Monday, November 18, 2013

How Well Do You Know Your Characters?

Happy Monday!  I've been thinking about characters a lot.  Let me ask you something.  If your book could only have one thing, Great Characters or Great Plot, which would you pick?  Now think of some of your favorite books.  Which do you love most, the characters or the plot?  Without reading the rest of this post, go put your answers to those to questions in the comments.  I'll wait.  Seriously go do it.  While you do, I'll check Twitter.
Done?  Wonderful.

In my opinion, characters are far more important.  Sure, you need a good plot for a good story, but unless the characters going through that plot are interesting, engaging, and compelling, no one's going to care if they evade the serial killer who uses an elephant for a murder weapon.  (Yes, that is the most interesting plot I could think up that I don't plan on writing about. Sue me.  But seriously, don't do that.)

As a MG/YA high fantasy writer, I've always hated character sheets.  Character's Job: Um . . . minor.  No.  Not miner, minor.  City: Caravan of traders?  Pets:  There's barely enough food for the family.  Seriously?  Why waste money on pets.  Sports Played:  I'm done.

So worksheets have never helped me.  Something that has helped me is asking a few questions, two specifically.

1)  For what would this character die for?
   For instance, would the mother die for any child?  Or only ones she knows?  What about the child that hurt and bullied her children?  What about ideas?  Would she die for her religion?  Would she give her life to help an animal in trouble?  Would she die fighting for justice?

This question looks at what is, ultimately, important to the character.  In my opinion, the character that has more items on this list has a stronger moral compass, but you could flip that idea on it's head.  You could have a character who believes strongly in a cause that generally considered wrong, like eugenics.  Or a good guy who believed in a thieve's right to steal if he can get away with it.

Generally, the good guy will die for almost anyone.  The good guy has a strong sense of empathy.  This is why so often the villain could kidnap anyone off the street and threaten to kill them and the good guy would walk right in to the trap.  That's just how your typical hero is.

Your villain, on the other hand, might not die for anyone.  He might let his daughter be killed before risking his life to save her.  That kind of selfishness is a hallmark for villains.

2)Who would this character kill and under what circumstances?
       Now, I know that this isn't a question you want to ask about your hero, but try to be honest.  For instance, if someone was threatening my life, I don't know if I would kill them.  I'm a Christian.  I know where I'm going when I'm dead.  (Heaven, in case you were wondering) So I hope I wouldn't kill them.  But if they were threatening my little brothers' lives?  That would be a much harder call.

Find these lines in your characters.  Would they kill anyone to protect their vulnerable siblings? Would they kill a young mother with a newborn baby?  A child the same age as their siblings?

Would your character kill at all?  Is there someone your character would never kill?

There are two TV shows where this is explored really well, in my opinion.  The first is the show Once Upon a Time.  It's on ABC and you should watch it if you write fantasy.  Really you should watch it either way.

*SPOILERS from SEASON 2, Once Upon a Time*

In this show, the main couple, Mary Margret (Snow White) and David, (Prince Charming) vow to never kill.  They always find ways to defeat their enemies without death.   This is stated several times in the series.  But then Snow finds out the evil sorceress in town in responsible for her mother's death.  She orchestrates the death of the sorceress, and it is a huge character development.

The other show is Robin Hood, the BBC show.  This is another great show I highly recommend.

*SPOILERS from SEASON 2, Robin Hood*

In this show, Guy of Gisborne is in love with Lady Marian.  She is pretty much the only person who can still reach Guy on any level of humanity.  She doesn't return his feelings, but leads him on, sometimes, to manipulate him so that she can help Robin Hood.  Through a series of events, Marian tells Guy she won't ever love him.  He kills her.  For me, that's when Guy turned from a misunderstood character who might still find redemption to a true villain who can no longer relate to humanity.  He lost his empathy.

*end spoilers*

Do you see how the creators of both shows found the limits of their characters and then found what could make those characters go past their limits?  That's good character development, in my opinion.  That's how characters and plot should interact.

