Monday, June 23, 2014

Character Analysis Part 2!

Oh goodness, brace yourselves, I'm going to try and explain how I think...

In my previous post I talked about how my performance background affects how I write my characters, and how my theatre education helps me flesh them out via character analysis.

A person read my blog! Which shouldn't surprise me as much as it does, but often when I blog I feel like I'm shouting into a void so knowing that someone I don't know is listening (reading) gives me bubble-tummy feels.

This person went on twitter to ask me a perfectly reasonable question:
" there a way to teach people with no acting background [how] to make good use of character profiles?"

My immediate response is "YES!" - because I'm an optimist, and in my universe there is a way to do anything.
But then came the hard part...

As I said in my previous post, I plan and plot. Vague versions of the characters usually come first. Once I have a plot from beginning to end I begin my in-depth analysis for each character. I start with the MC then work my way backward until I get to people who are nameless and have yet to exist. Don't break your brain over it. The writing process is a fickle and fluid thing.

So for this MS my main character's name is Eden.
*I'm very careful with choosing character names. Very careful.*
My beginning Character Profile for her looked something like this:
 "Daddy's girl. Quiet, observant, but not awkward. Strong imagination, but not bookish or hyper-intelligent for her age. 16. Lives in small-town Texas. Biracial - Mother is black, Dad is white. Not future-thinking (doesn't know what she wants to be when she grows up). Only child. Spoiled, but not bratty. Strong-willed, but easy-going."

Okay...Here's where I fear I'm going to lose you. You're about to get a glimpse into my over-analytical, crazy-pants brain.

"Daddy's Girl" - this is an incredibly important component within the story. With this piece of information I had to flesh out who her father was. His likes and dislikes, then I had to take portions of his personality and graft them on to Eden. For instance, his taste in music...
Eden and her best friend are in a car crash at the end of chapter two. Before they are hit they are rocking out to Janis Joplin. Why not Lady Gaga? Or Taylor Swift? Or One Direction? Well, Eden didn't grow up listening to pop music very often, but she did grow up listening to 70's music, classic rock, and 80's hair bands. So when Eden's best friend let's her pick what music they cruise to it's Janis Joplin.
Later, Eden changes out of a very nice outfit meant for a party, and into "knock-around" clothes. She puts on one of her dad's old Motley Cru t-shirts.
These things tell you what kind of girl she is without telling you. She's low maintenance; she has friends yet isn't a social outcast, but she's obviously not one of the super-popular, cheerleader types. There are many other things that this ONE item on a list of character traits tells you about her...that's just what I get from "Daddy's girl".

These things build on themselves. Eden's a daddy's girl well then we find out a piece of who her dad is. How she was raised affects her relationships with other people. Shy-but-fun people often attract boisterous extroverts as friends. So then we have Madison, the best friend...
Your character analyses begin weave together then snowball...and you have yet to introduce the actual plot!

There's the rub.
Don't confuse a character analysis with anything concerning plot.
Character analysis does not change the story in any way except for changing how it's told. Do you understand?
At the end of all things it doesn't matter what song Eden and her best friend were listening to when a car crashed into them. It doesn't matter what t-shirt she was wearing.
But at the same time it does- at least for me.
Those details add "umph". They add a little bit of "aww, me too" or "I know someone like that"; a little piece of the familiar that we take with us into an extraordinary world (I write portal fantasy).
If you're going to do an in-depth character analysis and mean to use it then make sure it informs your world/story.

Good examples:
Victor Vale in Vicious - he blacks out words in books as an act of rebellion against his parents. He does it to assert his power, and reject/mar their influence. There is no plot significance, but it speaks volumes about the character himself.
Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter (5-7) - wearer of radish earrings, and possessor of encyclopedic knowledge of obscure facts about weird (most likely non-existent) magical creatures. Though we were confined to Hogwarts she gave us glimpses into non-mainstream wizard society, and the world outside of wizard school.
Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin in The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings - love a quiet life, eat several meals per day, and are a notoriously non-adventurous/non-confrontational species. They people they were makes us care about the people they become. They prove themselves to be brave, daring, and selfless as they defy their natural inclinations to save their world. If Hobbits were lithe and beautiful warriors (like Elves), or hardy, desperate, rough-and-tumble brutes (like Dwarves) their journey would be less compelling than the one we know. There would be less heart within the story. It doesn't really matter that they regularly eat Second Breakfast. Second Breakfast didn't help them ascend Mount Doom. What mattered was that they stepped outside of themselves, that was a little piece of themselves that they sacrificed to do what they had to do.
That's the power of a character analysis. It allows you to find those little, inconsequential things that add color and depth to the bigger picture be it either the world you've built or the person.

