I was reading Jae’s advice for preparing character bios for NaNoWriMo on Lit and Scribbles, and decided to talk about my main method for developing characters.
First, I am not a believer in the extremely detailed lists of character traits, likes, dislikes, etc, especially when at the beginning of writing a story. Other authors may find it helpful to know a character’s favorite color, time of day, and breakfast food. As I am writing, I may discover the character’s favorite color is mauve, they love the sunset, and they stock up on Count Chocula cereal during October so they can eat it all year. Unless the story is about a race to buy out all the boxes of Count Chocula cereal, these details matter little in the developing stage.
Instead, I prefer to focus my initial efforts on discovering how the network of people in the story connect and interact with each other. Unless you are doing a survival story about one person against impossible natural forces, each character is a part of a larger world. Even hermits have some connection to a community, a family, a larger world. If I can develop the relationships of characters, even ones who do not meet until the second or third act, it will bring dimension to each character as well as direct the plot.
For an example, I am going to use my favorite Dr. Seuss story: Fox In Sox (If you don’t remember how it goes, here’s a text version)
Name: Knox – Main Character, Protaganist
Appearance: Tall, yellow, fuzzy.
Personality: Sensible, patient, likes to keep to himself. A polite, proper person.
Backstory: Knox and Fox live close by. Usually, Knox avoids Fox and his clever-tongue-twisting ways. One day, however, Fox happens to catch Knox at home and engages in one of his chats.
General Character Arc: At first, Knox grudgingly plays along. Then, as Fox’s tongue-twisting game becomes more and elaborate, Knox begins to protest and attempt to leave. When Fox goes too far, Knox uses Fox’s own tongue-twisting game to get revenge and get away.
Relationship to Fox: Neighbors, acquaintances, and certainly not friends. What he likes less than Fox is Fox’s entourage who assist in his tongue-twisting game.
Name: Fox – Antagonist
Appearance: Red, fuzzy, foxy.
Personality: Fox is a clever fellow who always likes to play. He likes to play tricks on others and thrives off of other people’s frustration. The more angry someone becomes, the better a time he is having.
Backstory: Fox has spent years developing an entourage that is practically a tongue-twisting circus. He and his crew travel around, engaging strangers in tongue-twisting challenges and battles, thriving off the theatrics and frustration. Today, his target is his neighbor Knox. Fox focuses on him for the challenge of it, for Knox is known for his patience.
General Character Arc: Fox is always in control of the game, playing a con on Knox, building each layer of the tongue-twisting game into a more and more elaborate and twisting mess. He thinks he has triumphed, when Knox turns the tables on him.
Relationship to Knox: Fox has visited Knox’s door many times, only to find him not at home again and again. He knows Knox is avoiding him, and so seeks ways to waylay Knox on the way home from work. Knox is the prime, illusive target.
If doing a novelization of the story, I would probably go in more depth and develop the other characters in the story: Slo Jo Cro, Sue, Sue’s Socks, the Tweetle Beetles and their epic battles.
With this as a foundation, and a rough plot outline, I find I am able to write a draft with enough character depth to carry it. There are still some changes made along the way. For example, what if Knox was actually a secret agent sent to stop Fox from his nefarious tongue-twisting game? If this idea has enough merit, I might go back and tweak the story to make it fit. What if Fox is really just distracting Knox while Fox’s associates steal Knox’s secret stash of Count Chocula cereal? How many cereal boxes could fit in Sue’s socks?
This can be a time consuming process, especially for an epic fantasy. Imagine what this would look like for the Wheel of Time series. However, of all things I have done for pre-writing purposes, I find the details written in these rough sketches of people I will get to know better make the draft much stronger.
What are your methods for developing characters? What cereal would you stock up on if it was sold only one month out of the year? If you were to fight Tweetle Beetle Battle, what kind of paddle would you use?
Also, are you planning on participating in NaNoWriMo? I haven’t fully decided yet – the whole ‘applying for grad school’ thing is putting such plans on hold. If you have participated before, what makes NaNoWriMo a worthwhile endeavor? I have some ideas, but want to hear your thoughts.