Maybe you're not writing stories on a life or death scale.  Maybe you write contemporary romance.  This stuff is still good to know.  It can really help you understand your characters.

Don't stop here.  Keep finding the lines of your characters.  Because when you find one line, you have a character that looks like this:_________________
But with two lines, you can add a second dimension.  Your character can become a silhouette.(left)  And when you add a third line, you gain that third dimension.(right)  And when you keep exploring, and you keep poking to see how far your character will go, can go, that's when you start to not just see the character, but hear them, feel them, and smell them.  That's when they leap off the page.(bottom)



So keep poking your characters.  Ask: how far they'd go to get their way; how far they'd go to protect their most firmly held belief; how far they'd go for a stranger; what happens when their lines meet and only one can stay unbroken; what would they do to protect the antagonist?  If their kitten and the antagonist were both falling on a cliff, who would the hero save?

Hopefully after you think about this for a while, you'll have a better understanding of your characters, what their lines are, and what they'd cross those lines for.

Let me know if this post made you think.  How do you get to know your characters?  What are some things they would never do?  I'd love it if you let me know.  Also, if you have any posts you'd like to see, let me know!

Thanks for reading and have a great week!

50 comments:

  1. I'd pick great characters; in many books, that's why I keep coming back for more.

    I get to know my characters by having them talk to each other a lot, by doing character interviews, and by roleplaying with them. One of my favorite things in the world is this thread on one of the sites I'm on where I and my friends can make our characters interact with each other. It's awesome.

    Glad to hear NaNo is giong well for you! Thanks for the posts!

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    1. I've tried character interviews. Maybe I'm doing them wrong, but they never help. A free flow journal has helped though. That website sounds awesome!!
      Thanks for reading!
      ~Sarah

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    2. what is the name of the site that you were using? @Sarah

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  2. Ohhh, that was a nasty question lol! I can't decide. I love both characters and plots. Especially if they are mysteries! But I guess in love stories I do like the characters.

    HP

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    1. Me too! Who needs plot when you have two single characters of the opposite sex?
      Thanks for reading!
      ~Sarah

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    2. Right Lol! You would not believe how many books on my shelf are love stories. Can you say almost every one?! Hehe.

      HP

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  3. I love the BBC Robin Hood!!!!!!!!!!!!! I don't know what my characters lines are or what would make them cross them. I think they might cross lines for their family and close friends but they definitely wouldn't kill anybody, or at least I'm not putting them in a position where they would have to. Ben might get in a fight to protect Gladiola or Adam or someone else in the two families but he would never kill. You probably would have to read the book to understand who all I'm talking about and how it works. Thanks for the post, its given me something to think about.

    HP

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    1. Glad it made you think. That's my only goal, here! :)
      Thanks for reading.
      ~Sarah

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  4. I would choose great characters over great plot, because plot should come from the characters themselves. (:

    Thanks for reminding me of this. I'm always trying to flesh out my characters as much as I can. There is one of them I think I know the best.
    Over the course of her character development, when she's going through her dark phase, she might come close to killing the villain she is bitter towards.
    Knowing the back-story of one's character seems to help a lot with finding out who they are, to me at least. On my blog I made a separate page just for questions about our characters, and I sometimes update it. This post opens up a mine of questions. Thank you for writing this!


    http://emilynwriter4christ.blogspot.com/p/list-of-questions-for-character.html

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    1. I'm so glad you found it interesting!
      ~Sarah

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    2. (Writing this before i read the rest of the post)
      I would choose great characters. I've always found that even if a plot is not amazing but the characters are i can carry on with the book but if it's vice versa i can't stand to read it.

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  5. I would choose great characters. I've read several books that have a great, fast-paced plot-- and I strongly disliked. And then there are books like David Copperfield, that just have the most amazing characters, but aren't super strong on plot-- and I love them!

