Monday, October 08, 2007

And Now an Informational Question

(Does "Informational Question" even make sense? I don't know.) Anyway: I am thinking about the questions I want to answer for myself in this character talk, and while I have a pretty good agenda to cover based on the published description below, I'm struggling to get beyond theory into practicality. So if you're a writer, please tell me: Do your stories usually start with situation or character? Or with something else? And what are some of the things you struggle with in relation to characterization? Making them likeable? Giving them depth? Not saying too much? Do you struggle at all, or is it just there? This inquiring mind wants to know. Feel free to be anonymous in the comments.

Talk Description: Being Alive: Creating True Characters and the Stories They Live

Great stories don't necessarily begin with great characters, but they come to life only if the characters are as rich and compelling as the story the author wants to tell. In this talk we'll discuss what makes a character real and interesting to the reader; see how the unique qualities of a character's psychology can drive and/or enrich a story; and solve the ancient problem of free will vs. predestination -- ­at least as it relates to fiction.


  1. I've only just started visiting here, so I'm not sure what you've already mentioned, but one great book and a good framework on which to hang your story is Christopher Vogler's the Writer's Journey; he suggests starting with the ordinary world, then showing the event that spills the hero into the extraordinary world. I am not doing him justice, but I usually like to begin my stories in the middle of the action, to hit the ground running so as to capture the reader's interest right away.

  2. My stories usually begin with a situation or premise, then I build and shape a character to fit perfectly into that story. I was fifty pages into a story once and realized it needed a girl main character, not a boy!

    I would love to know more about how to create characters that have depth. But how to do that without simply dropping in quirky characteristics that may seem out of place.
    Great topic!

  3. Like Robin, I usually start with a premise. The first scene or chapter comes to me very quickly. The characters are somehow just there, intuitively all fleshed out in my mind.

    I don't have to do a lot of work to know the basics (how they'll respond to a situation, what they like to what, how they talk), but I do have to answer questions that come up along the way like, "Why does she love running so much?" or "Why did he treat her like such a jerk when they first met?" or "Why is he leaving her anonymous notes?"

    Answering these questions is what give my characters depth, and they're the sort of thing I couldn't think up ahead of time. If I tried to figure this out before I started writing, I would have blinders on to other twists and turns that present themselves. [I'm a pantser, not a plotter, if you hadn't guessed!]

  4. Sometimes my stories begin with a situation, and sometimes they begin with a character. It's a toss-up, really. To develop my characters, I journal as them.

    What I'd like to know more about is how to make readers care about them. Do readers need to see themselves or their friends in the characters, or do the characters just have to be sympathetic? What makes a character sympathetic? And what about characters that readers are supposed to despise? That's never worked for me as a reader, but I'm tempted to try it as a writer.

    Good luck, Cheryl. I'll be eager to see what you have to say, though I'd rather be able to hear it.

  5. This may sound loopy, but here goes...sometimes I'll think I have a character all figured out, and then s/he will go and do something unexpected. It might be something minor, or it could change the course of the story. I don't literally hear characters' voices (!), but sometimes I feel as if they've taken on a life of their own once I create them (a la Frankenstein). When it happens, it's one of the most maddening, humbling, exciting aspects of the writing process for me.

    What I struggle with is my role as a writer--should I follow my characters' whims, or mold them to my idea of how I think the story should unfold?

    I wish I could attend your talk, Cheryl! Best of luck with it.

  6. Interesting question, Cheryl. I wish I could hear your talk as well!
    Stories come to me as concepts, as characters, every which way. But what I find to be my biggest struggle is creating a main character who is a character. Of course they are based on what I know - me. And here's where the problem comes in. I was a quiet observer, I sat back and watched the world and the people around me. I was not a character.
    So I keep an eye on my secondary characters. They often tend to come through quite colorfully (as most of the secondary characters in my life were) and I end up borrowing traits from them for my main character.
    It's an odd issue to have.

  7. I usually start with a situation, too. And then I ask myself, what kind of a person would find him/herself in this situation, and how would they handle it?

    One of my biggest struggles is making the main character *act* instead of always just *reacting* to what other characters are doing. I'm not sure why that's so hard.

