I ADORE you! This was such an excellent post, but I expect nothing less of you. You always have the best posts!!

Tara said...

Er, other than the interview stuff, are you sure I didn't write this? Seriously scary, L ;) Really. The only difference is that I let them tell me all those personal things during the draft - they just don't get left in.

Lola Sharp said...

Jenni--I adore you too. :)

I adore all of you. Thank you so much for being smart and funny and thoughtful writers.


And, Tara--we do have a scary twin-ness. :) Scary in the best way.

Eric W. Trant said...

* Regarding names: I find this to be one of the most important components to my character. I cannot write the first word until I know, am sure of, my MCs names. There's a lot at stake with a name. We can tell a lot about a person by their name and any nicknames they go by. I work hard to get names right.

BEAUTY! I was just thinking on this today.

I do much the same with my characters. My current piece I stopped and let it settle after about 10kw.

Why is that?

Because I didn't love my character. My last words on that draft were these: Conrad, I do not love you.

Then I quit.

I don't take compulsive notes like you, but I do store it in my noggin. I figure if I can remember it, it's important, and if I have to write it down to remember it, it's not important.

I forget a lot, you know, but just the stuff that's no important.


- Eric

Patricia A. Timms said...

Thank you for taking me into your process. I always wonder how everyone else is doing it. I found a lot of similaries between the way you start and the way I start and I picked up a few new things in the way you approach the second draft.

I truly believe your character are extremely compelling and memorable. Great job!

Thank you for coming to my site and becoming my 46th follower!

Patricia A. Timms said...

Oh yeah and how could I forget a little bit of comment about Martin Blanke? Ahhh. Love him.

Still laugh when I think about when he said, "I guess you can never go home again."

Deni Krueger said...

Strong advice and in depth process toward character discovery.

Tamara Narayan said...

Well said, er, posted.

Dayana Stockdale said...

Nice to meet you too Lola! I really like what you have to say about the second draft. A lot of character devo really does happen there, because its after you've let the character unfold on their own.

Kirsty said...

Great! I love how you tell us exactly how you go about your bios and writing! I generally am all cool with characters yet totally suck when it comes to opening the laptop and getting stuck into the he said she said crap. Blah! :P

Dominique said...

Solid advice.

I found your post intriguing, because you're one of the few writers I've ever come across in actual reality (read: the blogosphere) who says their characters from to them as full people. Others I've met assemble their characters.

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My name is Lola. (I'm not a showgirl) Yes, L-O-L-A Lola. It's the least of my worries. Let's move on, shall we? This blog is mostly about my misadventures on the journey to publication and beyond. My passion for lush prose, quirky characters, art, music, literature, performing arts and anything creative will be a major theme here. This journey of mine will not always be pretty. Much like rubbernecking a train wreck, I know sometimes you just can't help but look at the carnage that is often my life. So strap on your neck brace, helmet and 5-point harness and come along for the ride! Licentia poetica.
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