Tag Archives: characters

Assorted writing tips #8 – Characterisation

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

 

I’ve written about writing exercises before, but this time I just wanted to talk about one that has really helped me.

Last week, I started a five-week (or really, five-fortnight, but you know what I mean) novel-writing course at my local writers’ centre. I’ve been a member there for a while but haven’t actually been to much – with the kids, most of the things they’ve had on have been either at a bad time or took too much out of the day (say, 10 till 5 on a Saturday, which is really hard for me to do). I figured I could manage two hours a fortnight, though, so off I went.

The first session was about characterisation. Characterisation is something that I find a lot of fun – getting to know one’s characters is always an enjoyable process, and I love seeing where they take me. Often it’s places I don’t expect, but that’s half the fun of it, don’t you think? Anyway, I’ve been given (and used) different character sheets over the years, but there is something about them that seems, I don’t know, sterile. Filling in a form about someone, while it can be very instructive, doesn’t really give me a feel for them. Thing was, I didn’t know of any other way so I persevered.

Then along came Thursday night, and Lucy Clark, the author who is running the course, made the comment that they don’t really work for her either. Hurrah! I knew I couldn’t be alone, but it was great to see someone who has been really successful facing the same battles. What she did, she explained, was write a biography of each character. This is a page or two – or three or four, depending on how small you write and how far you get into the character – written in the first person, telling the story of that person’s life. It’s not really structured, and it’s not intended to be edited (much), just a jumbled narrative of one thought after another. We did a sample in the class, given just a name and an occupation, and it’s amazing how much I could turn out. (In fact, I’m considering using the character I came up with in that session in a future novel.) This is free writing at its best – rambling, unfocused and full of tangents, yet extraordinarily useful when it comes to characterisation and character development.

I’ve used this since on the characters I’ve been writing for the past couple of years, and I have learnt so much more about them by doing this that I have in two years worth of scene creation. Sure, a lot of it I already knew, but I found myself delving so much further into them, especially some of the secondary and tertiary characters, that finishing this manuscript is going to be a breeze. Instead of wondering how someone is going to react to a certain situation, I feel now that I’m at the stage of just putting them in the scene and stage managing – and some of my best writing has been doing just that.

So, there it is. My tip of the day for really getting into your characters’ heads, especially if character sheets don’t really work for you. Of course, not everyone is the same so this might really not appeal to some people. For me, though, it’s been amazing.

 

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A rose by any other name …

Pondering character names

Yes, I know that’s a mis-quote, but it’s a very common one, and it gets the point across. Today I want to talk about naming your characters.

Some people go to a lot of trouble finding the perfect names for their characters. They read baby name books, check out meanings, possible different spellings, whether the number of letters in the name is auspicious, the works. Okay, I may be exaggerating here, but you know what I mean. “I chose the name Jemima because my character is quiet and a pacifist, and it means dove.”

Others go by themes. For example, JK Rowling tended to favour old-fashioned, floral or Latin names in the Harry Potter series; Suzanne Collins chose rare botanical names and unusual spellings in The Hunger Games; and Jane Austen‘s scallywags invariably had a surname starting with W. I’ve known people who take first names from their favourite bands and surnames from their favourite sporting team. It doesn’t really matter what the theme is – just having one can make some people feel more comfortable.

Still others pick names at random, without thought of meaning or motif. “Jenny? That’ll do.” Or, “I might call him Fred. I don’t think I’ve used that name before.”

Me, I’m a little from column A, a little from column C. For my WIP I did take a while to get some of the names right, but that was often because I didn’t want people in real life thinking the characters were based on them, so if the names were similar at all (including in theme) then they got changed. I had a character called Jane, for example, who my friend Anne may have thought was a reference to her. Personality-wise they have very little in common, but since they are such similar types of names I changed Jane’s name to something that didn’t resemble “Anne” in the slightest. Similarly, I realised halfway through NaNo that my hero had a similar name to my husband. He is not based on my husband at all, and I don’t think my husband himself would have seen a connection, but other people I know would have. Again, the character name was amended.

My heroine was slightly different. In early drafts I called her Emma, perhaps because I saw a similarity with Jane Austen’s character of that name. The similarity has now disappeared, and the name didn’t feel right at all. I played with different options but finally decided on amending Emma as slightly as I could, simply by adding a G to the front. “Emma” just didn’t fit properly; “Gemma” fits perfectly. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that everyone is different, and there’s no right or wrong way to name your characters. Essentially, whatever feels right for you as a writer is the way to go. I’m curious about you, though. How do you name your characters? What method works best for you? And what difficulties have you come across in the process? I’d love to hear.  :)

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Getting to know your characters

I was thinking about my WIP novel the other day (what a surprise), and it suddenly occurred to me that I am nowhere near as far through as I thought I was.

Why not? Because I don’t know my characters well enough.

In my experience, a book is so much better when the author knows their characters inside out. Ideally, you know them well enough when it gets to the point that you just set a scene and then stage manage as the characters write themselves.

I’ve had this experience before with other stories I’ve written, and they’ve come out – to my mind, at least – really well. You set the scene and see where it takes you, with the characters taking control. Yet, with this current story, I’m still thinking about how the different characters will react to the situations I’m putting them in. It’s not automatic as yet, or at least it’s not as automatic as I would like it to be.

As a result, it looks like I’ve got a few character-building exercises in front of me, to make sure that I do know these people inside out and back to front, so I can put them in a scene and just give them their heads and see what comes out.

Alternatively, I can just keep writing and see where that takes me.

While I’ve had success with the latter, I’ve heard of great success stories about the former and am wondering if I should give it a try.  Is there a real benefit in actively and aggressively moulding your characters, or is it better to let them do it themselves?  As such I’m looking for advice, if anyone has much experience with this. Should I go searching out exercises that will develop my characters, or should I keep on writing them and let it happen organically? Which is the better route?

Thanking you in advance.  :)

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