Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, May 29, 2012 12 comments

It's no small task to create characters that live and breathe on the page, that don't hamstring your story by behaving in a way that seems implausible. You can spend weeks dreaming up the physical details of your characters, mentally filling her closet and his iPod playlist only to discover you don't really know your characters, especially what they want, and more importantly, why.

What motivates a person, makes him choose this action and not that one, makes her invest in a relationship in a particular way--this is the deep stuff of characterization. I've found that simply observing people going about their business of living is not enough to train me to understand character motivation. And because motivation is the building block of solid plotting, it's essential to get motivation right.

I've found it especially helpful spend some time reading in the social sciences, especially psychology, child development and sociology. When drafting my first novel, I read heavily and talked to experts about the grieving process and grief therapy, and even attended a day-long grief workshop. Surprisingly, the research  also suggested a slew of plot ideas I never would have considered otherwise.

What a counselor might call symptoms are, for writers, the natural consequences of inner motivation and the stuff of great psychological storytelling.

What tools have you found helpful in developing characters?




12 comments:

  1. You are so smart, Laurel. I've read up on the process of grieving as well, but not with the idea that it would help my writing. Most of what I know about how to characterize my characters is based in examining my deeper real-life relationships and feelings.

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    1. For me, psychology has helped in a couple areas: 1) when a character has experienced something I haven't specifically (e.g. I lost a parent, but as an adult, not as a teen).
      2) When I need ideas about how to get characters in conflict unstuck. Psychology gives helpful frameworks for understanding why and how people fight about certain issues and get stuck in certain patterns, as well as what things make conflict worse or diffuse it.

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  2. oh, this is a great trick--studying psychology and stuff. I try to just sort of become obsessed w/my characters. Like I think about them constantly. It's perhaps not the best way, but that's me for now... Have a great week, Laurel! :o) <3

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    1. I tended to get stuck and/or lost a lot drafting when I relied only on my ability to see through the characters' eyes. I found that doing some reading and research enabled me to gain some needed perspective and that kept me from following every rabbit trail of plot.

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  3. For me, it's the writing itself that lets me get to know the characters. I usually know they have secrets they're not telling me, but it's not until I'm plowing my way through the first draft that I find out what those secrets are. (Yeah, I'm a seat-of-the-pants writer.)

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    1. Psych reading might work well in tandem with your revision process then--helping you see where to strengthen some areas.

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  4. Yes, I read a lot of psychology. A lot of acting texts, as well, have great resources for understanding character--they tend to take it a little more seriously than the average writer.

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    1. Acting texts sound like a great resource! You're right that serious actors can teach us how to delve deeper into characters' underlying issues, like they do to embody another person.

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  5. I also read a lot of psychology and, lately, more and more sociology. I learned that neighbors across the street from each other interact more than neighbors who lived to the left of each other (when facing the street). I would have thought the opposite, but studies consistently remain the same.

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    1. How fascinating! I set part of a novel in England and did a lot a reading on the sociology of British culture (Kate Fox's Watching the English in particular) to help get the details right. Though I'd lived there half a year in college, I still didn't have a through handle on taboos and customs that a native would.

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  6. Very intriguing to think about! And how smart of your to read up on psychology and related fields. That's bound to deepen character motivations. Great idea!

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  7. Very interesting to think about . . .I could definitely do more research.

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