  8. Well, here's something.
    I start with a situation, or, more precisely, with some sort of problem, and then try to work from there. But I'm (basically) unpublished.
    From what I've read about writers and writing it seems many start like that, but only feel that their work is meaningful (and publish-able) once a character really comes alive.
    In other words, I think I've just given you a variation on the infamous, "It depends."

  9. My writing almost always begins with a character. At the risk of sounding nutty, s/he simply shows up in my head. Then I feel the obligation to tell his/her story to the best of my ability. Some characters reveal their stories easily; others do not. Once I spent several months fruitlessly writing something only to realize I'd completely misjudged my character. Once I reconsidered him, I could correct the plot to suit him.

    The character-coming-first approach is true for me regardless of type of writing, whether it be rhyming pb or YA novel, etc.

  10. Situations and characters spring to my mind with the same frequency. However, once characters fly the coop of my imagination and walk their way to independence, I’ll invent situations to throw at them, so I can delight in further discovering them by watching their actions and reactions. That’s when story-crafting is sheer fun!

  11. Characters come to me pretty much alive, and the more I chip away, the more there is to find in there. They are extremely real, and my stories usually start with a sense of them interacting with each other.

    One problem with *writing* MCs, though, is what e said--when you see through that focal character's eyes, you sometimes show the rest of the world more clearly than you show the MC. This is further exacerbated by a writer's desire to show-not-tell. What happens is that the reader gets everything BUT the MC's response. And then readers say things like, "I can't relate to the MC." "I feel like the MC is dragging me through the story, but I don't have any sense of emotion from him/her." "The MC seems distant."

    I've actually been having this discussion with a number of writer friends, so anything you can add on this would really be helpful. We think it's in the details, and we think that you might actually have to--gasp!--do a little tiny bit of telling to get the point across at a few key moments, at least to put an interpreting finger on all the "show" you've built up. This whole issue is, I think, most crucial right at the beginning, when the reader is forming that all-important bond with the MC. I suspect the whole issue is in the details, so it really would be helpful to get an editor's take on it.

  12. I always start with the situation (it being a dark and stormy night), because it serves as an unintimidating gateway to vault the reader and my story onwards. Similarly, I hear that is why some lawyers always begin closing arguments before a jury in the same exact manner every single time.

  13. Thanks for asking, Cheryl! I begin with character, but my problem is that I fall in love with my characters and don't want to give them any PROBLEMS! This, of course, leads to no story. No conflict = no story. How can I enable my characters to have problems so that I can show how great they are overcoming them or dealing with loss?

    Thanks again!

    ~Anonymous in the Northeast

  14. I start off with a situation, a plot idea. What if X happened, and then X happened, and then X happened?

    Struggle wise? Probably giving the characters depth. Expressing what is going on inside of their heads. And in writing fantasy, making sure they are not merely archetypal caricatures.

  15. Snoopy -- interesting. I am myself unable to start writing a talk properly until I type the words "My name is Cheryl Klein, and I'm an editor at Arthur A. Levine Books."

    Thanks for all the great insights, guys -- please keep them coming!

  16. I'm also really intrigued by your comment, Rose, because that to me doesn't sound like a character problem, it sounds like a voice problem (which is related but different). You're writing in first-person, yes? If those are the kinds of comments you're getting, I would guess that your voice is either too authorial (and therefore unbelievable) or too clinical (when clinicality/absence of emotion is not part of the point of your book). Of course I should not be diagnosing all this without seeing any of the MS!

  17. Cheryl, I was getting those comments a year ago, but after a rest and a lot of revision, I'm definitely not getting that any more. The thing is, I can't say which of the many things I tried made the change. A friend had the same experience and is also now getting positive reactions. Mine's in first person, but hers is in third.

    In the past few months I've critted a number of full mss and seen this very problem (most recently in third person), and I'm both sensitive to it now, and stumped on how to explain a solution. Your comment that it is related to voice is interesting. Obviously if you don't know your character well enough and you don't know what they really want and therefore what is really driving the story, you have a character development problem. But it's possible to have a well-developed character (in your mind) and still have issues getting that character and your reader connected. And maybe that's where voice comes in.

