Friday, June 22, 2012

Woo Your Characters

While Chance is off playing in Denver at RomCon, I'm steeling....err.....liberating her day.

You have this great story idea floating through your mind. Nagging you during the day job. Poking at you while you're falling asleep. You've pondered on the plot, let it boil and brew and now it's time to put words on the page.

You open the document. You come up with a really good opening line. Now you need your characters to engage. To come alive. But for some reason, they're standing around indignantly, arms crossed, looking bored and uncooperative. What gives?

You're rushing them. Yeah yeah, you've been listening to them for weeks. Patiently taking in their complaints about each other. They live IN your head, have been dancing and stomping all through it, so you figure you know them.

Not that easy. You can't expect them to trust you with their deepest, darkest secrets already. Just because they live in your head doesn't mean they trust you to tell their story. Nor does it mean you know anything about them.

To a non-writer, this would sound like insanity. But writers are shaking their heads thinking, "That's what their problem is."

Think of getting to know your characters like dating. Some story god of the Universe has decided you're a match. Writer meet characters. Characters meet writer. Now you have to go through the dating dance. *pauses while Hellie runs from the ship* Don't mind her.

The point is, you can't expect your heroine to get intimate before you've bought her a drink. Don't expect your hero to pour out his heart after a mere handshake. Sit down with them. Have a chat. Casual. No stress. A get-to-know you session.
Let them know you're here to tell their story, not your own. That you'll be true to them and you'll make sure they have a happy ending. Ask them lots of questions. Characters love questions. Even that strong and silent alpha hero. Don't let him fool you. He'll play hard to get, but keep those questions coming.

Get the basic history. Where were you born? Who were your parents. Where did you go to school? What kind of a kid were you? Then ease into something a little deeper. Anything traumatic happen in your childhood?

Pretend you're James Lipton filming Inside The Characters' Heads. Which means you have cards. You have background info and now you must use what you know to learn more. What did he want to be when he grew up? Did she see herself as an adventurer or a stay at home mom. (Which can also be quite an adventure, just ask one.)

Is he in line for a title? Does he want that title? Is she a debutante up for the highest bidder? Does she see marriage as a business deal or is she determined to marry for love? Does he like cats? Does she like dogs? Birds? Lizards? Brussel sprouts?

Ask any and every question you can think of and take notes. You may think that being laughed at in the girls' locker room for wearing granny panties when she was 15 won't add anything to your story. Wrong. That's a tell. A moment that explains why your tomboy, gear head boat mechanic has an extensive collection of lacy underwear.

Dig deep. Engage your characters before expecting them to engage on the page. You'll be surprised how much you learn and how much better your story will be for those awkward, painful days of wooing.

How do you get to know your characters? Do you take notes? Detail their history? Or do you think knowing she had a purple tricycle and took tap dancing lessons for three years is a waste of time?


Maureen said...

Well, I babble until they get tired of it and step up to the plate. Yup! Dazzle them with bullshit, make up crap that is silly or stupid or insulting until they push you out of the way and talk.

I'm mean.

Now, if only I could get that great first line going!

Denver- not sure yet. Report more later!

TerriOsburn said...

Dazzle them with bullshit. LOL! That's a life motto right there.

Janga said...

Since it was the interviews we did on the old EJ/JQ board that convinced me I knew enough about my characters to write a full-length book, I'm a believer.

I do think some of the lists of suggested questions out there can be overwhelming. If I asked my characters 501 questions and wrote the answers, I'd be sick of them and never write their story. LOL I have found the questions in the Donald Maas books useful, and I love Alicia Rasley's list. Nine questions I can manage--and they are great questions that produce tons of good info.

Here's a link to the Rasley questions:

TerriOsburn said...

Thanks, Janga. I'll check that out. And you're exactly right, too many questions can be overwhelming. I have character detail sheets that cover three pages, but I skip questions all the time. As with anything, use any writing tool in the way that it works for you.

But I don't think asking no questions is a good idea. Not that this too doesn't work for some writers, but I get so many ideas and directions and revelations from these sort of preliminary interviews.

And I totally forgot to include this link. Found this amazing blog on about the 3 questions you must ask your characters before you start writing. Did wonders for me.

No idea how to make that work as a hyperlink. :)

TerriOsburn said...

Janga, I just checked that link. Those are questions I've never seen or thought of. Excellent!

MsHellion said...

I do try to question them. One of my magnificent CPs had a 2 page "check sheet" of just basic stuff to not forget, and while it did say "how tall is this person, color eyes and hair?"--it also had parents, schooling, et al. And then on the second page, it had deeper stuff. "What would your character never do? 1-2-3. What's his basic want? What's his basic fear?

So I try to get that first. And it's not so long I feel overwhelmed--or as Janga said, sick of them that I no longer what to write about them.

I know what you're talking about though. Where you weren't in your story all day--you were doing your day job--so you open your story and suddenly no one is talking to you. (I wouldn't call it dating--it is, but you know I wouldn't call it that--but it's like my relationship with Deerhunter. All day he's doing something else. Hell, he may be doing it all week--and the week might have been fast for him and he thinks, "No problem, Hellie will be there when I come back because she knows I love her" but then he comes in days later and says, "Hey, baby, how's it hanging?" and gets the cold silent treatment. He apologizes for not being around, but there is still a frosty dialogue, and it's like starting over. He has to talk to me everyday for a while before I'm willing to open up again. You can't take people for granted, not even your characters. You never know anyone as well as you think you do. They'll always surprise you.

