Thursday, April 7, 2011

Building Characters in Reverse

I was doing some research this morning on a particular developmental disorder (well, several actually) and stumbled upon an amazing blog. The author of the blog is a child psychologist and wrote a fascinating post on writing characters with emotional or mental disorders.

I've seen many sites and talked to a number of writers who advocate getting to know their characters by making character worksheets, interviewing them, listing their likes, dislikes and personal goals. I think it's wonderful if that works for other people, but I've never found those exercises to be helpful. It feels more like making a grocery list. Sure, I could decide that a particular character likes the colour orange, slept with a stuffed animal until they were 12 and prefers football to basketball, but that doesn't tell me who they are.

Perhaps because I'm coming into writing from animation, but I can't get a feel for a character (or person) unless I can see them, their body language, all their little quirks and ticks as they speak and listen. I view talking on the phone as only slightly above e-mail because I feel I'm only getting about 35% of the information that I would get in a face to face conversation.

I usually get laughed at whenever I submit the first chapter of a new story to my writing group. That's because our conversations go something like this:

Writer 1: "Why is <character a> behaving/speaking this way?"

Me: <shrugs> "I have no idea!"

Writer 2: "Then, what about <character b>? What is his/her relationship with <character a>"

Me: <shrugs again> "I don't know, they might be related, but I don't know yet if they are family, friends, back-stabbing enemies or they are secretly plotting to take over the world together."

Writers 1 & 2 look at one another, then look at me as if I'm crazy.

...and often I think they are right in their assessment.

(By the way, re-play this conversation but substitute in questions about world, setting and plot to fully grasp how frustrating I am. Now appreciate how wonderful my group is 'cause they put up with me)

I'm not only a pantser when I plot, I'm a pantser with the characters within the plot. I figure that somewhere in the folds of my brain all of the information for the story and characters exists. I just need to trigger it, like how a scent can trigger a flood of childhood memories. So I sit back and watch the characters run around and the longer I watch, the more information I find out. I don't plan, I don't ask myself 'what if' questions, I just let them do their thing and try to faithfully write it all down. I couldn't tell you what their favourite colours are... no idea if they hate their middle name (or if they even have one) or if they like cats better than dogs and I really don't care if their childhood dream was to become a ballerina or a fireman.

This seems to be working in reverse, but I write to find the story, to find the characters. I don't have a message (or lesson) that I want to impart, no political statement or even necessarily a desire to create a fun/interesting story. I never open a blank file with anything in my head other than a flash of a scene with one or more characters. They might be standing around or maybe fighting, they could be drinking a beer at a bar and complaining about the weather. This is all I know, this is all I have, and it's only when I start writing that the plot and characters begin to emerge.

Maybe this is more common that I think... well, actually, I'm positive that this is more common than what I am currently aware of.

All I know is, I'm no further ahead in understanding a character on the first page of a new story than I am in understanding a random stranger on the street I have just bumped into. Looking at a fully filled-in character sheet makes me want to run far, far away... like when you meet someone for the first time who feels the need to tell you every detail of their life. Too much information, right?

So back to this character I'm doing research for. Initially she seemed to be a self-imposed shut-it and I thought she was doing it to make some kind of a statement or to vent her anger/frustration. Then as new scenes flowed onto the page, it seemed like there was something more, that I wasn't quite *getting* it. It wasn't that she was simply ignoring people when they came in, it was as if they didn't even exist in whatever tiny world she had created for herself. I was surprised when she suddenly reacted with violence upon being touched. She bit, she screamed, and as I kept writing... her dialogue began to disappear. More and more she would simply stare at the person speaking, ignore them completely, or the rare occasion when something caught her attention, she would repeat back words or sentence fragments that another character had spoken.

So, just as if I met someone and while getting to know them, began to recognize the quirks of their reactions and personality, I have, over the course of writing this first draft, began to understand this character. A lot of her behaviour makes sense (psychologically) after figuring out her history, specifically, her interactions with the people around her during childhood, but I don't see a reason to stick her under any particular development-disorder-umbrella. Not everything this character does is due to her condition, or a reaction to the condition. So many other factors go into our own emotional, physical and psychological development, that I see no need in simplifying this character into a diagnosis checklist.

So yeah, I'm going to do my research, I'm going to make sure her behaviour is realistic, but the story is about the characters, not the disorder. So even if it feel like I'm working in reverse, I'm going to keep at it until I finish, until I faithfully represent this character to the best of my abilities.

What about you? At what moment does a character feel *real* to you, whether in your own writing, or when you connect to one in a book, tv show or movie?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)