Last weekend I gave a workshop at the NESCBWI conference in Nashua, New Hampshire. It was called Creating Memorable Characters. Preparing for it reinforced all that I have come to believe about stories. It can be summed up this way (and said in a scolding tone):
It’s the character, stupid.
Now, that doesn’t sound nice, but know this: I have to say it to myself, too. A LOT.
Often our Great Ideas come in the form of a What If… That’s all well and good and may lead to a great story, but the What If must include a compelling character or it will go nowhere. Below are 5 Keys to Memorable Characters. These have been scrounged from workshops, books, friends, and courses.
1) WHAT DOES SHE WANT?
If she needs nothing, and has no problems, there’s no story.
It’s my belief that her INNER WANT/NEED is the driver of the story. The outer is important, because that’s what the character does. It’s what the plot looks like when you get out your butcher paper and draw your story. Here’s where you ask the What If question about your character. BUT it won’t work if you don’t have a compelling inner want/need. Make it deep. To find this, remember when you felt something. Hurt, love, hate, anger, shame.
2) WHAT DOES SHE SAY?
How your character speaks, how she phrases things, her word choice should reveal her personality, her feelings, her education, or lack of… The reader should know who is speaking even without the sentence attribution.
3) WHAT DOES SHE DO?
This is your character’s most important means of revealing herself to the reader. What she does should reflect her needs and wants, her strengths, as well as her weaknesses. Try letting your character do some contradictory things. For example, a character that needs to tell the truth might do the opposite. This could propel the plot.
4) WHAT DOES SHE LOOK LIKE?
I’m not talking about what she’s wearing. In fact I find it distracting to be told what a character is wearing if it has nothing to do with the plot. I’m talking about the power of minor actions and gestures.
Make minor actions meaningful, like fidgeting fingers, a character smoothing her dirty blouse, someone jiggling his feet under his desk, or kissing his lucky charm before he does anything. This is telling the reader something about the character. Make these gestures work for the story.
5A) WHAT DOES SHE THINK ABOUT?
Internal dialogue can reveal your character’s attitude. This is especially useful in contrast to what she says to other characters. It doesn’t have to be a laundry list of options that your character must consider. This is far too common in books. Let it be an opportunity for the reader to check in with the character and identify with them, or a place where the reader learns something new.
5B) Tapping Into Your Character
Characters don’t usually come ready-made. My character in Buried, Claudine, appeared to me one day. She was age 17, dirty, scared, freaked out, she had a shovel in the dark behind her trailer. That was it. I knew she was in trouble, but that’s all. The rest came as I wrote. When I got stuck these are some of the things I did:
Make a collage of your character and her world using magazines, or old photos. Be free with the paper and glue. Put on music that she might listen to and add to it and change as your story progresses.
One of my writing teachers taught me this exercise. First shut your door. Turn on calming music, or not. Take five deep breaths. Count five on the inhale and five on the exhale. You are now more relaxed and you can invite your character into your mind. Observe her. If you find yourself thinking of other business say, “Not now.” Go back to being the watcher.
Build an Altar, or a Playhouse
Remember when playing dolls or house was okay? Do it with your character. I like to keep a few objects on a shelf near my laptop for acting out scenes, daydreaming, or when I need a break from typing.
Make a Playlist
I love to write to music. Usually I blast it. The very act of thinking about what my character likes to listen to is helpful. I also have a playlist that helps me remember the summer when I was sixteen.
Talking with the Ones that Make You Dig the Deepest
There are some people that make you cry, make you laugh, make you mad, tilt you on your axis… Know who they are and recognize what happens when you’re with them.
This is sort of right brain. It helps me when I’m well into the story and I’m stuck in a scene. Using a pad of paper and pencil, interview your character. Ask what’s going on? Why are you doing that? How do you feel about it? And so on. Make it free flowing and don’t censor yourself.