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  6. I like great characters. They make the plot seem better and more interesting.

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    1. Yep. I totally agree with you there!
      Thanks for reading.
      ~Sarah

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  7. One of the best ways I've gotten to know my characters is to just ask them about things. "What do you think of this dress I might buy" or "Is it too dark in here, should I turn on the lights" It may seem crazy but if you include them in your daily life you get to know them a lot better. Also, Find another writer friend and let your characters talk to each other. I do this with my friend all the time, and we just have our characters have a conversation, though it doesn't always end well.
    This post was really good. I hadn't really thought to ask my characters these questions before, but I found them really great. I really appreciated stumbling across this.

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    1. That's a great idea! I think I might have to do something like that: it's bound to help me with my characters. :) Thank you for the ideas!
      -Samantha nickname: Tiger

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  8. I like great characters. Boring characters doing great things doesn't appeal to me.

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    1. I'm with you there. If you don't care about the characters, you don't care about the story. Thanks for reading!
      ~Sarah

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  9. Great characters... because - although great plots are awesome - great characters seem to have a life of their own with or without the story, as though they are real. It's rather intriguing on it's own.

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  10. And upon reading the whole post, thanks so much. You really communicated your point very clearly and it will be very helpful in my future character development! :) God bless!

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  11. I would def say characters for both

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  12. These are really good, thought provoking questions that should be great help. Thank you for sharing :)

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  13. Oh, my goodness, this is a great post! :) I found it on Pinterest (I really enjoy that site for getting inspiration for writing) and finally, I clicked on the pin to see where it would lead me. I'm so glad you're a Christian: I'm a daughter of Christ as well, and I love it that more Christian teens are writing books, and enjoying them! <3
    As for your question, I'd have to say characters. I read a great MG book called, "The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom," by Christopher Healy (I recommend this book by him, by the way!) and the plot wasn't the most original, but the characters made it fantastic. Again, this is a great post, and it made me think about my characters. Thank you for writing this! :)
    -Samantha, nickname: Tiger

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    1. I'm really glad to you found me! It's always great to get to know fellow Christian teens who love writing!
      Thanks for reading.
      ~Sarah

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  14. Well, I'm a bit late for this party. But I have to say characters. I just finished a book this morning (Meaning 1:00 am) that had a great plot., the characters were pretty good too. But something about them just made the story feel a bit off. So definitely characters.

    I loved the post Sarah. I just did one on characters back at my blog a couple of posts ago, if anyone wants to check it out. :)

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  15. Hard question, but definitely characters!

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  16. Good insight! Nice advice from a writer to writers!

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  17. I definitely prefer good characters to good plot. It's what sets Harry Potter apart from every other story about a young wizard. It's what makes Shakespeare classic. It's what makes Sharon Creech's "Bloomability" work as a book even though it has NO plot.

    I get to know each of my characters in completely different ways; and character sheets are my jumping off point. I start filling out those questions, and suddenly I realize I need to write a scene from this character's point of view, or I need to talk to them verbally, or I need to write their diary. Character sheets are just a way to get me thinking about the character until I figure out what the best way to get to know them is.

    Finding lines for characters is SUPER important, and this is a great exercise, but, for me, it's not the only thing I need to know.

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  18. Also, I shared this post on https://www.facebook.com/justcharacters -- which only has 50 Likes, so it's not that exciting, but I thought I would let you know ^_^

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  19. The characters are what I love best!

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  20. This is so cool! Thanks for this. Character sheets never really helped me either, and this is an interesting way to figure out characters. And yes, I chose characters because if you have great plot but characters who just sit there and say lets do this and lets do that, that is boring.

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  21. If your book could only have one thing, Great Characters or Great Plot, which would you pick? Great characters.

    Now think of some of your favorite books. Which do you love most, the characters or the plot? The characters.

    That was easy. Now I'm going to read the rest of this post.

    the writeress @ barefoot in the snow

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  22. I entirely agree about those stupid character sheets! I tried so many before I gave up. You couldn't have shown it better.

