Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Getting Into Character

I was supposed to post this last week, but I figure better late than never. This month's Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog question was posed by yours truly:

How do you develop your characters? Do you flesh out the details before (like writing as that character, writing backstory, or filling out a questionnaire about their preferences and history) or invent as you go?

Now, first, Deb Salisbury is posting today--and today is her day to post, so go over to her blog and see her answer to this! Laura posted her answer at the beginning of this month, and Lydia posted hers two weeks ago.

As for me:

I am not a pantster. I tend to outline or at least write out a lot of notes before I start a project. I think of it as a gearing-up phase, sort of like on a rollercoaster--you have that series of meh ups-and-downs before you start up the steepest hill to get to the heart-stopping downhill. It's a kind of critical mass, like I have to build a bit before I start writing in earnest. Once I do, I write fast, sometimes thousands of words per day, and am often finished with the book within 10-12 weeks.

Interestingly enough, though, my gearing-up process doesn't include a lot in the way of character development. It's incidental for me. That doesn't mean it's not important! It's just ... I don't do anything like writing journals from the characters' points of view or completing inventories of their preferences. A lot of those details emerge as I write the actual story.

What I do accomplish in the pre-writing phase: establishing a few core traits, including strengths and weaknesses. My characters have to be consistent, even when they're going to radically change over the course of the story-arc. I try to keep character temperament firmly in mind as I write, and if we're talking the POV character(s), then I want the prose to reflect it, which means I have to understand it ahead of time.

So I guess my approach is:
  • I get the core traits in mind ahead of time, plus some history and background.
  • I don't bother with the detail stuff, including preferences, habits, mannerisms, and pet peeves, until I'm actually writing the story, because I know it will evolve organically as part of the story-creation process.
Now that I think about it, this character development process mirrors human development. We each come into the world, already wired up with a temperament. But it is only through our experiences--our daily walk through our own life stories--that we discover our preferences, pick up mannerisms, and develop our patterns of communication and ways of relating to other people. Go figure.

How about you? What's your process?


  1. I AM a big pantster, and if I plan anything out in advance, it will be the major parts of the plot. I never develop characters in advance, except as pertains to the plot.

    I just start writing. The characters develop themselves. I let their voices and personality come out as I write. They might be weak at first, and they may even change drastically and repeatedly in the first quarter of the book. Occasionally, if I get stuck, I might leave the story and write something separate -- an interview, a piece of backstory -- just enough to get that character in my sights again. Then I dive back into the story.

    Often, when I look back, I realize I've ignored what I wrote in that interview or backstory. It was a tool to get unstuck, nothing more.

    By the time the first draft is finished, I know who and what the characters are supposed to be. Second draft is for making it consistent throughout.

  2. I do spend time figuring the characterizations, but I don't waste time anymore with the questionnaires that ask pointless questions. Now I pick the relevant questions to ask. I spend more time figuring out the characters' backstories, to help me figure out who they are. Plus I create character collages. When I work on a specific scene, I spead out the collages on the floor of the characters in the scene, and it's like they are there with me, guiding me.

    Yeah, I know I'm kinda freaky, but my kids think the collages are cool. :D

  3. I do outline as far as plot goes, but I'm very cerebral when it comes to characters. My entire understanding of them is all in my head, and I don't think about how they're going to react to certain situations until I'm actually writing that scene.

    Of course, this is all based on only one book, so I'm not sure how accurate that will stay.

  4. some of my characters are like this- i kind of know who they are ahead of time, but others... well, they surprise me. and it takes me at least one draft before i understand who they are... i think it would be better to know ahead of time, for consistency's sake. but i don't know. sometimes it just takes a little while for me to get some of my characters to open up to me. :)

  5. Every detail is kept in my head auntil the first draft is done. Then I edit by the seat of my PJ's.

  6. Hi Sarah! :waves: I wondered if I missed your post last week, but I've been drifty lately.

  7. haha. I wrote two posts about how I write this week--and I'm a plotter! I can't pants a novel. I tried. It was a fail. But I like to think of half-pantser, half-plotter. I like to know the characters a little bit, but their pet peeves and such? Nah, let them tell those to me while I'm writing. ;)

  8. Sounds brilliant to me, Sarah. And it also sounds like you kind of ARE a panster when it comes to the indepth part of character development. I love your idea about fully understanding the character's temperament and keeping it consistent (the outline part). It sounds like an excellent way to keep characters authentic. But organic is key to making them authentic in the first place. Would you ever let your character take you somewhere you hadn't planned to go, even someplace on the fringe of or outside their temperament boundaries, when you're working at that detailed level?

  9. I'm not a panster. I develop an outline and character profile sheets for my MC's before I start. Though it gives me a framework, I add to it as I go as the muse always changes and develops things for me. I think I would be totally lost and need tons of editing if I just "let it fly."

    p.s. thanks for following my blog!

  10. Hi Sarah! *waves*

    I like how you build your characters. Makes a lot of sense. I love how everyone does it slightly different. This was a great question. :)

  11. Ah-ha! I knew my system worked for a reason--it's the way normal people are. Victory for me!


  12. I've been slowly evolving from total pantser to somewhat of a plotter. I am similar in my character development, and it's kind of cool that it mirrors human development. So thanks for that!

  13. I usually know one or two significant things about each main character and then just let them run with it. Sometimes I'll just write conversations to see what they'll say and I learn things about them that way.

    I actually do this in terms of plot as well. In fact, a few things I'm working on have started with the characters and the plot has come from that. I guess that makes me an uber-panster?

  14. I invent as I go and then go back and dig deeper.