    There's a really interesting thread over at Verla Kay's about negative characters ( that applies to positive characters as well because it touches on how to get the reader invested in the MC early on. I think that all has something to do with it as well.

    I'm looking forward to hearing whatever you come up with!

  18. Like Natalie, I get excited when a character surprises me and ends up being quite different from the character I started with. That's when I feel like he or she has more depth and is more interesting.

    I admire writer's who can build in contradictions in their characters and make them believable. People are so astonishingly inconsistent, but I find it hard to write them that way.

    Great topic!

  19. I tend to get a snapshot of a character in a very particular situation and work from there (a sad, snarky girl hiding in a school bathroom stall to listen to a conversation, a somewhat pious teen activist and her agnostic best friend sitting on the Brooklyn Bridge and making summer plans, a boy with his blanket pulled over his head because he's afraid bugs will crawl into his mouth, etc.) and then build a story from there. But, my current YA project started with a "What if someone..." situation rather than a character, and it's been an interesting challenge. I'm also with anonymous and Natalie on those wonderful moments when the character surprises me -- the story really takes off for me then, and I'm also more able to analyze my story as a reader(as opposed to just as a writer). Sounds as though your talk will be a treat!

  20. I definitely struggle with characters. I'm so envious of writers who do it well. I think there's a fine line between giving them enough stuff to make them real and too much stuff that the reader may roll his/her eyes. How do you know if you've done enough or gone overboard?

    I'm curious - do you think secondary characters should want something too? I was reading someone's post recently who pointed out some of the great secondary characters in award-winning books, like Jason in RULES and the Colonel in LOOKING FOR ALASKA, have something they are after. What do you think?

  21. My novels always used to start with character, but as I've grown more experienced, I've found they can also start with situation or plot, or even with theme. The starting point is only that. It doesn't matter where I begin; all aspects will be needed.

    As to struggling with characterization, it's my theory that nearly every writer gets something for free. I need to work hard for an intriguing plot, but creating three-dimensional characters, both primary or secondary, comes relatively easily.

    IMHO, character depth comes not from adding quirks or details, but from making sure that each character displays a hint of inner life or of a past. The writer doesn't even need to know what that inner life or past is; I often don't bother to figure that out. I just throw in some reference to *something.*

    Imagine that a person you recently met said, in passing, "My brother had terrible eczema and never left the house when we were kids." Or suppose a coworker was asked an opinion at a meeting, and she said, "Oh, sorry, what? I was just daydreaming about a cupcake, dark chocolate with ginger."

    You don't have to embellish on these. Alone, they give the character that certain something.

  22. See, I'm going to have to disagree with the previous comment about not needing to know the past/inner life of characters. That's where I really begin. Getting to know the character and have hours of life on the page before the story actually begins is what makes characters work for me. Then I can think of what they would be like in any given situation better than had I not taken the time to get to know them. I had a character that I hated, but since I got to know him I placed him in situations where he was still sympathetic. A situation may pop into my head and I'll scribble it down so as not to lose it, but before I actually begin writing I have to think about what type of person would I like to have as my main character. I develop a relationship with the character and ask him/her the most random questions I can think of. My favorite is "how often does s/he eat Chinese takeout?" One of my characters ate it everyday for two weeks and couldn't stand the smell of lo mien for two years. None of that was relevant to the story, but it might flavor a description of a scene. (Not that I would purposely have that character walk by a Chinese food restaurant based on this query I asked, but if the street reaaaally needed to have one, I would know how the character would describe it). The reader never even has to know about this little love affair I've had with these characters.

  23. When writing novels-- I always plot first, until the story plays like a movie in my mind.
    With picture books,I might start with the character because if I over-plot the story, it becomes more than a picture book.
    To change the topic slightly... I am now very careful when naming my characters. Why? To please a friend, I named two characters after her two boys. They played minor roles in the story and everyone was happy. Then I wrote the sequel. I could not have every character be the "good guy". Consequently, my friend took it personally when these characters did horrible things. Now I'm editing book three and the kids are really showing their true colors in the book. Yikes! My main character needs to move and make new friends if there is to be a book four!

  24. I start with a character and then build from there. Giving the character *real* depth is something I struggle with a lot. The comments here have been most helpful!

