Writers, how many steps does it take to bring your characters to life? For me, three! In previous posts I’ve covered the first two steps in this process.
Step 1: Re-Research (I went back to the experts, read books on characterization) https://stepsinbetween.com/2020/05/17/my-step-driven-action-to-creating-characters-step-one/
Step 2: Paper Dolls (I sketched out my characters on paper; flat, with brainstormed hopes about his or her traits, behaviors, responses, hopes, dreams, obstacles, truths, lies…) https://stepsinbetween.com/2020/06/14/my-step-driven-action-to-creating-characters-step-2/
Step 3: First Date (And then a second, third, more; imagine lunch or dinner with your characters, fully formed)
This is the step where I invite my characters out on a simple date, like for coffee or lunch. They have taken shape and form, as I’ve been writing about them in random scenes, traipsing through my bare-boned outlines to find the most interesting story paths. My creations are more than flat paper dolls now, far more than brainstormed words scratched on a page. They have become living, breathing souls in my mind, and I’m thrilled to know them even more.
When I imagine my characters sitting in a café, I envision what they are wearing. I watch to see people notice them when they walk by, or if the server tilts her chin to make eye contact. Are they memorable, or do they blend in with the hustle and bustle of other patrons? At first, I wonder what they will order, and when they do, it feels as if I should have always known. Will they slouch in their seat, exhausted? Are they relaxed or impatiently waiting for caffeine to take effect? Maybe they lean in, elbows on the table, fingers wrapped around their cups until the warmth of their coffee concoctions bloom, and they are ready for conversation?
These are the details I notice now. But there’s more…
Comfort settles as we converse, and I notice one of my characters caught deep in thought while the other’s ear perks to a new tune in the café’s background music. In sync with my storyline, I know the one reminiscing has traveled back to a time when her parents were still alive. Her smile fades until she catches herself, conscious of unwanted attention. Time has preserved itself around the fleeting thoughts she can’t escape…nor does she want to. If only the memories could wait until bedtime, her safe place to feel and hurt and cry. She tires of apologies made in awkward silence.
The other’s memory mourns in a completely separate way. I can tell by his toe tapping angst under the table, the rhythmic jar of the table legs. The song he hears is an old eighties metal tune, softer behind the roar of ordering customers and tables filled with chatter. It isn’t the song he’s angry with, not really. As a child, he used to strum it on a guitar with his dad. They’d have concerts in the living room for his mom. But not anymore. Now, the tune only serves to reignite the chaos his father later created. A pain he can’t seem to forget no matter how far back he stashes his guitar in the closet. He shifts in his chair, which eases the wriggling table and annoying tapping noise, but also clashes with nearby coffee connoisseurs as his chair scrapes the concrete ground. But he’ll never share his painful memory with anyone brave enough to ask…except her. The one distracted from her memory now. The one looking at him with lifted brows and wide brown eyes. She touches his arm to bring him back, and the slightest nod of his chin, barely a movement, delivers the only message she needs. Because they know each other deeply. They’re both living the same mourning, it’s just that his dad is still alive.
Do you see what I’ve done here? I’ve sat my characters down at a table in a public place and simply observed them. Are they believable? Do their behaviors and reactions work in the real world? Is there anything new I could take to the story I’m continually plotting in my mind?
Typically, after a date like this, I get motivated to write new scenes and even work on some editing. I want the first draft completed before a true revision, but I can’t help myself when inspiration strikes. I can never wait to weave stronger characterization into parts I’ve already written.
After our lunch date and a little crazed writing, I move onto a second and third date, and even a weekend away. Of course, I don’t mention to the world around me that my characters are joining in my real-life experiences. I’m pretty sure society would frown on that. But if I want to get to know my characters, to really know how they’re going to behave and respond in my story, I have to bring them along in my real-life life.
Step 1 was all about re-researching great books and websites about characterization. I’ve listed the resources I’ve used in this post: https://stepsinbetween.com/2020/05/17/my-step-driven-action-to-creating-characters-step-one/.
Step 2 was about creating paper dolls and brainstorming all the possible details and traits a character could have. This post can be found here: https://stepsinbetween.com/2020/06/14/my-step-driven-action-to-creating-characters-step-2/.
But it’s not until Step 3 the characters take shape. They form into real living, breathing people (or other kinds of beings) experiencing the world right along side me. This is when characters come alive in my drafts. This is when my story takes on a tighter, more intricate shape. Now, not only do my characters act and react more naturally on the page, but my readers can connect with them more. This, writers, is the ultimate goal…or should be.
Take a peek at my past two blog posts where I highlight steps one and two in my Step Driven Action to Creating Characters. Each article goes into more detail about those beginning character-planning steps. And don’t skip ahead. That’s the very reason I wrote these steps to begin with. Initially I had done just that, jumping into a dinner date with my characters when I didn’t even know them. As with many first dates, everything is new, slightly uncomfortable, and usually a façade. I can’t connect with my characters’ minds if I haven’t sketched them on the page first, cut them out and tried on various reactions, truths, and lies. I may know their goals and where I want them to end up in the story, but I surely don’t know how I’m getting them there. And if I thought I did…it often changes once I get to know them better. As many authors have discovered, characters figure out where they want to go all on their own. And it’s usually with one bad decision or impulse after another.
Writers, we are just along for the ride!
I hope you’ve enjoyed following me along this 1-2-3 journey into creating stronger, more believable characters. Now get ready to make some date plans!
Happy Writing (because at least you’re writing),
Celaine Charles, March 14, 2021
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