Thursday, October 20, 2016

Character Rules

We've passed October's middle point, and as Halloween approaches, the air crackles with the energy November brings, not only because of the Holiday season, but because of NaNoWrimo. If you, dear reader, scroll down to previous blog posts, you'll find wonderful and inspirational advice shared by my fellow Mayhemers. I started writing because of NaNoWrimo, and I've loved the experience ever since. I'd always wanted to write a book, but I used to complain I didn't have any story ideas--until I found a character (or the character found me) and wouldn't stop badgering me until I wrote her story. See, for me, character rules above all the other elements of a story: plot, setting, writing style, and structure. If I care about a character, I'll read through anything to know what happens to the character I either fell in love with or found fascinating in some way. Of course, plot, setting, writing style, and story structure affect the character, or they should for the character to be unforgettable and compelling; in other words, for a character to be a real person (or bunny doll, like Kate DiCamillo's Edward Tulane or Drew Daywalt's rebellious crayons). Even if a character finds the writer and whispers in her ear until the writer gives in and gives life to the story, the writer must work hard to fully flesh out the whispering voice and transform it into Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Anne with an "E," Eugenides, Bartimeus the Genie, Katniss, Ramona, or Max and his wild things. 

In The Magic Words: Writing Great Books For Children and Young Adults, author and editor extraordinaire Cheryl B. Klein devotes several chapters to the art of creating compelling characters. She says, "You'll want to employ different characterization strategies, at different depths, for different members of your cast, depending upon where you're in the plot, the character's role in the plot, and the character's reactions to each other and the reader" (105). 

After many years of attending writing conferences, workshops, and even an MFA program, and reading countless writing craft books and writing blogs, I've compiled a list of ways in which I can explore my characters' traits to understand their desires, goals, and motivations from which all my stories enfold. As Cheryl b. Klein suggests, all these techniques have helped me at different time, in different ways to get to know "my people:" 

  • Free writing: usually I start a manuscript or story idea with the faint form of a character in a particular situation. The character's actions will lead to the rest of the story. 
  • A vision of where I want the character to become or what they want to achieve by the end of the manuscript. If I know where the character starts and where he/she/it should become by the end of their story, I can build up to that vision.
  • Borrowing from real life: Maggie Stiefvater (the creator of characters such as the Raven Boys and Blue Sargent, Sean Kendrick and Puck Connolly) has publicly and repeatedly confessed that she borrows characters from people she meets in real life. Before you go ahead and get in trouble for modeling your villain after the elementary school teacher who might one day read your story and recognize himself and get you in trouble, be aware that Maggie meant she borrows certain traits, mannerisms, even looks. She's also said that her characters usually represent an answer to a question in her head
  • A collage: in a workshop I attended with Cynthia Leitich Smith, she had us, the students, make a collage that represented our character's fears, dreams, motivations, goals, or view of the world. Some writers use Pinterest boards to the same effect. 
  • Zodiac signs
  • Myers-Briggs personality type test or any personality test on facebook
  • Sorting your character into their Hogwarts House or discover their Dungeons and Dragons alignment.
  • Having your character write you a letter, telling you, the writer, something you don't know about them yet. This exercise has been surpringly revealing and productive for me when I feel like I'm still not connecting to my character in some way. 
  • Write your character's biography or Wikipedia style entry.
  • Journal a week in the life of your character.
  • Character interview or questionnaire.
Of course, there must be moderation in all things. I don't employ all of these techniques on a single character or even on all the different members of my cast. Like any type of research, character exploration can easily become just another way in which I put off writing because I'm planning on writing. Sometimes the easiest way to know a certain character is by trial and error, and many times, and although I've made a detailed entry in a character bible, my characters still surprise me and make the story even more exciting than I could've imagined on my own.

So writer friends, what are some techniques you have used to flesh out you "imaginary friends?" Share in the comments! 


  1. I'm reading Magic Word right now! Here's a very simple image I use with students to talk about character:

  2. I love that you mentioned Bartimaeus. One of my favorite characters ever!

    I too have found the "letter from a character" to be very revealing. (Often the most revealing comes from my antagonist.) Thanks for a great post, Yamile--and I hope you have a great NaNoWriMo, if you're doing it this year.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!