Character Development: Part 2

Last week, I discussed  this TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,  and how I thought her observations about a “single story,” were of importance to the writing community if we want to keep our characters from seeming one-dimensional. Everyone has a story to tell, even the people we make up. My favorite way to find out my characters’ stories is by answering questions from The 100 Most Important Things To Know About Your Character by Beth Kinderman and Nikki Walker. Today, I will share a few of their questions with you, and explain why I think each one is so helpful and important when it comes to bringing characters to life. Let’s get started!

Who are/were your parents? (Know their names, occupations, personalities, etc.)

Especially with my current work in progress (WIP), learning the  background, occupation, and backstories of my main character’s (MC’s) parents helped me to figure out some of the conflicts in the fictional society I’ve created, and thus gave me ideas for tension and possible obstacles for the MC to face. Knowing the parents/guardians or any  other authoritative figures in the MC’s life is almost as important as knowing the MC, in my opinion, because a lot of our personalities are determined by the lifestyles and relationships we had when we were young. Even if your MC doesn’t have parents who are very present, or the parents don’t play a large part in the story, that in and of itself should tell you something about the way the character might behave.

Write a full physical description of yourself. You might want to consider factors such as: height, weight, race, hair and eye color, style of dress, and any tattoos, scars, or distinguishing marks.

This question may seem obvious, but the first time I tried to write a book, I didn’t place any importance on things like scars, tattoos, marks, etc.  that my character may have had, and I feel like that was a real missed opportunity. Most significant markings have backstories (bicycle accident, fight, surgery etc.) or traditions that come with them. The small details can really add a lot to the depth of your character even if all of the stories don’t make it on page. Thinking about things like that gives me a more complete picture of the characters’ lifestyle up until the start of the story.

What words and/or phrases do you use very frequently?

Do you have any quirks, strange mannerisms, annoying habits, or other defining characteristics?

Everyone’s voice sounds different. We all have distinct vocabularies and our own habits. I stick my tongue out when  I concentrate, for example, and I catch myself saying “like” a lot when I talk. I’m also constantly fiddling with something, especially when I’m nervous. It’s the smallest things that make characters seem the most human, both to the author and the reader.

What do you have in your pockets?

This is one of my favorite questions on the sheet because even though it’s a bit random, I think what a person keeps in their pockets or in their purse can tell you a lot about them. The best friend of my protagonist, for example, always carries a dagger and a small satchel of healing herbs. Her training as a… soldier, of sorts, in the society has taught her to always be prepared.

Each question adds another layer of background to your character. I like this method because it starts basic and works up to the bigger, harder to define aspects. It also keeps me from creating perfect characters with no flaws, thus making them more relatable (I hope) and easier to write. Some of the later questions in the sheet include:

What is your earliest memory?

Where did you learn most of your skills and other abilities?

While growing up, did you have any role models? If so, describe them.

If you are a supernatural being (i.e. mage, werewolf, vampire), tell the story of how you became what you are or first learned of your own abilities. If you are just a normal human, describe any influences in your past that led you to do the things you do today.

What do you consider the most important event of your life so far?

If you could change one thing from your past, what would it be, and why?

What is your best memory?

What is your worst memory?

What is your greatest fear?

To see the full list, follow the link at the top of the post, or click HERE.
Challenge of the Week: How do you create your characters?

Character Development: Part 1

“A person’s a person, no matter how small.”- Dr. Seuss

Last night, I watched this TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story.”  In her presentation, Adichie discussed the influences of what we read, hear, experience, and see, both in our everyday lives as well as in the media, on our perceptions of the world. I found the talk very influential from a writing standpoint. So many times, common stereotypes like those she discussed are found in books, and when an author decides to “break the mold,” people are often shocked to read something different than what they expected.

One quote that particularly resonated with me is:

[My] professor told me that my characters were too much like him, an educated and middle-class man. My characters drove cars. They were not starving. Therefore they were not authentically African.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I think it says a lot about the current state of American literature, because books often present us with a single, defining trait for each character. As I listened to the talk, I remembered an old Disney movie that I watched as a child, The Color of Friendship. It was the story of two young girls in the 1970s during Apartheid. Marni, from Dundi, South Africa, and Piper, from Washington D.C., meet  through a student exchange program.

Because of the stories each of them had heard about the other country, they both had specific expectations for what they were walking into. Piper was African American, and expected a “traditional African,” to come and stay with her. That is to say, someone who wore a headscarf, listened to tribal music, etc. Essentially, she anticipated an encounter with the most widespread representation of Africans during that time period.  Her dark-skinned friends from Africa did not dispute this expectation either.

Marni, on the other hand, was white, and from a relatively wealthy family. Her father worked as a police officer, and black people were considered to be of a lower class. When she heard that Piper’s father was a politician, she automatically assumed he would be white. Through the girls interactions, the movie does a wonderful job of illustrating how preconceived notions or “single stories” can influence our actions and thoughts.

This is especially important to remember as writers because we only have our words to help the reader along. Without sight, the actions, mannerisms, and dialogue of characters bear more weight in developing the personality. If we put a character on the page, we have to make sure that they have more purpose than just to thwart or help the main protagonist. And, for that matter, the main protagonist needs to do more than just move the story along. If we want our readers to truly be changed from our writing, then we must stay away from the “single story.” No person is a single aspect of their personality, and neither are our characters.

All of them are people, no matter how small their role, and people are not people without a few good stories to tell.

Next week, I will discuss how turn characters into people and share some of my favorite, essential questions to ask yourself whenever you write for someone new,

Challenge of the Week: What’s your favorite Dr. Seuss quote?

