The last time my readers saw a post on my blog they may have been dismayed to discover it was hijacked by my schnauzer, Stirling. And yes, I admit it: he is my unofficial mascot. He submitted particularly unreasonable demands (i.e., Tivo the entire season of “The Dog Whisper”), but thus far I have successfully refused. And no, I am not an Authonomy.com addict, Stirling … No really. Ahem.
Never heard of Authonomy? Oh, it’s all the rage these days, especially since…well, post-K-day. Authonomy is like a micro-marketplace for us unpublished writers to hawk our wares and–holy rusted metal, Batman!–is there some stunning prose on that site.
When I was innocently browsing the forums, er, Authonomy the other day (okay, I’m an addict!), I posted a listing of five of my current favorite books on Authonomy, books that are stellar at characterization. These writers spoke about their processes for creating characters, and I wanted to give you a peek into the fascinating discussion that resulted.
Palace of Wonder by Jason Quinn a.k.a. “Lord Dunno”
Artemis Rising by Cheri Lasota a.k.a. “StirlingEditor”
Turning Red by Heidi Mannan
May 1812 by M.M. Bennetts
Daisychains of Silence by Ali Mair
God’s Checking Account by Matt Rogers
StirlingEditor: What techniques do you use to create rich, authentic characters?
Jason Quinn: Well, dossier is too grand a word for it. I have a sheet of paper that I scribble on and stick to the wall in my office. One for each character where I’ll jot down all the characteristics, etc. Any foibles or catchphrases they may have. I think mainly for us, apart from the basic idea for the story, we came up with the characters we wanted to inhabit the story first.
We did that by casting the whole thing from people we know. Some writers like to literally cast their projects with movie stars and actors but I’ve never really found that helpful. I prefer to cast it with people I know. I think in a way it helps make it real because for every line of dialogue each character speaks I have a real person’s voice in my head and if I can’t imagine them saying it then I’ll ditch it and think of something else.
Now, of course, none of my acquaintances speak in Victorian slang, alas, but apart from the odd word I try and catch the rhythm of their speech. One of my pet bug bears in fiction is when we have our wise sages spouting off in waves of pomposity that no one could ever have said outside of a 1950s historical B movie. But if you picture that sage as someone you know, it’s easier to get them to come up with the goods in a much livelier and hopefully more readable way. As far as I’m concerned the only time stilted dialogue is any good is when it’s being spoken by a foreign character.
Cheri Lasota: In my case, I lived in my book’s setting for a couple of years, so I picked up some of the Azoreans’ mannerisms, politeness, shyness from that. But again, my characters are somewhat based on mythology. I picked up a helpful book called 45 Master Characters by Victoria Schmidt, which was particularly useful, as it discusses mythological archetypes and how they’ve been used in film and literature. I also do character interviews, i.e., I give my characters opposing views on a random topic and let them fight about it. And like, Dunno, I write down traits, etc., in a list.
The most fun technique I use, however, is what I call “watching the movie version.” This involves closing my eyes and watching the “movie” of the scene play out in my mind’s eye. This helps me eliminate stilted dialogue (I hope!) and pick up on natural gestures and body language. It’s quite really useful for choreographing fight scenes.
I think it’s true that unless you know how your characters would react in a given situation you don’t really know them well enough to write them. I think that’s when I finally made a breakthrough on mine. I began to know instinctively that Tristao would always try to do the right thing. I knew Diogo (the bad guy) would never truly feel remorse. And my MC, Arethusa? Well, she was trickier. When I first wrote her, she was essentially me. I had to rewrite and extricate myself from her thoughts, actions, and dialogue. That’s when she really came into her own.
Heidi Mannan: Open-mouthed characterization is something I spend a lot of time on in the pre-writing stage. It’s good to find it pays off. I don’t have a set method when it comes to characterization. Some of them originate from pictures in a magazine, some from people I know, some from ideas–like forgiveness or chaos or something more abstract. From there, I just start adding traits; and two of the most crucial for me are flaws–even if a character is superhuman or near perfect– and at least one trait that goes against the character’s norm, preferably a moral conflict. And I also spend a lot of time thinking about how a character’s desires and beliefs might make them dress, move, stand, etc. It’s all so much fun!
M.M. Bennetts: I spend a lot of time just looking. I’ve been looking at faces and studying them since I was a child–my avatar, I used to look at that portrait every day when I came home from school and wonder what his life had been like. So I see faces that intrigue me and keep them with me. And those faces sort of transfer into characters in books.