    One thought for secondary characters (especially "bad guys") ... something I picked up from a woman in one of my crit groups ... it can be fun to write some portion of your story from their POV, to get to know them better, their motivations, etc. For the writer's eyes only, of course.

    Warning: You might end up liking your antagonists as much as or more than your protagonists!

  25. I have to add that I'm much more interested in the psychological underpinnings of a character than in how quirky they are. (A peeve of mine esp. in MG fantasy--too many quirky characters with quirky names and quirky setups--too much and it draws attention to the fact that This! Is! A! Story! Likewise, it's distracting to read continual asides about a character's entire backstory that pull me away from the main plot. Just because the author needs to know something doesn't mean the reader needs to know it.)

    Anyway, back to psychology, asking "Why?" is a great way to get to the heart of your character. I'm not as interested in knowing what kind of chocolate they like, but I could be very interested in knowing why they like it.

  26. ideas usually come to me when I hear something. And then I think, oh this would bea nice base for a story. The plot vaguely forms itself in my head first, you know? Not the details, just a fair idea of whats going to happen. But the characters are formed by then-I dont have to sit and think about them. As I type, their characteristics or the various facets to their characters start surfacing and then I sometimes have to pause and think-is this what they should be doing? Am I making them do something they normally wouldnt just because it would make it a lot more convenient for me to write or it would bring an exciting twist? So struggling with characters is something that does happen, yeah. Its not ALL THERE from the start, but it eventually does come along the way.
    Its important not to say too much. I think its necessary to leave something to the reader's imagination.

    Its such an interesting post, Cheryl! And the comments make it more so :)

  27. 1) One thing I've noticed with developing characters is that they need to have what I call a kernel -- the thing that's at the heart of their motivation. And you don't just come up with it. You dig for a while, and you find something that seems to be it, and it isn't. And then you dig some more, and here's the kernel! But no, there's something more. But you have to keep digging. If you take the one that's closest to the surface, you're not going to get far.

    More in a minute because the kid's complaining. And I guess it is bedtime. Up next: Anne Tyler.

  28. 2) I love Anne Tyler's characters. (My favorite of her books is Back When We Were Grownups.) Every one of her characters, even the waitresses and the people that pass through for a moment, are delineated so beautifully and are so differentiated that I am in awe. I understand that when she's setting up the book she writes a ream of paper about her characters. Think about writing 500 pages (or 250 if you use one side) on your characters. Egad. I generally get up to 50 pages, but that's usually stretching it!

    But you have got to dig deep. You've just got too! Otherwise your characters end up looking like everybody else's!

  29. Situation, I think.
    But that's a bit debatable if one writes in first - the character immediately and directly asserts her/himself, as in: "I was standing there naked when a dead man sauntered into my bathroom."
    So I'm not really sure.
    It is the character's personality, actions and reactions I most want to narrate, however. Situation is the tool.
    Often comes down to a choice between a priori and a posteriori approach.

  30. 3) Always assume your characters know more than you do. What is a revelation to you is old news to them. The question to ask: in light of that knowledge, what would truly be a revelation to them?

    All three of my statements can pretty much be boiled down to this: dig deeper, and don't blindly accept the first thing you get.

    Okay I'm done.

  31. My stories often start with an image. I see something strongly in my mind, or dream it. It's usually something very simple, but somehow carries a certain weight, and I know there's more behind it. Then as I recreate the image on paper, through drawing or words, more follows. It's a process of dipping below the surface to discover something that's apparently been growing for awhile, unseen, until the image pokes through into my conscious mind with power.

  32. Sometimes I'll start with a situation and create a character, but I have trouble with the character if I wait too long (i.e. if I develop the plot too much) because then I feel as if the character is being "manufactured" to fit what happens. Invariably that leads to a shallow character for me.
    I prefer to start with a voice, a character who speaks to me in some way, although I usually know at some level what her/his problem is right from the start. That way, character and plot develop together.
    I still have trouble with the show/tell thing when it comes to characters, especially in first person. I end up with a character who is telling the reader too much stuff, instead of showing it through action.
    Question: Does knowing your character well before you start the story actually add to the "telling" problem? Because often I find that if I don't know too much, and discover it by writing the story, it's more likely to be discovered through "showing".