Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Character Capsule, The Update

Sharon Wildwind

A couple of years ago—June 19, 2007 to be exact—I blogged about five key characteristics that go to the heart of character development. If you want to refresh your memory about those characteristics, click here to see that blog.

I’m happy to report that dominant impression, tag line, flawed life view, uncrossed line, and jobs have, so far, aged gracefully. They still form the core of where I begin to develop or update a character.

I’ve learned something new about tag lines in the past two years. This is one place where cliches work. Why waste time thinking up a pithy description, when a tried-and-true line can do it for you? Do you get an immediate mental image of a secretary who believes in a place for everything and everything in its place? How about a family matriarch who would never wash her family linen in public? Would you like to work for a boss who believed that power is the greatest aphrodisiac? No one but the author sees the tag line, so go ahead, just this once. Poach cliches to your heart’s content.

I’ve added four more key elements to my character capsule.

Dangerous secret(s):
Every character needs a secret that will come out in this book, or occasionally, be the set-up for a future book. The secret doesn’t have to relate to the mystery, though it may. In many cases secrets provide the best red herrings because the character’s motivation which can be misinterpreted. A classic example is the song Long Black Veil, ©1959 by Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill. The guy in the song has a good reason for not telling the judge where he was when the murder was committed, and in the end, he pays for keeping his secret.

Emotional profile:
Where does the character’s heart lie? Or equally important, what does the character’s heart lie about? How does she express emotions? What emotions are most important? What does he value and why? Does he attempt to hide his values? Why or why not? Is she successful at hiding them? What has it cost him to value this? What rewards have come from valuing this? How does having this emotional profile make her stronger? Make her weaker?

Defining moments:
What were three utterly defining moments, each related to the theme, that brought the character to the book’s opening? This is where the character’s world turned. He could never undo this moment. She could never go back to being what she had been. The first two moments might have happened any time in the character’s life; the third one should happen very close to the book’s beginning; it may even happen in the early part of the book. Imagine a glass so full that it has a dome of liquid on top, being held there by surface tension. Now put one more drop into the glass. Of course, everything spills over the side. That’s what the third defining moment does to the character, and the spilling over the side forces the character into the story.

A brand is not a something I do for individual characters. Instead it provides a background against which all my characters act. Several years ago another writer commented after reading an early draft, “Your main character keeps breaking down in tears. Why would I want to read about a woman who is that weepy?” Good point. So part of my brand became, “The past overtakes everyone, but it doesn’t have to overwhelm everyone.”

That brand message gives me a yardstick against which I can measure my characters’ behavior. First, every one of my characters needs a past, and the darker, the murkier, the more difficult the past, the better. Second, that past is coming back to haunt the character. Finally, the character isn’t going to fold. She may occasionally cry, but she’s also going to pull up her socks, get angry, be honest, and find the courage to confront her past. By knowing what my brand is, I can use it to generate a whole range of reactions.

Writing quote for the week:

The author contracts with the reader to provide an ah-ha moment where they recognize the character as someone they know in real life. ~Bouchercon 2003 panel


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sharon, as always, I'm impressed by your keen analysis. Do you construct your characters on a foundation of what you've said in this blog, or do you deconstruct intuitively successful characters to see what works? Or do you use these elements primarily to tweak characters and make them stronger? I think the key to using these elements effectively is "show, don't tell." Not every writer, even some who are well established, manages that.

Anonymous said...

Liz, the character capsule is what I use when I'm faced with a blank page and a new character to create or a character to update since the last book.

I'll start with a general list of what characters will be in the story; sometimes with a name, sometimes a place-holder designation, such as "a person out of Anne's past, who knows who her real parents were."

As I begin the first draft, I usually discover unrelated bits and pieces about a character, which I stick in the file I've opened for that person. I usually wait until the chapter where the character first appears before I put those bits and pieces together in a profile. Waiting helps, particularly with the jobs: the reasons the character is in the story. By the time the character appears, I may be hanging out help wanted signs, such as, I need a character who can give my protagonist a reason to visit the boat marina. Oh, yeah, I could give that job to the person who knows about her parents.

By that time, I'm in the writing flow and don't want to interrupt the story to do a long character development, but I have to gel the character. With the capsule formula, I have 9 areas that I can complete, usually in under two hours, and get back to writing.

Having said that, yes, there are sometimes I stare at those simple 9 areas for two or three days. That's a clue that I haven't got a good handle on this character and I may need to rethink him or her.

Absolutely bang on about the "show, don't tell" approach. The capsule gives me the what (the tell), then how I write the chapter eventually gives me the how (the show).

JDS said...

Great character analysis details. Those are the kind of things that really do need to come out in a character's in-text life. Thanks for the thoughts.