    Excellent post! I like the way you put that. I never thought about it that way, but I definitely agree. I've never seen Robin Hood (though I'm not sure why; I love Robin Hood in general), but I recently marathoned through OUAT for the first time, and have been waiting for the 4th season ever since. That is probably the biggest reason I love the show so much: as you said, the characters are well-written, well-developed. Characters are everything to me. You can sit me in front of the worst plot on the face of the planet, but if the characters are written well enough, I'll read through it anyway. And maybe come to the end saying I loved it. Not that I don't value a good plot.

    I'll have to use those two questions in the future. I love how they make you think out of the box in a different sort of way, especially if your story isn't that kind of story.

    the writeress @ barefoot in the snow

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  23. By the way, something I found that has helped are linkups. I love linkups. Beautiful People, Chatterbox, A Novel Idea... Anyhow, I've added a page on my blog that lists all the linkups I know of (there's maybe 5 or 6). So click here if you're interested. Enjoy! Hope they're helpful :)

    the writeress @ barefoot in the snow

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  24. This was extremely helpful!!! Thank you so much! I'm an avid writer, currently trying to find ways to give my novels some character. What better way to do that than through good characters?

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  25. Hi there! I just found this post through Pinterest, and although I NEVER comment on anything anything anything I find online, I just had to leave a note here. I think you have given some EXCELLENT questions for developing characters. I tend to agree with you about those character worksheets - I never end up finishing them, because most of the time, I'm just like, "Favorite TV show? That literally never comes up in my story. Why does that even matter? Ugggh."

    After reading your post, I thought about my current WIP, and had a major revelation. I thought about my protagonist and antagonist and suddenly realized: "Holy crap, my protagonist would not die for anything, but my antagonist would die for his daughter. What are the implications of this?!?!?"

    It's a pretty exciting breakthrough! Great post, and thank you so much for the insight and inspiration. Best of luck writing!!

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    1. Thank you so much for dropping the comment! I'm so glad it could help you in your writing! As a writer of fantasy with teenage main characters, the "Favorite TV Show" question has never really helped my either. I want to know a general idea of what they look like, and I want to know their backstory. And of course I want to know which lines they would cross for what reasons.
      I'm so glad you took the time to comment!
      ~Sarah

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  26. I love this! Knowing your characters is so important. I love writing out interviews for my characters. It helps me know them better as well as my readers. Everything about this is great!

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  27. Under most circumstances, I'd say characters are much more important to me than plot. If a book had horrible plot with wonderful characters, I'd probably keep reading it, but not vice versa. This article definitely made me think. Thank you for sharing this with us! :D

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  28. AGH!! such a simple question!! Character or plot.... I have been literally thinking about this for the past twenty minutes, character most definitely character... but without a good compelling plot I don't really enjoy the plot no matter how much I love the characters

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  29. Characters, by far. I connect much better with real people than with events.

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  30. Great article! Thanks for the help!

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  31. Great post! I hadn't really thought of my characters' lines before.

    Thanks for the article!

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  32. Most definitely characters.

    This was an amazing post. I've had the same trouble with character sheets, but I'll be using THIS from now on for every character. Nothing transcends world and species like this one.

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  33. I would say plot I guess it's easier for me to come up with, and it annoys when people just through in random back story with out build up and even use it in a normal conversation like it's no big deal. Impotent plot point not "oh the weathers nice, I watch my father get murdered." -_- I have read stuff like this.

    However character building is a long, hard task and they often sell the story. A good charcter can drive a story with little plot needed.
    I say neither they need to be inbalence for a story to work, well not all stories but I think if a story has both done well it captures the reader even more.

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  34. The characters definitely! Cause you can bond with them throughout there whole journey

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  35. I feel like you can' have a really great plot, but it won't be amazing without the characters. I can't relate to a plot like I can relate to characters. I'd have to say characters, for sure.

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