Character analysis is merely an exercise. The things you glean from it will probably be things lost through round after round of revision, but the little gems you keep make your characters more valuable to the reader.

Some writers, I daresay many writers, may not use them, but I do because if I didn't I would get lost in plot. My characters would suffer from lack of dimension. I don't know if Victoria Schwab, J.K. Rowling, or J.R.R. Tolkien wrote out character profiles. Probably not - they're brilliant, but this is what I do to help my writing.

How you discover these things, and how you implement them are unique to you and the way you think. I can only tell you to find them, and add them in where you can. As a reader I relish those details. They are what make a character unique and memorable.

If you feel that a character analysis is something you'd want to try I'd suggest taking a character out of your favorite book/film/TV show (any character from anything) and breaking their characteristics down as much as you can. See how detailed your favorite characters are. I think you'll find that the most dynamic, intriguing characters are the ones with the most facets. They're the ones you can't sum up in three to five words.
Then create someone who can't be broken down into three to five words. Make someone who is complicated, contradictory but consistent, and make sure they're always moving forward (even if it's at 2mph). The character you begin with shouldn't be the character you end with.

This post is long-winded enough. I fear that I have muddled things more by trying to explain. More successful people out there are full of writerly advice - I'm just trying to explain what works best for me, and why.
The How is the secret that makes you You and makes me Me. I lean on my performance background. You might interview your characters, or make them have conversations with each other, or you might simply go forth with an idea and let your subconscious tell you who they are.

How you implement your character's strengths, quirks, and weaknesses is in your writing voice. If you choose to analyze to find those things is up to you.

If nothing else, I wish you luck! I wish you great writing, and breakthrough moments.

Until we meet again...

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Character Analysis - What Theatre Taught Me About Writing

Scrolling through Twitter today I came across a link to a Tumblr post that sort of miffed me.

A well-known, well-loved author (who I read and enjoy) made a statement about Character Profiles, and how they deemed such things extraneous or unnecessary to the writing process. They openly frowned upon them, and in their own words were "hateful" about it.

First, let me say -  To each their own.

Use Character Profiles for your writing if you choose, or don't.
The author who loathes them is a New York Times Bestseller several times over. I'm still in the query stage. By all means if you're looking for the opinion of a seasoned professional don't look here.

Now, on with my opinion - which may I remind you - we have established to be nearly useless.

I use Character Profiles, or as I like to call them "Character Analyses".

I performed (acted/danced - sometimes professionally!) for most of my life. From age 5 to 25.
I went to college on a theatre scholarship.
I can play the hell out of a character.

I was assigned my first Character Analysis in my Acting 1 class my freshman semester in college. Never had my mind been so blown as to what one could discover about a person whose beginning, middle and end was already laid out in a script.
Actors can use a character analysis to find a way to bring their own interpretation of a character to a script. The lilt of a phrase, a tic, a stance, the way they move and walk. If you took one hundred actors and gave them the same part (and all those actors were good actors) you should never see the same performance.
Those details matter. Those details give it individuality, life...reality.

Before I begin writing I outline. I'm a plotter, and planner in all aspects. I love world-building, I love a small mystery, I love dynamic characters. way I make sure none of my characters ever sound the same? Character Analysis.
And I'm not just talking the same characters in the same book sounding the same - I've written/revised/re-written two polished manuscripts (about to start a third - whee!) and none of my characters sound the same. And if I'm doing my job right then none of them will ever sound the same.

