24.1.11 | By: Megan Langham

Typing What They Tell You

To my mind, characters are the most important aspect of a story. Everything else—plot, theme, setting, style—is undeniably necessary, but it is the characters that leave the lasting impression with the reader. Their actions form the plot, their conflicts establish the theme, their actions and conflict both stand in stark relief against the setting.

Of course, this belief of mine may have something to do with how much I love my characters. Working with them, hearing them speak, uncovering all their peculiar nuances—that, to me, embodies everything that is joyful and exuberant about writing. There’s nothing more satisfying than the defining moment when Main Character makes his own decision about a plot twist that I’ve been agonizing over for weeks and walks off, with a crooked smile, into a tantalizingly unexplored possibility. Such autonomy can be frustrating, I’ll grant you that, but it’s also fulfilling. Once again I have created a personality; once again I have made a life. This is no longer my story alone.

Naturally I’ve done a good deal with my characters. At the moment five of them from one book have, each:

~A character fractalling sheet (only part of one for the two who took me unawares).
~A Myers-Briggs personality type (with countless corresponding articles).
~An enneagram personality type (with only slightly fewer articles than the Myers-Briggs).
~A physical appearance worksheet (resembling, in most respects, a loving police report).
~A list of relatable tropes (tropes is a funny word—but it is a word, Google Blogger. Look it up!)
~An interview in script form (actually for just two of them, so far).

All of these have been intriguing to find and valuable to have, but my favorite by far has to be the interviews. Up until a few days ago I had never considered sitting down in front of my characters with a pencil poised and a fine-tuned ear, waiting to catch their responses to my questions so I could scribble them down with all the frenzied fury of Archibald Asparagus as a psychotherapist. The thing felt rather strange, even to me, and it didn’t help when my sister asked me later who on earth I was talking to out on the front porch and what in Middle-earth they said to make me gasp and go all nervous-giggly.

But strange—strange is good. And the results of this particular strangeness have turned out to be very good indeed. When I started the interview, I thought I knew these men so well that there would be little left to discover. I was wrong. There was a good deal still to know about them, and now I am sure that there always will be. Somewhere along the way they’ve become real people with lives of their own and personalities that you can’t easily label with an enneagram number. That sort of thing can’t be properly described; it must be experienced to be understood.

As to what questions to use: I don’t think it matters all that much. There are several lists of character questions out on the internet—these are the ones I used. http://www.writing4success.com/dl/character-interview.pdf Though they worked very well, in the future perhaps I’ll write my own. Just for the fun of the thing, and also because a few of these questions didn’t quite make sense given my setting. Come to think of it, most questions seem to be geared to Characters of Contemporary Fiction. I think historical fiction ought to be given a fair showing; it doesn’t seem to be nearly as popular among writers as it used to be, and that is a pitiful thing if it is true.

Before I finish this, I ought to say: I don’t talk to my characters unless I’m interviewing them. But this could change. Don’t believe my family if they say I have gone crazy. Don’t let them go on and on about the voices in my head. Even if I do go all giggly for no apparent reason, don’t be alarmed. Selwin is probably just getting yet another rise out of Evan…and if my ears do not mistake me, he’s doing it now.

I’ll be back.

2 missives:

Jenny said...

Thanks for the link, Megan!

I take a wholly different tact (and maybe I will write about this) than that, usually. Because most of my characters are historical, I get the feeling of writing their history as I work on any given story. Naturally, as time progresses and I work with the characters more and more, I come to know them very intimately; but I don't get so close to them that I feel I could have an interview with them. Come to think of it, if I do interviews at all, they are usually posed by other people within the time period, not myself. I am very shy about breaking the forth wall on my characters because, in a sense, that's dragging them out of their own setting (which is real to them) and into mine (which is not real to them). So in order to keep them as real as possible, I make contact with myself as minimal as possible.

This is what works for me, anyway. I know there are countless ways to go about making multi-dimensional characters.

Iz got tea. ^.^

Megan L. said...

Isn't it wonderful, all these different -- well, not just styles of writing, but ways to approach the act of writing itself? I've noticed that about the fourth wall, with my own characters; but do you know, I rather like breaking into the other reality sometimes. There's a boldness about it like a breath of fresh air that works wonders for me.

I wouldn't expect it to be the same for everyone, though. Naturally not. Oh, and you ought to write a post about the way you make characters more real. I should gladly read it. ^.^

*scootles off to get tea*

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