This week, I read in the new Writer's Digest magazine for July/August--about the Novel Journal. Where you write a few sentences how you're doing today and then how your story is going. What your fears and your confidence about the current scene is? Brainstorming with yourself about how you can make the scene better. I think this is a good idea and I'm going to try it out. It puts you into the writing, but doesn't immediately put you in a cold read with your characters where you feel overwhelmed and you just close the WIP again. It's like meeting with everyone in the reading room, going over your parts and the scene and script, and figuring out the best way to handle it before you commit it to the page. (I mean you can't do ONLY that; you will need to commit something to a page--but it's got an A-Team sort of thing going for it. You'll love how a plan comes together and all that.)

Maureen said...

Novel Journal - what a great idea. My confidence had been a total crapshoot lately and maybe this sort of morning pages would help me articulate it all. Must look for that magazine!

Off to the con!

quantum said...

I like the idea of wooing my characters!

Presenting them with a long list of questions isn't wooing though, its cross examining.
Might work for a villain but not for the lovely heroine who is going to haunt my dreams! LOL

Come to think, I'm reading a ghost story at the moment, the heroine and ghost fall in love. Sounds daft I know but Linda Gillard does exactly that with 'The glass guardian'. It's a brilliant book and I'm turning pages like mad. After I've bought her back list I think she's going to be an auto-buy for me.

So Terri, how would you woo a ghost? LOL

TerriOsburn said...

I'm going to borrow an answer from my mom.

Very carefully, Q. Very carefully.

You're right, we do not want to interrogate them and scare them away. But you can see I suggest starting simple and then easing into the deeper questions.

Then again dating is much like interrogating. It just happens over many dates instead of all at one time. LOL!

quantum said...

Very carefully, Q. Very carefully.

Perfect answer Terri!

Then again dating is much like interrogating. It just happens over many dates instead of all at one time. LOL!

That's not how I remember it!
One has to share experiences. Admiring wild flower meadows, walking together in the mountains, watching England win the world cup (we did once!), picnics with strawberries and cream, listening to music in the open air, playing chess .....

Through the experiences knowledge of the personality emerges in a most enjoyable way. Questionnaires are not the way to go. LOL

You have to share experiences with your characters and see what emerges. You can't force it IMO. LOL

TerriOsburn said...

No offense, Q, but it's clearly been a long time since you dated. None of that rings a bell. And I didn't say the interrogation wasn't mutual.

Also, if you go through all that before you can sit down and write the story, you might as well give up now.

quantum said...

No offence taken Terri.... it has been a long time! *grin*

I'm just saying that you have to involve the characters with your life. When I walk from my house I can go through a wild flower meadow, and strawberries and cream are part of an English summer. The Malvern hills (where Elgar walked and composed) is a short distance away. If I'm thinking of my characters as I pursue my normal leisure activities, then I will get to know them in a more natural and relaxed way. No additional effort required!

I guess there may be a difference between the English country-side and America.
Everything is on a much grander scale over there. LOL

TerriOsburn said...

Don't fool yourself, Q. Your surroundings sound much grander than mine. Though I do have the ocean.

And you make an excellent point. That is also part of getting to know them. But that generally comes earlier. As the story is barely forming, the characters can frolic through your mind constantly. A most important time.

However, that can be deceiving because after all the frolicking, you think you know them. But there are so many more secrets they've yet to reveal. Just suggesting we go a little beyond the frolic.

TerriOsburn said...

And thank you for playing along with me, Q. I seem to have run everyone else off. :)

quantum said...

As a GH finalist, you are the expert Terri.

Your style of dating clearly works for you.

Just ignore my fanciful theories .... if you haven't already! *smile*

TerriOsburn said...

I claim no expert status, and I haven't dated in more years than I'm willing to admit here. But any mention of dating freaks out Hellie and any chance to freak out Hellie makes my day. :)

Clearly this is old territory we've trod before, stomped into the decks and worked over until it's as dead as a day old wet noodle. I claim brain fry from jury duty and writing this in a hurry last night.

MsHellion said...

Run everyone off? You didn't even respond to MY comment! *LOL*

TerriOsburn said...

I didn't? *scrolls back up* Oh. I think I read that in email then got distracted. Though to be honest, I don't have a response. LOL! You said it all. I can't argue with it or expand on it.

You're just that good.

P. Kirby said...

Wooing? Hmmm...more like I stick 'em on the page and immediately start f*cking them over.

Well...I do. I start out with rough idea who they are, at which point they start talking to each other and I write those scenes. Often out of order. Then I realize I have no flipping idea what the plot is, and do some brainstorming, write some more, which reveals a bit more about them....muck out the horse paddock, have another epiphany, write more scenes. In the process, I often find that my preconceived notions about my characters were wrong. It's chaos; it's messy; to quote Arthur Miller..."lot of times, the blood is on the floor."

I'm not much of a planner.

TerriOsburn said...

Just reading that makes me uncomfortable. But you're published so clearly this works for you. How much revision does this system require?

P. Kirby said...

How much revision does this system require?

Not as much as you'd think. As usual, I struggle with the plot, consistency issues with world building, etc. That's where the bulk of my revision time goes.

Just f*cking writing the characters, however, really lets me get to know them. Otherwise, I'd dither for ages with character sheets (including drawings) and never actually get the damn story on the page. :)

But...I enjoy revision. The first draft is like the roughed-out painting or sculpture; revision pulls out the detail, tightens the composition, etc. Maybe that's it; I approach it like a visual artist. ?

TerriOsburn said...

Sounds like it, Pat. I think I go the other way. I don't enjoy revision as much, but I'm getting better at it. I usually feel like I can see when something needs....more. But HOW to fix is a complete mystery.