Sunday, January 20, 2008

How To ... Flesh Out Your Characters

On Friday, Steph gave us some great tips for naming characters. Today, I'm going to share some of my tips for turning your cardboard cutout into a fully developed character.

Even with the coolest name in history (like Aspen Brooks or Nicolette Antonavich) your character is not going to be able to carry the weight of your book unless you know more about them than height, weight, eye and hair color. You have to understand what makes them tick, how they will respond to the situations you present them with in the course of the book, whether they like Diet Coke or Pineapple Fanta (My protagonist, Phoebe Castro, likes Fanta, by the way).

So what if your character doesn't appear to you in a dream as a fully realized, three-dimensional person who tells you everything you need to know about her? Well, there are a few shortcuts I've picked up along the way to help me move from characteristic to character.

1. Archetypes. When I'm first developing a character, one of my first stops is The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes and Heroines by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders. This book categorizes male and female characters into eight archetypes each, giving a personality profile for each. And the best part is, once you've figured out who your two main characters are (like Phoebe is a Spunky Kid and Griffin is a Bad Boy) then you can flip to the back to get a rundown of how they react together. Instant conflict and resolution!

2. Zodiac. I use this method less often (usually when the archetypes don't quite nail it for me) but it can give you lots of good stuff, from likes and dislikcopes to favorite colors and foods to where your character holds stress. (I'm a Virgo, so my stress shows up in my stomach. If I ever write a Virgo character, I'll probably use that.) There are tons of great websites where you can get zodiac profiles, but I love The Book of the Zodiac. It goes into great detail about each sign, differences between males and females, work and home life, what their relationships are like. (Plus, it's really colorful!)

3. Collage. I do this for every book. Because I'm a visual learner, I find it invaluable to have a pictorial compilation of my characters. Lots of writers do collages, but here's my method. You'll need some printer paper, scissors, a glue stick, and some magazines.
  • Step One: Flip through as many magazines as possible. I like TeenVogue, CosmoGirl, InStyle, and Lucky the best. I tear out anything that reminds me of any of the characters in this book. I do collages for all of the main characters and most of the secondary ones, so as I tear stuff out I divide into piles by character. The more I have to choose from the better. At a minimum I need something that will make a good background, a headshot or two of and actor or model who looks like the character, and some clothing and accessories they would own.

  • Step Two: Build the collage. Start by gluing down a background image that fills up most of the page (this way you won't end up with whitespace left over at the end). Then select a few of the headshot and clothing images, trim them to just the desired element, and arrange them over the background. I always lay these out before I glue so I make sure they all fit. Then snip out the small pictures and accessories and stick them wherever they fit.

  • Step Three: Finalize the collage with words. This usually requires flipping back through the magazines looking for two things. 1) Words that resonate with your characters. 2) Ransom-note-type letters that you can cut out and use to form your character's name. Sometimes I even outline the letters of the name in a silver Sharpie to make it stand out more.

Ta da! You have created a collage (or two or ten) that will give a visual reference for your characters development.

Okay, those are all my secrets. Do you have any special tips or methods you use to give your character depth and substance?

OH. MY. GODS. -- Dutton, May 2008


TinaFerraro said...

Tera, VERY COOL post, and Nicolette and I appreciate the nod on her name. :)

This sounds really odd, but my way of forming characterization is to hold open auditions. The title comes first, the premise, the story line, and then I start writing. I "audition" characters for the roles--until the right one walks in.

This was particularly true for my Spring '09 book, THE ABC's OF KISSING BOYS. I had a devil of a time finding the hero, kept thinking I wanted a cocky jock, but none of the ones I "auditioned" worked. Then one day this guy showed up in my head, and he was younger and fresher and funnier than I'd imagined--but he was perfect and got the job. My teen pre-readers tells me he's my "hottest hero yet". I'm just glad he heeded the call for open auditions.

(Is someone going to send the men in the white coats after me for this response?)

stephhale said...

Tina, I called off the men in white coats by telling them you'd dedicate your next book to them. :)
TLC, awesome post. I'm going to have to pick up those two books. I used the collage with Twisted Sisters and I loved it. I need to do one for Spring Breakup. It is amazing the way the brain works and how the littlest things can trigger big ideas!

stephhale said...

PS- Aspen said to tell you that she already knows how cool her name is but she appreciates the shout-out!

TinaFerraro said...

Hey, Steph, as long as the men in the white coats buy my books, I'll be happy to chat with them. :)

Me said...

Tina, I love your method. I don't get it, but I love it! Do you do this at the brainstorming stage? Or while your actually writing pages? What happens if your character auditions late? Do you have to rewrite a lot? [Also, I snuck a few pages of Hottie last night and am already loving it.]

Steph, I know what you mean about little things leading to big. The proposal I'm working on right now grew out of one perfume ad I tore out of a magazine. Fingers crossed that it pays off. I'll buy stock in the perfume!

TinaFerraro said...

TLC, basically what happens is I start writing when others would still be brainstorming...and I just test out characters on the screen. Does that make more sense?

Glad you're liking HOTTIE!

Diana Peterfreund said...

My characters usually come organically as well. I've never had much luck with the whole "interview" or character sheet approach. My characters don't have birthdays or favorite ice cream flavors unless those things are important to the plot.

For instance, Amy, the heroine of Secret Society Girl, can't swim and has a phobia about deep water. This is because I wanted the society members to haze her during initiation in a way that seemed funny and harmless to them, but really, REALLY freaked her out. But I haven't asked myself what phobias the other characters have. If they need one for the plot, they'll get one.

I have actually just made my first collage, for my new YA, Rampant. I don't know how helpful it was in terms of character, but it was certainly fun!

KATZ said...

Oh good, I'm on the same page as Diana.
I don't know my characters' birthdays or favorite colors, or do involved character worksheets and wondered if I was remiss in some vital aspect.

I tend to brainstorm/free-write on their backstory -- get a sense of their parents/issues from childhood/former relationships/jobs -- then I start writing...

Marley Gibson said...

Excellent post, Tera! I love that beginning stage when you're fleshing out your characters and what their ticks and traits are. I do an online collage where I just throw a bunch of pictures into a word document. It really helps to visualize who the characters are. And, if the publisher asks me who would play my characters, I can just forward the document to them.

= )