Writing Great Characters Step 1 – People Watching

child-laughingWriting great characters is one reason why we write. Right? We get to imagine being a whole other person – lots of them – and the better we put ourselves in our character’s heart, mind, and body, the more we give our reader a strong, effective and touching experience. It’s the essence of the art.

But first we need to have a character to write about. I’m talking starting from scratch here, when the last story is done and we’re wandering about with an empty imagination waiting for the next to arrive. Who will we imagine?

The good news is, they are all around us. Characters are everywhere.

Eyes Wide Open

Plant yourself on a bus bench. In a mall, at the fountain in the town square, anywhere you will see masses of people moving. (I come from a massage therapist’s perspective, so I prefer movement.) Sit still, open your eyes, and as far as possible without staring, look at them.

You’ll see people. They’ll be moving. Then you will notice something – they all move differently. That guy with his head high and chest out, striding forward like he’s going to conquer the day and save the damsel; that laughing fat man with the rosy face who carries his weight like a point of pride; that other fat man with the complexion of underdone pastry who looks like he’s drowning inside himself; that young girl with an armful of books, moving slowly with eyes wide open because there’s just so much to see. She’s the one who catches you looking.

See? Do you really see? Every body shape, every variation of movement and set of face and style of dress, tells you something about the person inside. And your writer’s mind creates the story behind the moment. Your fabulous writer’s mind, always and forever asking the magic question Why. Then you will start to know why the little girl smiles when she sees you, and why the conqueror has such a bold stride but looks so frightened.

Inside Their Skin

Just like that, you have the beginnings of a great character. Lots of them, in fact. Just by looking. Take out your notebook – you brought it along, right? – and jot down the salient points of your favourites.

What’s next? Seeing is good, but a thoroughly-imagined character is much more than skin deep. Next, you get inside their skin. We’ll save that for another post. For now, go out and watch people.


Novel Writing Technique – Are You A Planner Or A Dreamer?

The DreamerIt’s one of the most fundamental discussions in all of novel writing – do you plot out your scenes, sketch your characters, and weave your subplots before actually sitting down to write the book? Or do you catch onto an inspiring moment in the story, sit down and see where it leads?

The answer for me became pretty obvious pretty quickly. I’m a dreamer who doesn’t have any time for wasted words. So I’m a planner. Sort of.

Of course, to judge from my early life I’ve been a dreamer since I got on this planet. I still love to just put my fingers to the keys and see what happens. One of my great revelations about the act of writing is how it gives voice to a part of my brain that normally has no voice – and that strange and unusual things can come from me that I never even knew were up there. That is the power of the dreamer, and of the dreaming path of writing. Take an inspiration, any inspiration, whether it be a fascinating character or an exciting conflict or a luscious setting, and put your fingers on the keys and get out of the way. With only the smallest amount of encouragement your dreaming half will eagerly take over and you literally will not know what is going to happen next until it shows up on your screen. There is no feeling like waiting with bated breath, perched on a moment of high drama, to find out what you yourself will write next. That is the very center of writing’s magic.

But dreaming’s very strength engenders a problem. Dreaming is in the moment. Dreaming cares not for the future. And that is no way to get a novel done in anything like a reasonable amount of time.

The planner starts with the same thing, an inspiration. He may even indulge in some freewheeling writing to enlarge on the theme, flesh things out a bit, set the inspiration so it doesn’t go flying off somewhere. But before long he starts answering some questions: what scenes are suggested by this inspiration? What characters are needed for these scenes? What are their drives, hopes, and fears? What subplots and additional conflicts do these bring to mind?

It is through questions and explorations that the planner builds a novel. By the time the planner is ready to actually write the scenes, he will have a good idea of what scenes are needed, in what order, and who will be in them and what they will be doing. He will have a good sense of his characters and be ready to step fully into them to bring each scene to life right from the start. Then he starts at page 1 and goes right through to The End.

Said like that, planning sounds dry and pedantic. Plodding. But the planner gets to dream, too. The planner accesses his right brain in the development of character, the discovery of plot, and in the actual writing. He always stays open to the unexpected new direction and the revelatory plot twist, or even the arrival of a totally new character. They just have to serve the work already in progress.

I came to writing late. I can’t afford to waste time. I swiftly discovered that the path of the dreamer involves a lot of characters, scenes, and entire plot lines that get left out of the final drafts. They may get used somewhere later, and they are always a pleasure to write, but the plain truth is they did not support or illuminate the novel. And that kind of wastage I just cannot afford.

So – for now, at least – I am a planner. I’m enthralled by the planning process used by Elizabeth George, which I’ll talk about another time. I still enjoy the wide open possibility of the dreamer, and I still look forward to the times when I can let my imagination go. But to further the story, to make sure that my work serves its intended purpose, I do my dreaming within the confines of a well-constructed plan.

Published in: on June 16, 2013 at 10:01 pm  Comments (3)  
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