Side Note 1
Speaking of Grad School, I took the GRE last week, and did really well. Now on to Letters of Introduction, Resumes, and Letters of Recommendation.
Side Note 2
This week the Extended Edition of The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey was released on Blu-Ray and DVD. My question is how? The Hobbit has already been extended into three movies roughly three hours long. How is there more material to work with? The Extended Editions of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy were great and added more depth and color to an already great work. What can an Extended Edition of The Hobbit add? More chase scenes? If you’ve seen the Extended Edition, let me know if it is worth watching.
Side Note 3
My sister Natalie is in Panama on a mission for our church (you can follow her adventures here). To keep her from being homesick, here are some of the pictures we sent her to hang up for Halloween:
Disclaimer: This post may also be driven by my excitement for Halloween next Thursday.
15 thoughts on “Building A Community of Characters – With The Help of Dr. Seuss”
Great tips. I know a lot of people approach their story creating differently, it’s good to have multiple perspectives to help new writers find the technique that works best for them. And bonus points for using Dr. Seuss characters as examples. 😀
That’s why I like checking out other people’s ideas and techniques and then adapting them to my style.
I think the key is to experiment and keep what works for you.
I also have a really hard time with those character questionnaire type things. I need to meet them through the first draft and just see who they develop into.
I’m one of those nerds who pre-ordered the extended edition of The Hobbit and I’m so eagerly looking forward to seeing it that I’ll probably let me word count suffer for it. 🙂 When I first heard they were extending it into 3 movies I couldn’t believe Peter Jackson, as the fan he is, would do such a shameless money grab. But then I saw the first installment and I decided the idea was legit. I really like the way they’re integrating the LOTR appendices into the story, so you get the context of The Hobbit as it relates to everything else. I feel like had Tolkien not written The Hobbit first, a lot of the things PJ included in his movie would have been in the book. I also like what he’s adding to character development, given he’s not making the movies for the same age audience the book was intended for. Book Thorin? One dimensional jerk. Movie Thorin? Tragic hero. (Although too much with the shots taken straight out of an 80’s hair band video, of the majestic locks flowing majestically in the majestic breeze.)
I think Thorin Oakenshield would make an excellent 80’s rocker name.
In previous projects I’d written whole biographies of my characters. Nowadays, I don’t use anything, choosing to allow the characters tell me what they went through as I go along. I think that’s called pantsing, but it makes for a really wild ride when I’m putting the story on paper!
In a way, then, you would be getting to know the characters the same way the audience does.
A lack of planning does add a flexibililty which can also add more spontaneity.
Like you, I find it frustrating to go through character checklists at the start of a story. Such items either become irrelevant, or other things happen that change them, so the information isn’t useful any more. All I need to get started is motivation, really. The rest will grow as the story does.
A big priority for me is to not let my characters be predictable — or certainly not the major characters. So I like to play with several ideas for the background and motivations of each character, seeing what new and interesting approaches I can take.
I always find it fun and exciting when my characters take on a life of their own and surprise me. I have had an entire plot mapped out, and then realized the entire third act doesn’t work because the actions required no longer fit the character. This is part of what makes the creative process so exciting.
It’s great to hear your process. I haven’t been able to complete the character checklists at the beginning and have been frustrated when books on writing tell me “you must know your character first.” That hasn’t worked for me and I like discovering my characters as the story goes along. I like your idea of getting a grasp of how the characters interconnect … I’ll have to give this a try next time around.
I think what I enjoy most about writing is the discovery process. Part of why my method works for me is that I haven’t figured out everything about the character, but I have at least a vague sketch I can start filling in as the story goes along.
I have a similar technique for developing characters: Start with contrasting types and let their interactions and the events of the story tease out the details.
I always sympathized with Knox, the poor fellow. Sue and Slow Joe Crow always screwed me up when reading Fox in Socks to my son.
Knox is an excellent protagonist.
You have such a gift for writing, Laura. I like to write notes for myself about my characters, but as far as what my notes contain, that varies constantly. I have no set way of doing it.
Thanks! I think our method of doing notes has to adapt to each story or novel. There may be similarities, but there are different needs for different narratives. I like having a vague idea of an outline.
This was lovely to readd