Claerie’s Golden Writing Rules Part 1: Give Your Characters Dimension

Evil isn’t born, it’s made; and so is good.

-Regina Mills, Once Upon A Time

This has been one of my favorite quotes since the beginning of the first season of ABC’s hit series Once Upon A Time (OUAT) back in 2011. For those who are unfamiliar with show, the basic premise is that the Evil Queen from Snow White cast a curse on all of Fairy Tale Land that would cause them all to lose their memories-and thereby lose their happy endings as well. They would be banished to our world and the fictional town of Storybrooke, Maine. In Storybrooke, time was frozen and because no one could remember their true identity all of the happily ever afters were lost. Only Snow White and Prince Charming’s long-lost daughter, who was sent to our world before the curse as a means of protection, and therefore had spent the last 28 years living as a normal human being, could break the curse.

Regina Mills, whom I quoted above, is the resident Evil Queen that sets this all in motion. Her quote speaks to me on so many levels, but, as this is a writing blog, today I like to look at it from the perspective of a writer. The remarkable thing about OUAT is that they are able to take what most of us consider only cartoon, flat characters and turn them into living, breathing human beings that we can root for, relate to, and occasionally, love to hate. The show is ultimately promoted to be about encouraging hope, but it also is frequently stated that the creators don’t want to shy away from emphasizing the fact that not everything is black-and-white, good or evil. In short, life is not as simple as we were always lead to believe in the traditional Disney fairytale.  This is the aspect on which I want to focus.

When creating a character, most of us have some vague idea of what role they’re  going to play in the story. A hero, a villain, a sidekick, a minor character, a main character, etc. But something extremely important to remember, is that just because a character is a villain it doesn’t make them bad, or mean we have to hate them. Likewise, just because a character is a hero, doesn’t mean they have to be good, or even likable.

For a villainous example, the obvious choice would be Snape from Harry Potter, but being the big Broadway nerd that I am, I’m going to use The Wicked Witch of the West/Elphaba. Now, based on the Wizard of Oz, both Frank L. Baum’s classic novel and the movie, I’m going to take a guess that most of our knee-jerk reactions to the Wicked Witch were not all that pleasant. After all, she’s green, covered in warts, and she terrorizes an innocent little Kansas girl simply because she won’t give up the the Witch of the East’s shoes– which, I’d like to point out, she didn’t even take in first place; the Good Witch gave them to her with instructions not to remove them. Who was she going believe between the two of them? In my mind, these were the qualities that made her a classic villain. In fact,I despised her so much that the first time I saw Wicked back in 2006, I had to be forced to go. I was convinced the show was going to be scary, and I am the definition of a scaredy cat.

But then Elphaba came on stage, and my opinion completely changed. Gregory Maguire, the author of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch, on which the musical is based, along with Stephan Schwartz and the rest of the creative team, managed to take this woman that I had once perceived as a character who would be impossible to redeem, into a girl that millions of people around the world can relate to, by giving her a backstory and more dynamic personality. She wasn’t a villain at all, but actually severely misunderstood anti-hero.

On to the unlikable hero. This time, I chose to take a look at Piper Chapman from Orange is the New Black. Some people might disagree with me on this, but personally I can’t stand Piper. At first, I liked her. She was a relatively simple girl who had only done one criminal act in her life: flying a suitcase of money across the ocean on behalf of a drug ring for her college girlfriend Alex. And she was convicted just before her statute of limitations expired. She managed to get on the wrong side of almost everyone in Litchfield Prison within the first few episodes of the series, and was just generally not doing well. I felt bad for her, and wanted things to improve. But as the episodes and seasons went on, she became deceitful and cunning in order to survive in prison. Though I understand her reasoning, I still cannot bring myself to like her as much as I did at the beginning of the series.

Now, bare in mind that not every villain needs to be inherently misunderstood, and not every hero needs to be unlikable, but everyone needs to be human. How do we do this? We focus on the things that made them the way they are. If your villain simply wants to take over the world because he/she is evil, that is crappy character development. Like the quote says, no one is born as one thing or another– it all depends on how life shapes them and who they become.

Marissa Meyer, author of The Lunar Chronicles series, does a wonderful job of creating an incredibly evil character in her main antagonist Queen Levana, without forgetting to establish a legit reason for her malicious nature. For most of the series, we don’t know much about her, except that Earth has been afraid of her and the other Lunars– those who populate the Moon, called Luna– for many years. Lunars have a special ability that allows them control other people’s thoughts and emotions, which makes them an incredible threat. We know that Levana plotted to kill her sister Channary, as well as her niece, Princess Selene. Over the course of four books, she routinely manipulates the people of Earth and Luna, threatening to wage war against them if they don’t bow to her will. She also always glamors herself, hiding her true appearance and wearing a thick, black veil. She’s an easy villain to love to hate. Since that is her role in the book series, she doesn’t need a lot of extra motivation. We already know that she was second in line to the throne and wanted it for herself. In other series, this alone has been enough motivation. But Meyer goes the extra distance in the end of the last book, as well as her novella Fairest, to explain Levana’s cruel nature by revealing that her first love was killed brutally, and Channary used to force her to burn herself as punishment, leaving her with a paralyzed face and a body of grotesque scars. This explains why she is so desperate for people to love her, because she did not feel loved in her earlier years. For most readers, myself included, this backstory did not excuse her horrendous actions in the rest of the books, but it did give her more depth and make her seem like an actual human rather than a caricature of a villain.

Challenge of the week: Who are your favorite fully developed characters, and why? Comment below or talk to me about it on Facebook,Twitter, or Tumblr!