But the characters build slowly, they only slowly reveal themselves. And like Dunno said, it does help if you have someone in mind doing their speaking … So I pick up their voices from people I know, or very rarely, actors. I probably spend as much time listening to people’s speech patterns and the cadences of their accents–which is why I have to use characters in my books from all along the South Coast and out to the West in Cornwall, because that’s where I live, so I hear those accents and speech patterns regularly. And when I get their voice, that’s when it all clicks for me–once that’s established, we’re on the road.
And then I have each characters’ music. Stuff that puts me right inside their head. Right inside the period. Right inside their emotions. Myddelton was the slow part of the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh for the most part, the Solti recording. But his rage was the third movement of the Moonlight Sonata. Both being music of his period–it’s somehow different from ours, can’t tell you how. Janey was the soundtrack to the Clandestine Marriage. And what happens is I’ll just hear some music and know that’s them, and then I add it to the list of what I use.
I should also add that Myddelton changed a lot over the course of writing the book. He started out working in the Foreign Office, but the more I researched, the more I realised that these chaps were all uber-intelligent, but they were in way over their heads and the stress must have been crazy-making.
Napoleon was a complete nutter–but in the way of totally destructive, totally megalomanical nutters, he was smart, he had everything organized and he made it all seem like what you do. Slaughter a village because they were resisting–no problem. Sets a great example, doesn’t it? So my reactions and horror to what I was discovering made their way into Myddelton’s character–because they’d never seen anything like it either and they weren’t prepared. Who would be?
But back to characters–at some point, they take over. And at that point, I hear them talking in my head; it’s as though I’m sitting in on their conversations mostly. And when I’ll be out riding for example and just looking out upon the Downs, I’ll have like a scrim of the characters in front of my eyes. And I just write it all down. I listen to their music, see them in my mind’s eye, and off they go–blabbing and won’t shut up.
So I won’t get the book chronologically. I’ll get scenes as characters interact. Myddelton and Pem just always were together. They’re really a friendship that I’ve seen or been part of all my life, and in a way, those friendships constitute another character in the book. The friendship between O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin is a bit like that–a character unto itself.
Ali Mair: I’m such a novice I haven’t developed any structured method yet, though I can see I will need to become more organized as in Lord Dunno’s approach. I have the characters in my head–more or less based on people I know, or their ‘type’. I can hear them speak in my head, so in dialogue if I can’t ‘hear’ them saying it, I don’t put it in. It’s like overhearing a conversation in a cafe, except it’s in my head and I write it down. If I overhear something in real life that’s a bit quirky, original, I might make a note and try to use it if it fits the character, but that’s rare.
I haven’t got the ‘gift of the gab’ but I have close friends/family who are entertaining company, masters at conversation, witty asides, etc., and I observe them and admire how they hold people in their thrall when they speak. I think their secret is not being afraid to be themselves. It’s that ‘realness’ that needs to be captured in words to make a character come alive. I also have a clear visual image of the characters, I know what they look like, their tastes, characteristics, I can see them in a very real way in my mind. I empathize with their emotional needs and hang-ups, just as if they were real people. I take that and try to put it on paper. I feel I know them inside out.
Matt Rogers: So the question is tips on characterization? First let me say that I’m flattered, but I’m far from a master of characterization. I can tell you how I look at it, though.
Watch people, study them. Not in a creepy way, don’t sit in a corner and stare psychotically, but when you’re interacting with people ask yourself why they do the things they do. Interact with as many people as you can, and when you meet someone who you find interesting, ask yourself what it is about the person that makes him/her interesting. Having spent a few years as a stand-up comic, and even longer as a pro fighter, I’ve met so many different ‘types’ of people and I’m always wondering what makes them tick, even if not consciously.
Now, this is the most important thing, for me anyway. I don’t think anyone has touched on this yet, but for me, I find it vitally important to understand the difference between “characterization” and “character.”
Characterization is the interchangeable “Mr. Potato Head” stuff (ex: Character X is a redhead, he likes to wear women’s underwear, he cries at Christmas time, and here is WHY he does those things…)
But you don’t really know his “character” until he is placed into a position where he has to make a VALUE CHOICE. (Ex: Character X works the night shift. He has been late to work so many times his boss says he will be fired if he is late again, no matter what his excuse. Unfortunately, he overslept again and he’s just barely going to be able to get to work on time. Driving down a dark road in a dangerous neighborhood he passes a woman with her two kids trying (unsuccessfully) to change a flat tire. What does he do? The answer to that question tells you his “character,” and in my opinion it tells you more about the type of person he is than listing a hundred little “characterization” details.
A fascinating discussion, yes? Feel free to read more here. Or better yet, become an Authonomy member and join the discussion. You don’t even have to have a completed book to join in the fun. Happy reading!