Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Just Who's Driving This Thing, Anyway?

(I always hesitate to give writing advice because everyone writes differently—and they should. My method is not and should not be your method. Besides which, none of you have read my books yet, and you could very well want to gouge your eyes out when you do. But only if you hate really amazingly earth-shatteringly mind-bendingly good things.)

(You know I’m kidding, right? Right.)

Onto our topic of characterizations, and why some work when others don’t. I’ve seen many sheets and forms for character details. Those can be helpful, but details don’t make a character, just like assigning one “strong” personality trait won’t keep your MC from being bland. I think there is a simple test you can do to determine whether or not your narrator/main character is a real, fleshed-out person and not just something you use to tell your story.

Think about your character. Now, strip away the plot. All of it. Take away the love interest. Take away the paranormal aspects. Take away the political intrigue and impending war. Take away the engagement to a tempestuous Duke. Take away the evil leprechaun overlord trying to steal her rainbow.

Is there anything left?

If you take away the plot and you still have a character that is compelling and interesting—one you’d want to spend time with over the course of a day, or in a different story—I think you’ve succeeded.

Honestly, I can’t tell you my characters’ birthdays, or what their second grade teacher’s name was, or what their favorite flavor of ice cream is, but I can tell you this: I know them. I like them. If I had to take Evie out of IPCA, take away The Boy, take away the story, I’d still want to spend time with her. I hope you would, too.

Let’s apply this to Lisa McMann’s WAKE. If the MC didn’t fall into dreams, I think she’d still be an intriguing character, don’t you? And Elizabeth Bennett (which, yes, I know it is SACRILEGE to even think of taking away Mr Darcy, but work with me here) would be interesting outside of her plot. Think about your favorite books and apply this test—I’m very confident that your favorite characters can withstand the removal of their plots. This isn't to say that plot-driven books are bad. Quite the contrary. But even if your novel is plot-driven, it needs to be driven by real, three-dimensional, interesting characters or it won't work. Somebody's got to steer the dang thing, after all.

To summarize: Characters shouldn’t be vehicles for stories. Stories should be vehicles for characters.

And that is all I have to say about that. You are free to go about your day, confident in the assurance that I will not force any advice whatsoever on you for at least a fortnight. And now I’ve got to go look up what a fortnight is and figure out when next I can vomit my ideas all over the internet.

39 comments:

Tina said...

Excellent advice (and not just because I happen to agree with it!) and I love the way you write. Your personality shines through! I know what a fortnight is, but I won't tell...

Abby Stevens said...

I think this is excellent advice. Thank you for taking the time to do this, Kiersten. While everyone does and should write differently, YOU have obviously done something right in getting published, so you're opinions carry weight.

The only thing I slightly disagree with is that characters can be very dynamic and NOT be likeable, so long as they are not the MAIN character (because we know the main character must be likeable, of course. Who wants to read about a dude who walks around kicking puppies all day?). I suppose you were talking about the MC, though.

BTW, how would you feel about me holding a contest on my blog with PARANORMALCY as the prize when it comes out? I don't have enough readers yet, but hopefully by then I will!

Abby Stevens said...

BTW, didn't you JUST reach 400 followers, and now you've got over 500?! Holy guacamole! You're a popular lady, Kiersten!

Lily Cate said...

Elizabeth Bennett is terribly interesting- and of course she isn't even Mrs. Darcy until the end of the book, so I think that totally counts.

I love your last statement there. This is why I'm more of a pantser than a plotter on the first draft- I want the characters to do what they do, and not try to fit them into a plot.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

So, so true. I'm working on some re-writes right now, trusting my characters will show me, through their weaknesses, strengths, etc., where to head.

The characters hold the answers in the end.

JamieKate said...

I like your advice! You shouldn't worry so much about influencing other peoples' writing methods. If it's good sound advice (which I think yours is), then it doesn't matter. Also, I think most people can discern which advice they can use and which they can forget and/or put on the back burner in their mind.
I always find it difficult to be objective when it comes to my characters...but I'm pretty sure they could stand alone without the plot. But I think experiences shape people, as well...so it's hard to say.
Jamie

Tere Kirkland said...

Mmm, idea-vomit. ;)

You're right, this is definitely something to think about. It's always the characters that we remember more than what happens to him. (Or else why would there be so much fanfic?)

Thanks for a great post!

Kiersten White said...

