Sunday, December 6, 2009

Building Character

One of the easiest mistakes a writer can make is not knowing who their characters are and why their story is important. Whether you are a plotter or a person who writes by the seat of your pants, as the author you must know your characters deeply. I've spoken about goal, motivation and conflict. I've spoken about starting the story in an interesting place. Neither of these things can be done if you don't know who your characters are. Very simply put, a story is about one thing, character growth or what is called a character arc. If the action does not change the characters, then there is no story--only a sequence of events.
So, before you begin, or even while in deep revisions, ask yourself. How does my character change? Who they were at the beginning of the story and who they are at the end must be different. Some formerly held principle in your character must change.
Many beginning writers will make these changes extreme. They will take a murderer or a prostitute and change them into a suburban mom who goes to church each Sunday. Then they wonder why the editor or agent didn't like their heroine. They say, "but I redeem her in the end." These kinds of extremes--while showing that the author is aware of character arc--are too blatant and leave the reader cold at the opening. Why? Readers like to be the point of view character. If that character is too cold, evil or calculating then a reader won't stay with that character to watch them grow. As an author you need to think of character arc in more realistic terms.
A simple tool to use is the W. Think about who your character is in the beginning and why the reader cares about them. Ex: Harry Potter-an orphan living with uncaring family. Now think of four turning points in their development. Keep them subtle. Ex: things go downhill for Harry with his family until the first turning point for his character-Hagrid from Hogwarts arrives. From there things get better. Harry learns he is more than a mere orphan. His adventure into a new life begins. But things can't stay wonderful or the story would be over. So then next turning point arrives. (Think W --down, then up, now down.) Harry realizes that he must believe in himself even when others don't if he is to help his new friends. The final turning point things turn up-but subtly. In the end Harry returns to being the boy in the closet, but he now knows he is more than that. And that carries him into the next phase of his life.
Each character in your story should have their own subtle W. Whether you plot or write by the seat of your pants, having character W's will help you build a better story.

15 comments:

Jessica said...

Excellent post! You broke HP down well too.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

You're right - real life is a series of growth spurts and turning points, low & high moments.

Pamala Knight said...

*Sigh* How'd you get so smart??

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Jessica, thanks. I watched the marathon on tv yesterday. Can you tell? :)
Hi L. Diane, so very true.

*waves* Pamala, Thanks for the smile!

Jaimey Grant said...

Great post! I've often wondered at readers who actually want characters who don't change at all.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Jaimey, thanks for commenting. Good point. I know readers who feel this way. Perhaps they really just want more subtle change. Cheers!

~Sia McKye~ said...

"How does my character change? Who they were at the beginning of the story and who they are at the end must be different. Some formerly held principle in your character must change."

Great questions Nance! You're right though, you have to know your characters to answer those questions.

I've used the W for plot, but didn't think of it for the character arc. I'll have to try that.

Have a great week!

Linda Kage said...

Wow, this is so helpful. Thank you, Nancy. I had to think back to the books I already have coming out, wondering if the characters in them changed...and you know what. There WERE changes! Maybe that's why I sold THOSE books!!

Cool. And eye-opening moment.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Sia, thanks. I love the W for plot as well.

Hi Linda, isn't it fun to look back and see that you did something right without conscious thought? Knowing makes it easier next time. Cheers!

Marilyn Brant said...

I love the mental image of the "W"... Thanks, Nance!! ;)

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Marilyn! *waves* thanks for stopping by. cheers!

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

"W" has a whole new meaning now! I read a book where one of the main characters started off as perfect and went downhill never to go back up – kind of like the opposite of “W” – would that be an “M?” By the way, I didn’t like the book, which, again, proves your point.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Jane, Your comment made me smile. Yes, as readers we generally don't care to see ourselves as anti-heros.
Thanks for stopping by.

SueO said...

What a terrific blog! How did I miss this? Oh wait...the N word - NaNoWriMo!

love this post; makes me feel like I'm on the right track.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Sue, :)

Welcome back from Nanaowrimo. Cheers!