Finding Your Characters, Part 1

2012-Feb-16 -> from the 29-days-of-fantasy department Tags:

I like to have multiple points of view on the same subject, and today's poster wrote such a great (and long) article on finding characters that I've decided to split it up over two days. Amy Rose Davis wrote about mining the classics for characters. Today and tomorrow, fantasy author Marie Borthwick brings us even more to think about.

Being able to read as long as she can remember, Marie has depended on books all her life -- for entertainment, for emotional support, for escape. Suffering from mental illness, she has not let it stop her but motivate her in everything she does, most of all her writing. While she has worked many jobs over the years (fast-food industry, personal/administrative assistant, nursing assistant and more), her first love has always been writing and in the Spring of 2011 she began working in earnest on what she hopes will be her first best-selling book.

Educated in Criminal Justice, Marie is partial to crime investigation shows. She can never resist chocolate in any form and enjoys being a bunny owner. Prolific user of big words and ADD random at times -- she enjoys making people laugh by telling them crazy stories, she loves her many hobbies (knitting, crocheting, painting, drawing, scrapbooking, to name a few) and enjoys geeking out with video/computer games. A sarcastic but loving person, she may poke you from time to time but will always have your back.

Welcome, Marie, to 29 Days of Fantasy!

Finding characters to populate a fictional world can be a daunting task, easily compounded when you are writing of some far of fantasy land readers have yet to discover. It can be easy at first - with the stroke of a pencil or the tap of a few keys you start to develop a memorable character, but then something has you running into a wall. We have all been there right? Halfway through our working story something about a character (or characters) has us stumped, our pencil hovers just above paper or our fingers simply rest on the keys... unmoving. That's when we start to stare off into space, tug on our hair a little... the drip in the sink starts to seem way louder than it did an hour ago and you begin to wonder... has the clock on the wall always been that LOUD? All the little things you can usually tune out while writing become more than a mere annoyance, they turn into down right distractions.

I have written just about all my life, but my story "Route 6" is my first formal attempt at writing a novel; let me tell you it has been far from easy. Don't get me wrong, I love nearly every minute have spent writing "Route 6". But as I write my story, I have run smack into a "character block" and it is beyond frustrating. "Character Block" is a form of writer's block - while the latter will stop your story from flowing, the former just stunts the growth of a character at a given point (which in my opinion is far more frustrating). I most often experience this phenomenon when I have written a part of the story that is a defining moment and one might expect it to have a profound effect on a character and/or a point in my character's life where I have to be more plain in explaining why they behave the way they do.

I can't tell you, particularly being a yet-to-be-published author, how many times I have been up against that invisible wall when it comes to characters. I would have to use each finger several times over if I were to sit and count each time I came to a "character block"... and likely have to move on to my toes! With my current working novel ("Route 6"), I have high hopes for it to be a mind-bending fantasy; or at the very least an enjoyable story. Because I am trying to craft plot twists that sort of fold in on themselves (think how Stephen King writes, he is one of my idols!) and getting characters just right has not only been difficult it has become problematic. That said, I have found a few things helpful in pushing past these "character blocks" and thanks to Thomas I have a chance to share with you.

Write What You Know

When I started my journey writing "Route 6" last year, I heard this bit of advice during countless discussions (so much my ears nearly bleed). I thought because I was trying to write fantasy that my life, my experiences couldn't be incorporated into my story or my characters. A few months in when I was reviewing what I had written to that point - I noticed that I had unconsciously added bits of me and my life into my story. The trouble was when I went to try and purposely weave more of myself and what I know into the story - I was running right smack into "writer's block" and just when I thought that was clear up would come a "character block". I have found a few tricks around these blocks when it comes to "writing what you know":

The "I Know/I Don't Know" Exercise - this is something I have developed on my own without finding it in a book or from another source. That said, I fully acknowledge that there may be others out there that have crafted a similar exercise.

  • on a sheet of paper write your character's name (first, middle and last - or as much as you have) and draw a vertical line down the middle

  • at the top of the left side, write "I Know"

    • in this column write 1-3 words on each line (not full sentences) that describe your character - the easiest way to do this is just look at your character's name and write what pops into your head.

    • you can also write any other information you do know about your character in this column, the key is to be concise

    • try to write from the top to the bottom of the page if you can, although it's okay if you don't (if you need more space move on to the back of the page just be sure to draw and label the columns)

  • at the top of the right side, write "I Don't Know"

    • in this column write those pesky questions dancing around in your head, they could be about anything

    • experiences (example: "car accident", "new magic", "illness", "fall in love", etc.) that you don't know how your character should respond to

    • beliefs (is he/she moral? is he/she good or bad?, etc.)

    • appearance (gender, physical features, style, mannerisms, etc.)

    • try to write to the bottom of the page if you can, although it's okay if you don't (if you need more space move on to the back of your page just be sure to draw and label the columns)

When your done, take a breath. The first few times I did this I stumbled, I just got more frustrated; it didn't take me long to realize I was thinking too hard. The purpose of this exercise is to get the bits, pieces and questions floating around in your head on to paper. When I saw the columns of what "I Know" and what "I Don't Know" some things started to click. It made what I knew seem more real and what I didn't know like less of an obstacle.

Don't Be Afraid to Use People - Our friends, family, co-workers, neighbors and more are what we know... so we should use them. That said there can be inherent dangers in using the people we know, even if we don't ever admit they were inspiration (a great example of this is Kathryn Stockett and her best seller "The Help") for our work. That said, with a little care you can use the people you know and they will likely be none the wiser (unless you open your big mouth *wink wink*). There are a few ways you can take advantage of the wealth of characters in your life:

  • using a piece of paper, write the name of a person you are considering using for inspiration

    • without thinking, write all the words that come to mind when you think of the person

      • later you can expand on these "words" by writing longer descriptions

    • OR draw a line done the middle, at the top of the left column write "good" at the top of the right column write "bad"

      • in the left/"good" column write all the things that you like about the person

      • in the right/"bad" column write all the things you don't like about the person

    • OR write out your experiences with the person

      • write about a good experience with the person

      • write about a bad experience with the person

    • OR create a bio

      • write down the particulars about the person you are using - physical appearance, personal history, job experience, education, likes/dislikes, etc

    • OR use a picture

      • take a picture of the person and write a description based on that picture

The key when using the people you know is to only use parts of them - take your dad's gruff attitude, pair it with your mom's love of care bears... ta-dah! You have a unique character people will talk about. Okay so that was a bad example but I'm sure you get my drift right? Depending on what kind of mood, I have used several of the examples I give for using the people you know - sometimes I even combine them.

Fantastic! Come back tomorrow for the second half of this very interesting and informative article.


Thanks for reading!

I'm always interested in hearing what you have to say. Contact Me, I'd love to hear from you.

Don't forget to join in on the conversation in the comments section below.

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An award-winning, action-packed epic fantasy adventure about an unlikely hero, Seth, who discovers he's not human, but a Time Weaver who can control time.

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