Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Writer's Wednesday:Beyond Character Sheets

Historical Author Michelle Styles explains why she tries to go beyond character sheets

One of the great differences between novel writing and screen writing is the development of characters. The screenwriter hopes her words will be given life by actors where for a novelist her words must give life to the character.
This is why it is helpful for novelists to understand not only how a screenplay might be written but also how an actor goes about preparing for a role and breathing life into a character. For a long time I have listened to various authors who say -- because I am trained as an actor or having acting experience, I find creating a character is relatively straight forward. It would cross my mind --  how and why. Is there some secret handshake? I do listen to actors speaking about how they prepare for their roles and find it fascinating but I had never found a book that really made that leap and I don't have time to take acting classes.
Fiona Harper kindly recommended Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins during her RWA workshop about putting emotion in without going over the top. (It is a good workshop btw -- and can be downloaded from the RWA website for a small fee) The book uses method acting techniques to help develop novelists develop characters. It is basically the primer I wanted and if you have ever felt  frustrated when people talk about how a knowledge of acting helps develop character this is the book for you. I am still processing the book but it makes sense.
In it, in the section about personalisation, Collins explains that character sheets and the like generally only help a novelist get to level B of developing a character, rather than to level  C-- in depth knowledge which give raise rise to specific traits and values. Characters and interview techniques can be fantastic tools but the novelist needs to go beyond the superficial and discover the inner values which drive the character and the why behind the back story wound which needs to be healed. A knowledge of inner values and the reason for it will help ensure your character behave consistently and perhaps resonates more with the reader.
As I already did a lot of this, it was good to understand the justification and the theory. Equally getting to level C as it were is another tool in the author's toolbox for creating believable characters. If you need a good character sheet to get you started,  The Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyons or Kate Walker's 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance have good templates. Remember they are jumping off points to get you to the inner value which will colour the character's life.
For example. -- a Level A type characterisation will be a 27 year old heroine with brown hair and eyes and a job as florist. Let's call her Stacey
Level B will go into Stacey background (she had a hard home life as her parents were alcoholics) and she felt like she had to work to provide a stable life for her model and highly irresponsible sister (Sabrina) and so just finished high school before having to find a full time job. She just bought the floral shop and works all the time. She had a steady boyfriend but he drifted off. This is fine. Many great stories are written with only level B characterisation but the characters can sometimes feel stereotypical or samey. Until you know what is truly important to her and how she will process it (this is where a good working knowledge of pop psychology comes in), you can't know her unique gestures and how to make it work. In other words, you can make mistakes with your character or spend loads of time wondering why would she do that?
Level C goes into the why and inner values and how those inner values will give rise to certain traits which make her unique. For example, did Stacey become a florist because her first job was in a floral shop and that gave her a sense of order and purpose as well as a steady income? Did it provide her with an escape from the chaos of her home life? Does she enjoy the symmetry? Or working with her hands?  The satisfaction that once a floral display is finished, the job is done. Does she prefer scent flowers or evergreens in her arrangements? What is more important to her -- her sister who she put through modelling school or her job as a florist? Will she take risks with her arrangements? How does that feed into the rest of her life? In this example by following things through I came up with Stacey creates displays but doesn't like being on display. She likes to keep to the background and be the support. Her floral arrangement should be noticed, not her.This is an inner value and helps to colour the rest of her life.  So I can start thinking about her clothes, and her gestures. How will she wear her hair?  What things will she keep in her purse?    Once you know that inner value of liking to have her work take the stage rather than herself, the character becomes more real. By knowing the inner value, I know if I suddenly have Stacey wearing flamboyant clothes, and making huge theatrical gestures without showing a progression or reason, the writing will feel off.
You can also create conflict easier. This heroine likes to stay in the background but she also has always supported her family. She has been there for her little sister in the
Because of the depth of knowledge that is required to write characters, it is one reason why many novelists feel it is important to go beyond character sheets and  interviews to get to the bottom of a character. It can also help you with shading a character's passions. BUT characters can be tricky things and sometimes they don't reveal their inner most core values until you reach the end of the first draft. It is why you always need to ask why is a character doing something. And if it seems to be out of the ordinary, you need to question the character closely and see where it is coming from and if there is a little corner or piece of your character that you haven't discovered yet.
So in order to make your characters seem more real, go deeper. Find those inner values and see what they throw up. Ask why and listen to the answer.

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romance. She is very interested in the whole process of characterisation. Her latest release To Marry A Matchmaker came out in the UK in July 2011. You can find out more about Michelle's writing at her website

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this Michelle. Really clear idea of the different levels you need to reach in developing your characters.