I’ve tried a lot of different ways to learn about my characters before I start to write my novel, yet none have really clicked yet. I know these methods work for other writers so I thought I’d talk about the ones I have tried and see if anyone has a method to suggest.
The Questionnaire – Asking a long list of questions and answering them in character. Often I find these to be too superficial. If a character loves food I might talk about their favorite food once or twice, but for those that focus on other things food isn’t relevant to their character.
Of course there are also questions that are too broad. What’s important to your character? I don’t know yet, that’s why I’m filling out this questionnaire. Perhaps if I found a good mix of questions that worked together more this would work for me, but the ones that I have tried do not.
The Monologue – Having a character fill out a diary entry/letter/generally talk for a while. This will usually tell me what the character wants and what they find annoying. It can leave the character feeling one sided. To be fair I haven’t tried doing both a diary entry and letter for the same character, which might give me a more well rounded feel of their private v public life. I recently heard of pretending your character is going to a therapist, or have a character write a letter to the author, either discussing all of the horrible things that they've had to endure. I’ll be trying these next.
The Pinterest board – Putting together a collection of pictures of what the character, their home, and their general living arrangements are like. I find that this encourages me to spend too much time describing what the characters look like instead of their actions and emotions. Although adding some pictures to my general character notes helps me remember some of their physical descriptions.
Writers Coloring Book by Rachel Funk Heller - This is a particularly unique way to learn about your characters and plot around them. The book uses color to show the different levels of a characters psyche. One of the nice parts is just choosing colors that go well together and then figuring out how they fell together that way later on. This seems to work visual writers.
How do you learn about your characters?
From Thoreau to Kim S. Robinson, vlogs to newspaper op-eds, social writing has had a huge impact on American literature and Americans through the centuries. Social writing is fiction and non-fiction, science-fiction and auto-biography. Such writing can be a large or small part of a piece, it's entirety or the sub-theme of a secondary character. It is timely, historical, and predictive. It is a platform for thinkers and writers, politicians and scientists to offer their musings to the public in intellectual, creative, original ways.
How a writer spreads their message can be tricky. Social writing is easily made (tediously) boring, pedantic, and drawn out. Readers love a good story, interesting characters, and fun plot twists. It's essential to build the world well, as with any work. One of the most lasting social writers of any age, William Shakespeare, left us with more than a description of life during his age. He left us with themes of freedom and commitment, duty and prejudice that persist in the modern world.
There are numerous works of literature that expound on political inequality, prejudice, and that predict future developments in science and society. From the New York Times to Daily Kos, Breitbart to the Alternative Media Project, writers are able to get their message out there. Science fiction is one of the most progressive of these venues, especially with regard to the prediction of new technologies and social constructs. Writers for television push the boundaries to the edge of believability weekly. What keeps us interested? What makes this writing enticing?
Good plots and characters, layered with a purpose, have done more for social progress than perhaps any other protest tool. In fiction, this layer adds to the complexity and charm of characters, while in non-fiction, the layer of social dissent makes the information engaging and compelling. In plot development, social protest brings intrigue, freeing the writer to discuss their social objective within the context of the story line or the history of the primary character.
A writer adds much to the craft by weaving their personal beliefs into their stories, especially with regard to the larger population within which they exist. Empathy and social concord appeal to readers because the work discusses them; their potential, their future. Writing is a vehicle, it is up to us as writers to do justice to the ideas, characters, and worlds for readers now and for the future.
When the words dry up, a great way to jump over the wall is to use writing prompts. In fact, it’s a means to find a story idea or simply give your writing muscle a workout. There are many generators online that’ll provide a prompt you can run with. Sci-Fi is my genre and a generator I’m particularly fond of is <http://www.scifiideas.com/story-idea-generator/>.
Another way to find writing prompts is to watch and listen. A good writer is a professional observer. It’s amazing what you’ll see and hear if you take a moment to become aware of what is going on around you. For example, this morning I was at the market. Standing at the checkout, I overheard two cashiers chatting about their night out.
The two girls gossiped about someone named Heather and they were sure the b@itch was hiding something. Heather came into the bar and talked to a man no one knew. Yes, I know it’s rather lame. But hey, it was the supermarket. Below is what I came up with.
I sit alone. Taking a sip of the amber liquid, I let the fire linger on my tongue. The warmth fills me and I swirl what is left in the tumbler. A strong smell of stale beer assaults my nose which conflicts with sweet aroma of my whiskey.
The front door opens and a short woman walks in. She isn’t tall, not even reaching five feet but her presence is bold and thick. Hair short and choppy, it mottles around her face like strands of cord. Our eyes meet and I hold her forest green eyes for only a moment. In between the depths emerald, there is a fire, a spark which reminds me of a slow burn ready to flare at any moment.
I nod to her, she does so in return. A man at the bar calls out, grabbing her attention from me. She laughs, hearty and throaty which I may add, is amazing since she has no neck. Her head sits on broad shoulders and there’s nothing in between.
“Heather?” the man sitting on the stool asks to the woman. She nods. “Did you bring it?”
“Yes, but it wasn’t easy for me to get it,” Heather replies clutching her purse.
I lean closer to listen. I know that it’s not the polite thing to do but I can’t help myself. What does the woman have? Why does the man want it?
The woman sits on a barstool and I can see her profile. The slow smoldering smile on her lips is what I expect. She is going to make the man work for it. I just know it.
“Buy me lunch and we can discuss terms. I’m hungry and want a hamburger and fries. A beer too.”
So what do you think? Are you wondering what Heather has in her purse. I know I am. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.