Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Hello, Character!

Well hello there, beautiful. Come here often? Nope, you sure don't, because you don't exist yet. But hey, maybe we can change that. Let me take you out sometime and get to know you a little better.

If only it were that easy. Problem is, even the most boisterous character is an impossible introvert when it comes to getting to know them. We can't get them to tell us anything about themselves unless we pry it out of their mouths. I don't suggest that. Forcing a character to tell you who they are is about as effective as shaking up a Coke to get a quick drink. Yes, we get our fix of all that sugary goodness, but more so on our face than in our mouths. Trust me, it ain't nearly as pleasant (unless you're into that...we're talking character here not your weird fetishes)

When meeting the love of our lives (or mortal enemy) the first thing we notice is a face, followed by a name. Same goes for character. Except, well, reversed. I can't tell you how many times I scared my mom with my online history of baby name websites. Sorry, Mom, but that's where I look for a name that feels like the character I'm trying to portray. Then I get into what he/she looks like. I'll either draw them, or find myself a picture of how I think they'll look. But this is where the story telling kicks in. How they look and behave depends strictly on their lifestyle and the terrible things we put them through.

You know my obsession with physiology, so, of course, I'm going to start there. The biology and lifestyle of our characters is one of the deciding factors of who they are. Think about their genetic background, their diet, their day-to-day life. Just like with any of us, this will influence their appearance, health, mental state, and personality. For example, if a character comes from a genetically skinny family, but he/she survives on junk food, that character may not be fat, but there are other consequences. Maybe the character has bad skin, or a sluggish personality, or maybe they feel sick all the time and don't know why. Consider the psychology behind this. We tend not to admit that our lifestyle affects the way we think, look, and act. This creates conflict, both in the character and in the story (which is a good thing)

This is where it gets tough, because now we're really getting to know the way our characters tick. Getting into their psychology leads right to the big ol' nature vs. nurture dilemma. Whatever side of the spectrum you lean towards, we have to take in both halves and decide which one (or both) works best for our character and our story (consider genre, audience, and tone) If a character was beaten his whole life, that will dictate his actions and personality, and where he puts the blame for what he does. On the other hand, say the guy's an orphan who grows up in a perfectly peaceful environment. All the same, he becomes a psycho murderer and later finds out his real family has a history of violence (the plot thickens) The thing the two do have in common is either his upbringing, or his genetic history (or both) will affect not only the way the character sees his world, but also how he sees himself. 

However, the way our characters see themselves and the reasons they give to support this doesn't necessarily account for reality. I have a character who thinks she's ugly and socially inept, and this comes from the nurture side as a traumatic event in her past made her think this way. But is it true? Well, in the eyes of a different character, she's gorgeous and he thinks of her as an idol who swayed the opinion of a nation. Over the course of the story, this might not 100% change the character's mind about themselves, but it will affect their self-perception, and how they grow as a character. So in reality, the nature vs. nurture thing is in the mind's eyes (in the case of our characters) Every character will view each other in a different way, and it's that perception, and how our characters experience that perception, that creates a fuller story.

Okay, all this brain and body mumbo-jumbo's well and good, but we're writers, ain't we? So how do we write our characters? For me, it goes back into that same old thing I always say: trust the story. I like to crash through the first draft and see where the story takes both me and my characters. My character's personality and development trot hand-in-hand with all of the horrible blows the story throws at them. Going back to my girl, she was originally going to be a cheeky little minx. What the hell happened? Well, I started in the middle of an enormously stressful event, and the way she reacted to it set the bar for her behavior throughout the rest of the story.

I admit I'm a pantser, and the problem with my method above is inconsistency within the character from the beginning of the draft to the end. This is because I don't fully understand my characters, and even when the first draft is done, I still might not get them as much as I could've if I had fleshed them out when I first started (which I refuse to do!) Fleshing out story or character just doesn't feel natural to me, so the way I deal with this is, between the 1st and 2nd drafts, I'll write short stories from some piece of my characters' lives. These usually consist of the events leading up to the actual story, and are are mostly of the supporting cast, especially the antagonist or any other character I have a hard time writing

Now remember, your reader knows as much about your character as we did when we started, which can be hard to maintain when we're learning every nook and cranny of our cast. To make sure I'm keeping it fresh in round two, I like to have the first draft open side by side with my second. I take note of that raw feeling I got when first introducing my characters and growing with them. I am keeping in mind the behind the scenes of who these characters are, and who they will become, but at the same time, I'm remembering to start off with nothing but voice. Over the course of the story, I'll build their attributes and goals with two cups of action and dialogue, and half a teaspoon of backstory (you have to be careful with backstory and how you sprinkle it in over time) It's all a terrible balance between discovery and foreknowledge, but unfortunately, writing—all parts of writing—is a terrible balance! Just another part of the hell we put ourselves through.

We can't be that pushy, creepy guy at the bar with this kind of stuff, or we'll never draw those tricky little introverts out of their shells. This is why it's important not only to know the in's and out's of our characters (okay, we've dropped the dating analogy) but to be patient. This is a long process, but if you take your time and listen, your characters will tell you everything you need to know about themselves, and their story.

Current Stats
Watching: Lovely Complex
Listening: Flaming Lips
Reading: Monsters of Men: Chaos Walking Book 3 by Patrick Ness
Playing: Zelda: Wind Waker
^^^What are ya'll up to? Comment below!^^^

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