It's true that sometimes our stories shape our characters, and that's okay! It's great. Our characters should be dynamic and affected by what's going on around them.

Tina--No fair.

Abby--That sounds fabulous! And yes. I did jump up quite a bit. I've no idea where you all came from, but I like you very, very much.

Tere--It's amazing what broad application the notion of vomit has.

lora96 said...

A fortnight is 2 weeks. Any self respecting Jane Austen-ite knows that so I think I can assume safely that you were kidding.

And, yes, all my faves can survive plot-extraction and remain fun/interesting/delightful. Now I just need to get my mc to be ever so slightly more, um, full, colorful, multi-faceted, all that jazz.

Kiersten White said...

Lora, you're assuming I have any self-respect : )


And it's important to note that I'm not advocating making all of your characters LOUD and larger than life and EXPLODING WITH PERSONALITY. Oftentimes it's the characters that are subtle that are the most intriguing. The goal is for them to feel like a real person, right? Like the characters in The Book Thief. None of them were crazy or over the top, but they all stay with you long, long after you finish the book.

Kelly Bryson said...

I haven't ever filled out a character sheet. It is backwards to me to pick out idiosyncracies and details and then try to cobble them together and come up with a motivation that works.

I start with a major question that burns in the character's heart-
In my WIP, all of my main characters are responding to the question of how you reconcile yourself to disappointments, pain and plain evil in this life.
They all respond differently. One with fear, one tries to control everything, one gives a laugh and a shrug and never lets anyone get too close, and my main character changes from being afraid and overwhelmed to accepting the bad as part of the package deal. That sounds boring without the plot to flesh it out, but the characters are real to me. I know them like old friends, the good guys and the 'bad' guys too.

But, I'm solidly a pantser and don't like organizational tools very much, anyway. They get in the way of my free-flowing idea vomit!

Stephanie Perkins said...

WHY WOULD YOU TAKE AWAY MR. DARCY???

I am never reading your blog again. I have deleted you from my Google Reader, I have deleted all your emails, and I have deleted your latest manuscript — even the copies on YOUR computer.

Kiersten White said...

But Steph--I took him away TO GIVE HIM TO YOU! It was supposed to be your Valentine's Day Present. Sob, sob, sob. Now I'll be too busy rewriting my books to be able to give him to you.

Valerie said...

What a great way to put it, strip away the plot and see what you have left! It seems so obvious and yet I never thought of it like that.

Most of my characters come to me first as whole people. They might give me some vague idea of what sort of trouble they're in but the rest of the plot is usually built on their reactions. They tell me what happens next rather than the other way around. (Of course, I don't mean they actually TELL me, like as in talking to me, unless you know, you don't think that's weird in which case, maybe they do. *cough*)

Also totally random and going off that whole idea-vomit thing. Do you think that the word "fortnight" might be short for fourteen night? I always knew what it meant but I never thought about it that way... And now I will cease my rambling! As usual, great post!

Dominique said...

Great advice.
I just did that to one of my favorite book characters, and even without his story, my heart went "Oh, come here, you need a hug," because I still cared about all the parts of him that went on without the plot.
I'll definitely be using this test more.

Stephanie Perkins said...

If you check your computer again, you'll find a copy of your manuscript.

Er . . . my apologies.

Very much looking forward to Valentine's Day.

Falen said...

good post - i've never been a fan of those character questionaires. They don't help with discovering your character's motivation and conflict.

Amber Tidd Murphy said...

What a great post.

It got me thinking about who my main character is without her love interest, but then I decided that was something that she is trying to figure out, too.

Now I am worried that she isn't likable enough. She's so wrapped up in this man. Is she still a good friend? Does she have any interests that he didn't foster?

Hmm. Who is she without him?

Andrea Cremer said...

So true.

Kiersten White said...

Amber--That could, however, be your character's exact problem (problem in a good way, I mean): Who IS she without those things?

Kristan said...

Dude, this just got favorited. I would also consider adding it to your list of helpful posts, if you haven't (considered, that is) already.

Fave lines:

"Honestly, I can’t tell you my characters’ birthdays, or what their second grade teacher’s name was, or what their favorite flavor of ice cream is, but I can tell you this: I know them. I like them. If I had to take Evie out of IPCA, take away The Boy, take away the story, I’d still want to spend time with her. I hope you would, too."

