Monday, August 23, 2010

Character Building

Years and years ago (no, don't ask), I spent two weeks each summer at a camp quite literally on the Mason Dixon line - it ran through a cornfield at the back of the camp; you could run from Pennsylvania to Maryland in about ten seconds. Like all camps, it had rules. Breaking the rules got you time "Character Building". Which usually meant scrubbing out pots in the kitchen or hauling big stones around in wheelbarrows. It was, in short, punishment meant to make you think about what it was you had done and how not to get caught the next time why you shouldn't do it again.

For the record, I never spent any time Character Building.

But I do now, when I come up with characters I write about. Some writers say that their characters just appear, fully formed, into their heads, like some weird cabbage-patch mythical offspring. Physically I guess that's true for me, that I can see what a character looks like sometimes right away. Otherwise I need to build my characters, put them together like Frankenstein in his lab (insert mad scientist laughter here). Okay, maybe not.

What does that mean? Well, when I do school visits, I explain it this way: If you were going to write a story about your best friend, you'd already know everything about them - what their parents are like, if they have any brothers and sisters (and how they get along), their favorite color, their favorite ice cream flavor, the fact that they are allergic to peanut butter, that their greatest ambition is to farm alpacas when they grow up. You'd remember that the scar on their chin is from when they fell out of your tree fort in second grade. You would know it all without having to work at it, and writing a story about your best friend would be easy.

I do the same thing. I get to know a character, make up all that stuff from nothing. I have a handy character worksheet that I use, that I got from another writer somewhere along the way, a fill-in-the blanks kind. It's dead useful. Some of the items I might never ever use in the story, but knowing them makes it easier to write the character in whatever situation I put them in, because I understand them, I've spent time with them, as it were, and learned all about them. If we went out to lunch, I know what we'd talk about.

Take for example, a character's bedroom. The story I write might never show the character's bedroom, but knowing what their bedroom looks like can be very useful, because a person's most personal space says something about them - whether they are messy or neat, for example. What color are the walls and why? Is the bed made or not? I might know what kinds of music they like (from the posters on the walls), do they have a desk and what is on it? What kinds of books are on their shelves- romances or horror novels (or reference books)?

This does NOT mean, however, that there are no surprises. Like best friends, characters (and everyone) have secrets, and you might discover something new about a character that you just hadn't considered. This recently happened to me- I was just sitting there, thinking about the book I'm working on, and something popped into my head about a secondary character, something important. I knew at once it was right and perfect, wondered why I hadn't realized it before. But I don't know if it will ever make it into the book. Or the next one. But I know, and that's enough.

I never used to do the character worksheets, used to learn about my characters as we went along. But for my last  WIP (out on submission to agents and editors) I did write them, at least for the two main characters, and I found that I loved it. It made certain aspects of story writing so much easier, the story so much richer and deeper. I wondered why I'd never done it before. It's like cool, secret dossier like they have in spy stories, and you feel like some super secret spy, knowing everything about people you made up in your head! (okay, that sounds weird...)

Worksheets are much easier than hauling stones in a wheelbarrow or scrubbing pots. Given the choice, I'll take my version of character building over the summer camp version any day. Happy Writing!


  1. Great blog post! Thanks for sharing about Character Building.

    Character Building the summer camp way doesn't sound like much fun.

    Have a great week!

  2. Great tips! I really need to start using character worksheets. Sometimes what I do is have my main character write an essay on "Who I am". That helps me get into the person's head.

  3. I use a character sketch sheet with each of my characters. I got this from my last writing teacher from UCI. I also look through teen mags and tear out photos of what I think my character might look like. Then I take different colored pens and list traits, quirks, and other info on that character. I also try to find some vulnerability too so the character isn't too 'bad' or 'good'.

  4. Great post, Christine. I like the character sheets to help me remember specifics about the characters: hair color, eyes, etc.

    I also like to interview them and ask questions about their siblings, their parents, school. Sometimes they surprise me.

    I cut out pictures too, Kim, and put them on poster board and hang on the wall so I can look at them when I'm writing.

  5. Christine,

    I use worksheets a little differently. I like them, but my characters . . . not so much.

    So, I kind of do it backwards. I write the character a little, then I go to the worksheet questions. Sometimes that works, and sometimes, I just have to be surprised.

    Thanks for the post.

    h. Raven

  6. Character sheets spark some great plot twists too :)

  7. @Suzanne: yes, the summer camp way wasn't great. But it might make a good scene for a YA book! LOL

    I always like to hear what works for other people, because writing is so personal. Whenever someone comes out and says 'this IS THE WAY IT MUST BE DONE' I just roll my eyes. I don't even write the same way from book to book! LOL.

    Next time maybe I'll post my plotting chart. That's a fun time.

  8. I don't use character sheets per se. I do keep a list of the character's personal traits. But I let them grow with each book. They surprise me a lot of the times, but then I see that I've actually laid that foundation beforehand. I guess my subconscious knows more about them than my conscious mind does.