Saturday, November 03, 2007

What makes a memorable character?

Ever meet a character that stays with you after you've closed the book? She follows you around for a few days-maybe months and you feel a bit of regret that the book was done. You can only hope for a sequel!
There was something in her adventure that came through and made you believe for a bit that she was a real live person. You connected with her emotions, thoughts and actions. The author did such a good job of it that you just don't want to let her go. That character is now like an old friend you want to check in on now and then. The big question is; HOW DID THEY DO THAT?
I want to create that kind of a character! I want readers to fall in love, hate or awe of my character, but how? I think the closest I ever came to this was when I reincarnated a woman as a chihuahua. In that story we saw how tough a tiny dog's life could be from the mouths of dog. (it was posted here a while ago) The people who read this story sent me emails filled with fear, anger and PASSION! They expressed raw emotions at the adventures of this little dog and cheered her on. So, why can't I do that in every book? (Too bad I can't find an agent you loves chihuahuas!)
Back to spoiled Scarlet from Gone with the Wind. Through the whole story this girl stays self centered with a small edge of meanness around some of her actions. Yet, we can't let her go. I hated Scarlet, admired her and watched in awe as she always came out on top. I wanted to hit Ret over the head for wasting his time on this bitch because she was never going to change and then there was poor dumb Ashley. I didn't see the attraction Scarlet had for him but who's to question love? Gone With the Wind stands strong even today becuse of these over the top characters but how did she do it?
Someone? Please? How do you evoke passionate responses to your characters? I need to know this magic formula so agents and editors will swoon at my work. I want them to laugh out loud, weep with desperation and cheer my girl onto the end. Well?


Danika / OpenChannel said...

This is a great question. I've actually taught eight week courses on character development and we still didn't cover everything I wanted to!

Four of the things I work on are flaws, fears, exterior goals, and interior needs. I do a lot of backstory work on characters before I let them lose on the page.

I've got a bunch of exercises in my "start to finish" series on my blog, but some of the start lines you can use (questions to think about) are:

What is my character's greatest fear?
What is my character's greatest desire?
What big secret does my character keep?
What is the WOUND that shaped my character's life?
What is her exterior goal (what she seeks in the outside world)?
What is her internal need (what she needs to learn in order to grow as a human being)?

If you know what motivates your character, all her actions will spring from this. If you know what she wants, we will want that for her too IF we empathize with her.

To empathize with her, she needs to be flawed. Life is messy. People are messy. We North American's tend to love stories where flawed people redeem themselves. We'll say... gosh darn it Jean, if you'd only forgive yourself, then you'd be able to love again... (then when she does we say "see! I told you so!)

Now villains, we remember them for other reasons... but they too must have detailed personalities (and fears and wounds).

I love developing characters! Each one has a life of her own.

Danika / OpenChannel said...

P.S. What I mean by start lines is to write that question out and then brainstorm on the page. Don't just think about the question, write pages and pages about it. You'll be surprised what you learn about your character.

Aimless Writer said...

I love this exercise! Can I share it with my writer's group? They will love this stuff. I've never thought of my character's biggest fear. I've done most of the other questions. Hmmm...I'm writing a tough detective now and I have to think of his biggest fear...

spyscribbler said...

Hah! That's funny. I'm not good at exercises or questionairres, but I do like the book, "Save the Cat."

I use the "Method," though, like acting. I become my character. And then hopefully, my readers get in her skin, too.

Oh heck, honestly? I just don't know.