THANK YOU! I hate those character-building worksheets. Not because I don't think they can be useful -- I'm sure they can -- but because they're not useful to ME. But knowing and liking the people I create? That makes sense to me.

Random factoid: My favorite character of mine (to date) is Reggie from Twenty-Somewhere. He is not based on anyone I know, and he's not (really) a main character. He was a sidekick I created for one of the 3 MCs, and it turns out, he's the best friend I always wanted. I wrote him as such, and several readers ended up loving him the best too. :)

"Characters shouldn’t be vehicles for stories. Stories should be vehicles for characters."

Again, thank you. Maybe this is why my ideas usually start with a character. OR a situation that only a few people could face (which of course lends itself to creating unique characters).

Kiersten, I'm rambling now, but suffice it to say: I <3 you. Even though I think you might be one of those people who doesn't like people who <3 things...

Kiersten White said...

Kristan, it just so happens that I am one of those people who <3s people who <3 me : )

Grimmster24 said...

I dost hither thanketh thee, noble soul, for thy goodly deed in bringing henceforth this fortnight these most helpful bloggings so as to allow your fellows' writings to burst forth with charactery.


...But really, thank you, Kiersten. :-)

inthewritemind said...

Thanks for the advice. I don't do huge character spreadsheets; if anything I just write a brief little paragraph about them when I'm starting out in order to keep my thoughts organized. And of course, they often have minds of their own and change as the story goes on.

Anyway, seeing it from this point of view really does help me reevaluate some of my cardboard characters. Thanks again!

Debbie (Nerd Goddess) said...

Hmm, I've never thought about looking at it that way. Smart!

Marsha Sigman said...

This is really good advice. You aren't advocating a certain style but offering an idea of how to look at characters in a different way. I like that. You're just so dang good!ha

Rebecca Knight said...

Thank you, thank you! This is so well put :).

I've always thought I was strange for having problems coming up with details on a character before motivations, but it just seemed odd to figure out what kind of tic to give someone you don't even know yet.

This is great advice, as well as food for thought :).

Bethany Mattingly said...

I love this advice! Great post!

Nisa said...

I so agree with that, but I'm very character-driven. My husband is more plot-driven. The character could be the most dynamic, likable person in existence, but if there's no plot, he's done. Perspective is a funny thing like that.

Tawna Fenske said...

Cool post, and it makes me look forward to Paranormalcy even more. It also makes me want to take Evie out for cocoa and pedicures.

Tawna

Anita Saxena said...

It's no wonder you're getting published. You GET it. I love what you said about "stories should be vehicles for characters." In earlier versions of my WIP this was not the case, and I'm working diligently on trying to create what you have stated in this post.Very good advice.

twaddleoranything said...

I've never derived much insight from focusing on minute character details, so it's reassuring that I'm not the only writer in the world who eschews that technique! I love your suggestion to remove the plot and see what's left; I'll definitely be giving that a go in the future.

Daisy Whitney said...

Couldn't agree more. I don't do character lists of traits or birthdays either. (Though I often know which baseball team she roots for and let me tell you IT'S NEVER THE RED SOX.) But I digress. Your points are spot on and the key to characterization is not checking boxes or grafting on traits. It's making them real. It's how they talk, what they want, how they say it, what they think, how they react, how they love or don't. It's not in a checklist.

Indigo said...

Love this and couldn't agree more. I used to think it was the setting that made the character. I've since realized it's how my character reacts to that setting. I've honestly loved each of the main character in my books. If given a chance I would definitely be the best of friends with them. (Hugs)Indigo

jessjordan said...

1) I love that you started this blog with a big parenthetical. And then with another one. Total rule-breaking.

2) How did you KNOW I was writing about an evil leprechaun overlord who was stealing my MC's rainbow? Gahhh ... Now I must get cracking, before someone else finishes the story up before me!

3) A fortnight? Isn't that like, an eternity or something? (*Gasp!*)

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Good post! I've tweeted this one...

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder
Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

Paul Greci said...

Excellent advice. The character drives the story, not the other way around. Thanks, Kiersten!

Suze said...

Thanks for the post. I think that's the first time I've heard (or seen) anyone outside of my homeland use the word "fortnight"!

exploringeliza said...

"Is there anything left?"
What a perfect question. I've never looked at it quite like this, but in doing so I see that my current MC are all pretty solid. Yay for me!
Also, I think we all like your vomit. Ahh...IDEA vomit, that it.