Thursday, March 14, 2013

Character Building

People have asked me how I come up with my characters. I just shrug, not certain how to answer when the process for me is convoluted and constantly changes. After writing five books and doing character studies for two more, I can say I don’t have a tried and true method.
On the advice of other writers, I used lengthy, detailed character inventories which probed into the deepest recesses of the psyche, tugging out a character’s darkest and brightest moments, the fears, goals and triumphs. The problem with this approach is that as I write, I invariably forget most of the information culled in the questionnaire. The second problem is I’m too impatient to work a lengthy character profile all the way to the finish. I want to get right to the story.
Though I’ve never done it, some writers swear by the Gestalt technique of putting the character in the chair.  Clint Eastwood tried this at the Republican National Convention with much laughter. I think I’d feel silly talking to a chair.
Last year I wrote a story in which a secondary character needed to play a more prominent role. Up to that point, I hadn’t given this character, a business analyst, much thought. But I needed something quick, so I resorted to astrological profiles. Within no time, I had an interesting duality of traits. On the upside, this man was analytical, reliable and precise. On the downside he was inflexible, cold and fussy. These opposing qualities added extra depth and conflict to the story.
Getting to know a character is a long and evolutionary process which unfolds as the story is written. I try to take all the preliminary profile preparation and distill it into a few prominent traits, quirks and clear-cut internal and external goals. As I write the story, I’m always asking: Who is this person? What does he want? What in his personality trips him up from attaining his dream? And what sort of strengths or weaknesses does he possess to handle all the challenges that are thrown at him?
For me, developing a character is a little like cooking. After reviewing a couple of recipes for a particular dish, I throw whatever looks good into the mix and omit ingredients I don’t think will work. The end result is new, sometimes unexpected and often delicious.   
I don’t have one sure fire method to creating characters. Instead, I pull from various sources to achieve the end product. In my head, I have a pretty good idea of what I want. As the story unfolds, the character takes shape, becoming fresh and full-bodied. In the end, if I’ve done him justice, he ought to be as familiar as an old friend.
As you can see, there’s nothing precise here—no scientific formula to guide my steps. If any of you have found such a map, please share your discovery. I’d love to hear what other writers do.
Until next month…happy reading.
Joyce Proell  





Big Mike said...

I start with a foggy image of someone I know or have seen in a mall, on TV, etc. As the story evolves so does the character, especially the internal elements, their conflicts, their turmoil, their hidden specters. By the end of the story a unique personality has evolved.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Capricorn or Aries? I like the chair idea in theory, not in "face time".

linda_rettstatt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
linda_rettstatt said...

I often take a drive and chat with a character to get to know him or her better. Since everyone these days is talking on a phone or blue tooth, other drives don't seem to even notice. And driving is relaxing for me--well, most of the time. It's like getting to know a new friend.

Liz Fountain said...

A new character can be inspired by a glimpse of someone on the street, or a fragment of overheard conversation; or by someone I know deeply. Yesterday I heard a woman say "I am an energy healer" after telling a long story about forgetting where she was, what she was doing, who she was with - and I thought, now there's an interesting character. An energy healer with no memory!

Annabel Aidan said...

I always find I can answer the most minute detail about a character during the writing, but if I write down too much ABOUT the character before the first draft, my subconscious thinks I wrote the book already,and I lose the book.

I find the first draft is like getting to know anyone -- time and shared experience, and that's part of the fun. Writing character profiles ahead of time takes away the joy of discovery for me.