For Easter my husband gave me a copy of Elements of Fiction Writing: Conflict and Suspense by James Scott Bell.
Confession: I’d always thought that I’d done a pretty good job with my characters: I had a clear picture of them in my head, and knew how they’d talk and act in general. I’d seen writter groups discuss fleshing out the characters’ backgrounds, but that seemed rather pointless. Why bother figuring out if the character has siblings if the siblings never show up in the story? Why bother figuring out the characters favorite type of music if you never mention a note?
Scott’s book has completely changed my perspective, and I have to admit my characterization currently sucks. I have a diverse group of people who interact in ways that move the plot along, but they are just shadows.
The biggest lessons I’ve taken away from the book so far is that I need to figure out what the character’s motivation is. Scott discusses it as a matter of life or death – what matters so much to each character that (s)he’d be willing to die for (physically, professionally, or emotionally)? Without motivation, characters are simply caricatures.
So, to combat the one dimensional nature of my characters as they currently are, I’ve started a journal entry for each of them. My first step was to search online for some general images that could represent the characters. I have to admit, it was funny Googling things like “crazy cat lady” or “intimidating bartender,” but I was able to find people I think do a good job representing what I see in my imagination. I also picked a color to represent them (kinda like an aura or feeling I get about each person)
My next step has been to fill out details about each character, no matter how trivial they are. I’ve started with their motive, which I described above, then assigned a feeling to each character – feeling being the emotion I want to drive out of the reader when that character enters the scene (another of Scott’s instructions). I’ve also found it enjoyable to add extra information, like siblings, parents, High School or College roles, favorite animals, music, or movies, or what they like to do in their spare time.
Although I’ve just started this in-depth character exploration, I found that it’s helped me ground my story better, and gives me a good direction to head when editing. Once I finish getting a handle on my characters’ personalities, I’ll be going back to the drawing board with my next edit, this time making sure that my characters are acting in ways that are consistent to their background. I’m looking forward to seeing where this takes my story.