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Some Tips on Character

Last month I participated in a workshop on character led by Barbara Claypole White. Here are some of the tips that helped me.

Deep Characters Take Work

Barbara’s books are known for their deep characters—her goal is to have each character’s voice so distinct that the reader will know who is talking even if she uses no dialog tags!

Barbara shared several exercises she goes through to get to know her characters and allow them to develop in her mind. For example, she asks herself questions, like “What scares me about you?” She explores the character’s backstory, which may or may not make it into the book. She interviews characters to get to know them. She creates character notes and boards to refer to. She comes at each character from many angles: What is their body language? What flaws do they have? What contradictions? Personality types? Voice?

She advised the class to cherrypick the techniques that seemed useful, since her method is hers and will differ from other writer’s.

My first reaction to all of the ideas was, Oh God! This is so much extra work! I have to spend time writing out an interview with my character, and I can’t even use the writing in the text? No, thank you!

But as I’m continuously learning, the craft of writing is much more than the simple first layer of thinking out a plot and putting it onto the paper. Maybe I felt rushed because I was participating in NaNoWriMo at the time, or because I feel so eager to have a fiction book published. But I want my first fiction book to be good, too!

The Low Hanging Fruit Tips

So, I started with the tips that seemed most manageable to me, applying them to the novel I was writing for NaNoWriMo. Even before I left the class, the tips had generated some new ideas—ideas I could add to my draft.

My two main characters are Cailin (a nerdy art history student who lacks self-confidence when it comes to dating) and Anders (the heir to an estate who doesn’t trust himself to know when a woman really likes him, and not his money). Here are some of the tips I used:

  • What is each character’s greatest fear? Cailin: opening up to love someone. Anders: disappointing his grandfather, who left the estate in his hands.
  • What is each character’s contradiction? Anders is a famous, wealthy bachelor who appears regularly on magazine covers, but he finds public attention tiring and likes to spend time at home alone, reading. Cailin is studious, careful, and rule-abiding, but when she sees that Anders needs help, she ventures into uncomfortable situations.
  • Think about a negative quality of a character and a time it became a positive. I thought about Anders being a workaholic as he manages his family estate, and his brother who likes to drink and party, and this led me to a scene with them as boys, where Anders drinks with his brother and has fun, but is ashamed when their grandfather catches them. This leads to a schism between the brothers. (So, I didn’t complete the exercise, but I did discover a new development.)
  • Make lists of themed words for your characters. For example, Cailin is an art history student. As she and Anders drive through a city, she is likely to notice the architecture. Anders likes gardening. He is likely to notice the trees along the street or the flowers in planters outside a restaurant.
  • The concept of third-level emotions and digging deeper to find them. For example, Cailin’s creepy art history colleague hits on her in their study room. She is repulsed by him and turns him down, and eventually he goes away—for now. How does she feel?
    -She feels unhappy because she has to tolerate his advances.
    -She feels angry at him for hitting on her at work, which she knows is inappropriate.
    -She feels frustrated with herself that she doesn’t know how to turn him down assertively.
    -She feels angry at herself for not trying to turn him down assertively, which might be uncomfortable.
    -She feels angry at herself for being a coward.

Amid all this consideration of my characters, random truths popped out. Like I had Anders focused on estate security as a teen, but his character would be more interested in managing the gardens. But he overachieves and wants to impress his grandfather, so he works all over. It felt like the exercises were loosening things up in my brain, allowing the characters’ truths to escape.

Do I Want to Do All This?

One exercise bugged me: the “fresh smile” exercise. Barbara had us write sentences to replace a simple “he smiled” with a more complex image. For example, “he gave her the honey-I-swallowed-the-canary smile.” Classmates read sentences aloud. A lot of them were similes, which made me not sure I liked them. Things like, “His smile twitched like a dying fish.” “His smile faded like a closing scene.” (I just made those up.) It felt like middle school writing class. I thought, isn’t it nice to just read, “He smiled”?

But now, rereading the notes from the class, some of the examples do seem good. Maybe this can be done well or it can be done too much or badly. Maybe “His smile faded faster than the end of an eighties rock song” would be more specific and illustrative. (Or maybe it doesn’t work at all.)

Given how productive the two-hour class was, I think there is value in going through Barbara’s tips and spending time developing my characters. Now that the rush of writing for NaNoWriMo is over, this time spent seems less like a waste and more like part of the craft of writing.


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