Wednesday, May 11

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, May 11, 2011 10 comments
We know that complex characters are what readers love most--people who feel real because of inner conflict and mixed emotion. It can be quite tricky to do that well and not end up with a confusing mess.

I've been revisiting Nancy Kress's Characters, Emotions and Viewpoint for some additional guidance to help clear away muddiness in my draft in process. One of the coolest tools she has is an "Emotional Mini-bio." I won't reproduce the whole thing, of course. (I'd rather tease you into buying the book, dedicated Kress fan that I am.) The two initial questions are such good fundamentals, however, I want to share. I think they could form the backbone of every solid character sketch.

What three or four things does your character value most in life?

What things does s/he most fear?

Having these core values and fears firmly in hand will help you predict how a character will feel and react in most situations.

You will get some of your most interesting plot complications from situations where two core values or core fears are in competition.

How might clarifying values and fears help your characterization?
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  1. Just as you say, if you know there desires, you'll know how they react to any given situation. I have a great quote to go along with this one.

    "Desires dictate our priorities, priorities shape our choices, and choices determine our actions. The desires we act on determine our changing, our achieving, and our becoming." Dallin H. Oaks

  2. I love Nancy Kress. In fact, Characters is sitting right here on my desk.

    And I love your question about values/fears and how they impact characterization. It's a tough thing some times, but certainly worth the pay off.

  3. Love Nancy's books! Recently reviewed that one and I keep finding more gems within the pages. I think that clarifying these things can help define the grey areas and put more character within our characters.
    Have a great weekend,

  4. Those questions are so thought-provoking- I'm definitely going to use them. I have not heard of Nancy Kress but I'm going to put that on hold at the library- STAT!

  5. That sounds like a great book -- one I wish I had right now. Putting it on my to-buy list!

  6. Such fantastic questions! I think it's important to ask these kinds of things. It's one of the reason I have to really explore my characters before writing a book. I think values and fears are some of the most base things that make up a person - knowing them for characters makes them that much more real and also provides some spins for plot, too.

  7. It's always the simple questions that lead us to the most profound answers! I fight against defining my characters so much because it's haaaard. I think I should just be able to feel what they'll do, but then they end up doing what I would yeah. I'm gonna make use of your questions there.

  8. oh, I love doing exercises like this b/c for me, that's how I get my characters to "come to life" and start doing things on their own. I think it's about just knowing them so well... :o)

    Thanks, Laurel!

  9. Michelle: These are such core issues, I can see why Kress had them at the very top of the sheet. I so agree that taking the time to know these things about our characters can help with great plotting too.

    JEM: When the characters are too nebulous, its easy for us to manipulate them, rather than have plot develop out of who they are. The rest of this sheet in Kress's book is also amazing and so helpful.

    Leigh: When the answers don't come easily, that's when I know I need to take the time to really listen for these people, let them talk to me.

  10. True story: I met Nancy Kress at WFC2010. I'd been at a panel discussion she was involved with, and told her I loved her little snark-fest with the senior editor at Penguin.

    And then I proceeded to tell her she didn't look a day over 20. I'm not sure she bought it. It was a fun conversation, though.... :)