A character analysis helps me write dialogue.
See, because I've gone and observed these characters long before I ever touched the keys on my laptop I know that Eden hates wearing jewelry, she prefers salty snacks to sweet ones, and has more fun dressing up for a party than actually going to the party.
Each of these "minor details" affected the story in significant ways. When she eats in the story (set in a foreign world) the food that you see are only things that she liked and ate - so no sweets. She gets to relish in her appearance yet her semi-antisocial attitude affects who she talks to, how much she reveals in conversation, and the amount of internal narrative that ends up on the page.

In my recently rewritten Middle Grade story I have twin sisters who are almost complete opposites in appearance and personality.
Bianca is a listener, and is more well-read than her sister. Her conversations are more complex than the ones Scarlett has. She is reflective and very self-aware. She does the concept-lifting of the two, while her sister is more action oriented. Bianca reads older than she is because in her mind she IS older than she is.
Scarlett observes a person's appearance first, and so her internal narrative gives the reader clearer pictures of the characters than Bianca's. Her restricted vocabulary is suited to a lazily intelligent, almost-thirteen year old girl. Her conversations deal with the obvious, and the action at hand rather than abstract implications, or theoretical consequences. Being such a direct character she also has fewer moments of introspection. Her chapters tend to move faster. 

I designed it that way.

I knew who these girls were, and I grew so close to them that their personalities and quirks helped plot the book:
This would be best if it happened in a Scarlett chapter
We need to see this through Bianca's eyes because Scarlett wouldn't notice/care.

This isn't something I do for Main Characters only, though.
Everyone of significance (for me this means 95% of all my characters) gets at least a single-spaced page of a biography.
Because every time I have a character speak and every time there's a conversation I perform it. I hear it in my head, and by the end I'm saying it out loud - just like my character would.
And if it sounds the same; if Oliver says something that sounds like a Bianca-ism I change it because Oliver is from Chicago while Bianca and Scarlett are from a fictional island town in Washington. They don't speak the same way.

For me writing is like acting. I get to play a thousand parts; say things the real me doesn't mean, think, or believe - but my characters do. And for me to sell it - for you to believe it - it has to ring true, the character has to be real and three dimensional enough to be believed.
How I learned to create an atmosphere where one can suspend disbelief; how I learned to make a character come alive and BE more? - Character Analysis.

Characters never having interchangeable dialogue has always been a goal of mine as a writer. It's something that I knew very early on, but I'm ashamed to say I've only recently made a conscious effort to put it into practice.

If you've read some of my earlier posts you'll recognize the names "Bianca" and "Scarlett".
I got a very succinct critique on their story earlier this year. One of the phrases that pierced my heart, and opened my eyes was "...the dialogue felt a bit stilted..."
It hurt to hear that. Because that's the exact opposite of what I wanted.
They - when I say "they" I mean people in the publishing community - always say that if you know your characters their individuality has a way of shining through.

I'm here to tell you that's only true if you write it.

A light that isn't on doesn't shine.

Because of that critique I went back and rewrote their whole story across four months. In the rewrite I made sure and inserted some of every character's Little Things that made them them. The story and most importantly my characters are stronger for it.
And knowing my characters - exactly who they were, what they wanted to do and be, and where they have been/what they have seen/what they have done before page one - knowing all of those things made a complete rewrite somewhat of a breeze in terms of dialogue. The plot changed. The whole story changed, but my characters have never changed - I just turned on the light so they could shine.

But in that re-write I hit an 8 week long wall. There was one character who didn't fit in the new version of the story. His original incarnation was a figment, a significant figment, but a shadow of a real person nonetheless.
It took me eight weeks until a conversation with one of my beta readers led me to write a character analysis. Then I discovered him. I discovered who he was, and when I knew him I was able to write him effectively. For eight weeks I was halted at chapter five, and seven weeks later I had a complete seventeen chapter rewrite.

A Character Analysis (along with a drastic rewrite) saved my book.
So I'm not going to be hateful.
I'm going to say "you do you, and I'll do me".

I worried that such an influential author's opinion might make fledgling writers question their methods, or make them feel like they were doing something wrong. I'm telling you that each of us has our own path, and our own process. That author would certainly agree!
But if you're doubting yourself, if you find yourself unaware of how to proceed, or why this piece of dialogue or that character is such an unwelcome pain in the ass then...try a Character Analysis.
How do you discover dialogue? How do you find your characters?

Until we meet again...