Stories are about characters - nothing more, nothing less, but it's who our characters are and how they deal with their circumstances that give readers something to chew on and digest.
The material I’ve been reading lately, through a study group, brought this home forcefully to me. Orson Scott Card (Characters and Viewpoint) advocates looking at characters based on a number of factors: motives, past, reputation, stereotypes, network, habits and patterns, talents and abilities, tastes and preferences and what they look like.
Noah Lukeman (The Plot Thickens) suggests that the writer finds out everything about their characters before they start writing. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
I do this by downloading character charts off the Internet. I did a pretty good job with the last one I completed for three female characters in the novel Distraction. This particular chart included everything from physical description to political and religious views.
Now after spending time filling in three pages for each character, one would think I’d use all this stuff. I didn’t. Not to say I would have used every little detail I wrote down, however, it struck me that my characters would have been a lot more rounded if I’d followed through on more of the character details. Whether I want to admit it or not, I can still make them more real by including additional traits and personal preferences.
In editing this particular novel, I had one character reflecting on what her mother—who lived overseas—would think if she knew her daughter was involved in an adulterous relationship. Further in the novel, the character again thought about her mother, who this time, was deceased. Then last night after re-reading some articles on characterization, I went back to the character chart and found that this same character mentioned above had a mother who was alive and well.
Yeah, this happened because I stopped following the ‘Project Bible’ I created for the novel. I’m a firm believer in outlining, and part of this process is creating character charts. My troubles arise because I don’t always stay faithful and check in with the charts once I’m up to the eyeballs in writing.
It’s okay to try and retain all details if working on one story, but if you’re like me and work on several stories at once—writing and editing—the details can get a little hazy. But to come back to where I started out, I find that my most memorable characters are those I know the most about. The more history they have, the better. They emerge more richly drawn and have fascinating stories to tell.
Are you one of those writers who can track of personalities in your head or are your characters so complex that it pays to write their history down because there’s so much of it?