Thursday, November 15, 2007

Inside Outside

Posted by Lynne

When my daughter began college twelve weeks ago, she began meeting new people, making new friends. Friends I would learn about, but not meet for weeks.

She's exactly like me, Mom, we love the same music and we like all the same foods. Except she's taller and has long hair. And he is the funniest person; his sense of humor is dry and talks with an accent.

In order to picture in my mind's eye her new friends, I listened for details. I fit their names to their unique characteristics. When I finally met them, putting names with faces, they didn't look exactly as I'd imagined them, but that was okay. Think read the book, see the movie. Actors cast never look like the characters imagined. More often than not, you get used to them in the role eventually.

Character traits and details. Do you paint them from the outside in or the inside out? In a workshop all four members of the writers' group went to, given by the esteemed Margot Livesey, we learned that creating memorable characters involves helping a character stand out yet it doesn't matter where you start as long as you do both.

Sitting at the metal table with his hands folded was an officer with one of those spiky GQ haircuts and one day’s growth of beard; he looked almost excited to be there. Before we took our seats, he blurted out that he was the detective taking over the investigation.

He cut right to the chase without all the usual Wenonah Falls Police formality we’d come to know and hate.

“I don't mean to be rude. Or maybe I do," I said. "But Jack, you don’t look old enough to tie your shoes, never mind lead an investigation.”

The character described above was drawn with only a few physical descriptors and through his behavior. Outside in. I painted him young because I wanted him to care so deeply about solving a crime because he needed to prove himself. Inside out.

Characters in a novel should not be a jumble of different facial features, eye colors or statures. Traits, quirky and distinct, along with inner motivations set characters apart, making them your own. Making them stand out.

Here are a few of Ms. Livesey's other tips for creating memorable characters that have helped me enormously with character development.

  • Good characters must have some failure or vice--bad characters some strength or virtue
  • Every character should have something he or she shares with you--every character something he or she doesn't
  • Give every character some attitude
What are your tips for creating memorable characters? Or who are your favorite characters from other novels that you look to for inspiration?


Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Great suggestions, Lynne. I remember a writing teacher saying we needed to know what our characters were like in junior high--even if we don't "meet" them until they're middle-aged. I try to keep that in mind. I imagine their habits, their quirks, the things only their parents know--or wonder about. Creating memorable characters is so important and I've learned that they'll tell me what I need to know--and if I can't figure something out there's a reason for it.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Hi Judy,

Just like my son does for his English essays, some pre-writing is required to get to character. And I love your take on character development--

Creating memorable characters is so important and I've learned that they'll tell me what I need to know--and if I can't figure something out there's a reason for it.

Thanks, Lynne