Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Character Capsule

Sharon Wildwind

Ah, summer. Wearing shorts, sitting under a striped umbrella or the patio of my favorite restaurant, eating nachos and sipping something cold, my writer friends and I knew we could solve all the writing problems in the world. Then the topic of character development came up.

Some of the group, like me, were plotters. A couple of the others were pansters. And one poor person was a wide-eyed newbie who was in the process of discovering that even writers who had been in the business for a while, don’t have any magic beans, which when planted, will grow the perfect story.

If you’re not familiar with plotters versus pansters, a plotter is someone who does a lot of thinking and planning before even writing Chapter 1. A panster writes by the seat of her pants. She sits down with no more than, I want to write a story about a missing eight-year old girl, and she’s off and running.

After a good bit of wandering discussion about characters we had known and loved, we challenged each other to come up with a character capsule kit, a short list that would be doable by both plotters and pansters. Each person submitted one essential thing they had learned about character development from another writer.

So here it is: the fueled-by-nachos-on-Earl’s-patio-instant-character-development capsule. The name of the writer who gave us the idea is in parenthesis.

Dominant impression: two words—one adjective and one noun—that summarize the character. The noun is not the same thing as a profession, but may indicate a role similar to that profession. Or it might relate to something totally separate from what the person does for a living. Example: a cop might be a disillusioned protector. (Debra Dixon)

Tag line: One sentence that describes the character’s main motivation Example: the tag line for Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz is There’s no place like home.(Debra Dixon)

Flawed life view: How has the character got it wrong about life and/or relationships? Example: he thinks he’s allowed to give to other people, but not take for himself. (Liz Lounsbury)

Line he/she believes they will not cross: What is the one thing the character is convinced he/she will never do? What happens in this book when they cross that line? Example: She’ll never tell who really financed her college education and why. When she does tell, the police reopen a cold case, and her mother is suspected of murder. (Donald Maass)

What jobs does this character have? In other words, why is she/he in this book? All characters should ideally have at least 3 or more jobs. If you have a character with less than three jobs, think about giving those jobs to other characters. Example: 1) Second murder victim, 2) He saw Carla on River Road last Friday night, 3) He’s the one who has been cooking the books at the dot-com company. (Carolyn Wheat)

Writing quote for the week:

Good secondary characters raise the bar for the protagonists. They force the protagonists to become stronger in order to prevent the secondary characters from taking over the book.”
~From the panel “Writing Two Characters,” Bouchercon 2003


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Wait a minute, Sharon. You were sitting around on a patio with Donald Maass and Carolyn Wheat? Or did I miss something?

Sharon Wildwind said...

No, a bunch of us local writers were sitting around on a patio talking about workshops we'd attended. All the names attached to the items were people who had taught at those workshops.