So here we are on Day 1. Nothing like a fresh new beginning. In fact, let’s start there. At the beginning. Before the Professor became the Professor, although after she announced her desire (at the age of eight) to become a child psychologist when she grew up, she did a lot of writing. Hey, this was my childhood hero after all.
So I wrote story after story after story. Life was quiet as an only child and when I wasn’t reading someone elses’ story, I was probably making up my own. In fact, I had something of a series going by the time I got to middle school. The title of this collection? One Big Family. Yup, nothing like a creative title and a kid wondering about the opposite of what she had. I spent a bit of time worried about this big family fascination as an Intro Psych student, but the more I thought about it, the more it became clear that the huge family in those childhood stories gave me lots of opportunities to do the thing I love best, to create characters.
Characters are what captivate me as a reader and keep me motivated as a writer. For some it is setting or hey, even plot, but for me it all starts and ends with characters. There is much to be said about character development,but one of my favorites comes from Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird.
“You make up your characters partly from experience, partly out of the thin air of the subconscious, and you need to feel committed to telling the exact truth about them, even though you are making them up. I suppose the basic moral reason for doing this is the Golden Rule. I don’t want to be lied to; I want you to tell me the truth, and I will try to tell it to you….. Just don’t pretend you know more about your characters then they do, because you don’t. Stay open to them. It’s tea time and all the dolls are at the table. Listen. It’s that simple.”
That advice resonates with me, it makes sense. Lots of other writing programs and books suggest a similar approach. One of my favorites of this kind of book is The Writer’s Idea Book by Jeff Heffron. In the chapter entitled Folks Like You, be provides a number of helpful prompts that writers can use to get to know their characters. Here are a few of the best:
- Describe your character’s facial expressions and body language. Describe any tics or physical habits, such as clearing his throat when he’s irritated or stroking his chin when we watches TV.
- Describe your character’s wardrobe. Know everything he wears, but pay particular attention to favorite clothes. What image does this character try to project through clothes, and what does that desired image say about the character?
- Describe your character’s interests and hobbies. How active is in he in all of these areas? Which hobbies has he abandoned through the years? What is the hot interest of the moment?
- Write your character’s life story in a few pages, focusing on the key moments, the turning points.
- Describe your character’s personality. Outgoing? Shy? Both? Give this description some depth. Here’s where you’re really getting to the heart of the character.
- Describe your character’s large and small possessions. What objects are most loved? What does this say about your character?
Do you, like me, have a character that’s been tapping on your shoulder for years? Popping into your mind when it wanders? If you do, sit down with a cup of coffee and these questions and get to know each other. I imagine I’m talking to myself, but if I do have readers that want to play, I invite you to post what you’d like from your own conversation in the comments. I will be doing this later in the week.
And to get you in the writing mood and welcome you to the weekend, take off your heels and settle in to hear what Joyce Carol Oates has to say about character development. It’s short 🙂