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...

1 comment:

  1. This is incredible!

    I started out writing screenplays and had a chance to work with some really terrific actors over the years. And you're spot on with this, Colten.

    Spot. On.