Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Week 6 - Character Development

5 Feb - 11 Feb: The Art of People-Making

Okay, so we're thinking of our protagonist as a passionate competitor who will employ whatever trick he has in his arsenal to achieve his goal or solve his problem.  The guy might be an intellect who out-thinks his rival, or a woman of action who physically challenges her adversary.  Or he may have an assortment of psychological and physical tricks up his sleeve.

Of course, he doesn't count on the strengths of his opponent (or conflict), and he cannot control the circumstances in which he sometimes finds himself.  So how does she react when faced with obstacles?

To answer this question, it helps to know this guy or gal.  Really well.  Where was she born? What are his siblings like (if he has any)?  What do her parents do?  What is her relationship with them?  Is he in a romantic relationship?  What have his past relationships been like?  What does he do in his spare time?  What books does she have on her bookshelf?  (These types of questions can be found in many "How To Write" books that explore character development.)

The answers, of course, are not necessarily going to appear in the story, unless relevant to the plot, but greater familiarity with one's characters will undoubtedly lead to them being more believeable.

Personally, I like to have a physical picture of a character in mind, and so I cut out photos in magazines and jot down notes about people I see in public, and store these things in my notebook.  Once I can 'see' a character, I start to think of those little idiosyncrasies that might make them interesting.  I watch how real people stand, how they laugh, what they wear, and what they do with their hands.  Then, I like to think about the inner workings of a character: is he outgoing or reserved; is he flippant or serious; what is he passionate about?

In Bird by Bird, Lamott suggests infusing aspects of your own personality into those of your characters, (especially those deep, dark, secret ones that you're too ashamed to tell anyone about).

The trick, of course, is to paint the picture of the character using interesting and original language, and using tools that contribute to the flow of the story, rather than detract from it.  In 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clarke suggests avoiding 'cloudy' or abstract adjectives to describe characters, (eg. popular, scared, generous) in preference to allowing the characters to demonstrate these traits through their actions.

The following exercises aim to develop believable characters through dialogue and/or descriptive narrative without using abstract adjectives.

Exercise 11.  Observe a number of people in a public setting (supermarket, sporting event, etc) and write down cloudy adjectives that you think describe aspects of their personality (eg. rude, caring, serious etc).  Now, write down the observations that led you to each conclusion.
(This exercise is from 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark).

Exercise 12. In a public place (again), eavesdrop on a conversation and write a scene or short story based on what you hear, concentrating on the individuals involved, what they say and how they say it, and their body language.  Try to capture the 'mood' of the interaction.

Week 7 will explore character development within the context of a story.

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