Thursday, January 7, 2010

Homo Fictus

Characters are the soul of your novel. You can't have a good novel without darn good people to play the parts. I'm no expert on characterization, really no expert on anything, but I read a lot. Any anyone who reads can tell you that fictional characters are a whole lot more interesting than real people.

Nobody wants to read about a plain Jane. Jane needs to be so pretty, the sunset looks like a macaroni sculpture. Or so ugly, a hairless dog is cute. Jane needs to be more cunning, more resourceful, or less if that's how you want her. She needs to love more, hate more fight more.

In The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri (1946), Egri describes characters as being three-dimensional. The first dimension being physiological--height, weight, age, race, physical appearance--all these factors will shape the characters life experiences and it is important that you know them all. The second sociological -- what is her social class, what neighborhood does she come from, who were her parents, what's her view on religion, money, sex etc. And third, psychological--temperament, fears, phobias, talents, habits, fantasies and the like.

As writers we often run in to the dreaded "writers block" and many times, it could just be that you don't know your characters well enough. If you don't know them, you can't make them do what you want them to do. Or better yet, you don't know what they want to do in the potentially horrible situation you've stuck them in. And if you haven't stuck them in a potentially horrible situation, you don't have a story.

Your character might be a shy girl, a wallflower with a nose like Tom Cruise, but when she's faced with a dilemma she should woman-up! But whatever she does, it needs to be in character. And at the same time, your characters need to change and grow throughout the course of your novel. Hey, if it was easy everyone would do it.

Think about a memorable character in a book you've read. I'll go with Rose Hathaway from Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy. Rose was more or less abandoned by her mother, a Guardian, and raised by the academy. She has anger issues toward her mom, but she has a strong sense of her duty as a Guardian because of it. She is willing to put Lissa before her because it's what she was taught. It's so ingrained in her, that she can't not do it. Lissa comes first. Period. Rose never even stops to consider why.
Rose falls in love with Dimitri but she knows he is her mentor, and he will also be Lissa's Guardian. If they love each other, Dimitri and Rose both know they'd protect one another over Lissa, and Rose, because of who she is, can't let that happen.
Sure she feels like it isn't fair, and as the series progresses, you'll see Rose pulling away from that mind set little by little, but that is her character changing and growing and still being Rose Hathaway.

So, how do you get to know your Homo Fictus?
There are a number of different approaches. You need to find which one works best for you. Some people, myself included, write out a biography for each main character. It is information that won't be in your book, but stuff you have to know for yourself in order to create a fully fleshed-out pretend person. How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey gives some really great examples on this.
Some people, like my lovely friend A.J. Spindle, create an index card for each character, even the ones she hasn't written yet.
You can interview your characters. "Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia." ~E.L. Doctorow. Sit down with pen and paper and pluck one of your characters from your head, and ask him or her a few questions.

Author: Jane, I still don't understand why you hang out with Megan. She's rude to you. She trash talks you behind your back. She stole the guy you liked before he even knew it!

Jane: *sighing* I dunno. I guess I feel like I owe her. We were friends when we were both in the group home and Megan stood up for me a lot when we were little. She's really not a bad person.

I know that's crap and you can do a lot better, but you get the idea. You get a sense of who Jane is as well as Megan just from that one little answer. I didn't even know Jane or Megan ten seconds ago, but now I know the Megan has some serious inner conflicts and Jane, a pushover she may be, is understanding and forgiving. So let's say Megan finally pushes Jane to the edge and a stiff wedge is shoved between them. Something terrible happens to Megan, and she needs Jane. Do you think Jane will walk away? Or will she be there for her former friend?

Character building can be fun, but it can also be tiring. It is work, after all.
What has worked for you when created well-rounded three-dimensional characters?
What didn't work?
What have you read about but haven't tried?


  1. Mary Kole from Kidlit recently recommended writing 100 declarative sentences for your character. e.g. I love chocolate ice cream with raisins. I haven't tried this, but I might for my next ms. I'd imagine you'd have a really good sense of your character by #78 or so. :)

  2. This is a great post! I'm currently worrying about the MC in WIP and whether or not she's "womaning up" enough. I know why she's making all of her decisions, but still. Something to think hard about as I revise.

  3. Kristi, I remember reading that now! It is a great suggestion and I'm hoping to do it this week.

    Valerie, I feel the same way about Inda. I know what I need to do to know her better, I just have to make the time and put in the effort to do it.
    She keeps changing herself on me. Drystan is a whole other matter. Even fictional boys are complicated.

  4. I play 20 Questions with my characters. And when I play 20 Questions (with real or fictitious people), I ask strange and random questions. Rather than, "What motivates you?", I'll ask what superpower they'd like to have. For some reason, I end up learning more that way. And usually crack myself up in the process, but please don't tell anyone that because it's kinda lame.

  5. Make a note! Carrie Harris just commented on OUR BLOG! *fangirl squeal*

  6. Lacey - I just saw that too! I love her blog.


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