Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Expand Your Characters

by Annette Lyon

When writers think about point of view, they often focus on keeping the action and thought process inside one person's head throughout a specific scene. As well they should.

But there's one aspect of point of view many writers forget about, and it's one that, when handled well, can really bring characters to life.

How does your character view the world?

How does he/she relate to it?

What kind of things are in his/her background?

All of these things and more should have a great impact on how your POV character in any given scene tells the story and relates to the other people and events in it.

One great example is Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. He has many point of view characters and a complicated world with many cultures. But no matter whose head he's in, he's firmly entrenched in their way of thinking and viewing the events.

Perrin, who began the series as a blacksmith's apprentice, often uses blacksmithing imagery in his thoughts, speech, and comparisons: the fire, the anvil, and so on.

Elaine, on the other hand, grew up in a palace as a princess. She's also trained in the use of magic. Much of the way she thinks and talks is based on her background: epithets from her childhood nursemaid crop up frequently, as do how she can handle situations as a woman and with her magic.

A common theme in stories is the fish-out-of-water concept: a person taken out of their element and put somewhere else. The displaced character needs to relate to the new situation in terms of their old one, because that's the only frame of reference they have at first.

Be careful not to impose the new frame of reference onto the character too early.

What if Mork from Mork and Mindy had run into some major problem and made some joke about calling 9-1-1? He'd be more likely to refer to his own planet's way of handling an emergency.

In the first Harry Potter book, we're in Harry's head when Hagrid arrived at the shack on the island. When Hagrid sends a letter by owl, Harry describes the situation as if Hagrid had just made a phone call. For the time being, the Muggle world is Harry's only frame of reference. A phone call is exactly what Harry would compare it to.

If you put your own frame of reference into the POV character's head, you're sticking out as the writer. It's what you would think or feel in the same situation rather than your character.

I read a manuscript once that had a junior-high-aged farm boy looking at a rusted wheel-well of a truck. He compared the holes in the rust to the beauty of a lace doilie. That pulled me right out of the story. A 14-year-old boy is not going to be thinking of pretty lace doilies. He'd be far more likely to see a piece of Swiss cheese on his favorite sandwich or something else more boyish.

Listen to people talk: Men and women will use different phrasing and vocabulary to talk about the same thing. So will adults compared to children. Put yourself deeply into your character's situation, into their head, and figure out how they'd really react, think, and feel.

What specific words or images would they use?

An exercise:
Think of a single situation (breaking a bone, getting a flat tire, getting fired, failing a test, whatever) and then put several different characters into it. (Say, a football player, a cop, a fourth-grade girl, a lawyer, a fashion designer, a stay-at-home mother, a cheerleader.)

How would their reactions differ? What specific images from their backgrounds could you use to compare the bad situation to?

The football player might use images of tackles, fumbles, or interceptions.

The lawyer might feels as if his case had been thrown out or that he'd been given a bum jury.

The SAHM might decide she prefers changing a flat to changing dirty diapers.

Basically, what unique elements do each of your characters bring to the table that you can draw on? Make each one different. Make each one specific.

And they'll all stand out.


Jenn said...

What a great exercise. I'm glad I found this blog and will visit back often!

I'm going to finish my writing degree from TX A&M after my youngest goes to Kindergarten (next year!!!)

Clever name btw!

Heather B. Moore said...

Great ideas! Characterization can seem so elusive, but by taking a practical approach, even just filling out a characterization sheet and referring to it as you edit your first draft can really make a difference.

hi, it's me! melissa c said...

This was a great post. I am going to go back through the story I started and make sure I'm doing this! Thanks!