Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Character Sketches: Making Memorable Characters

When I turn the last page of a good novel, I’m truly bummed.  I don’t want to say goodbye to the characters.  I’ve cheered with them, laughed with them, warned them about dangers up ahead, and cried with them when they didn’t hear me.  It’s almost as if a friend has moved away. 

I would like to create memorable characters like that. 

The opening words of the song “Getting to Know You,” from the musical The King and I popped into my head as I thought about what to write for this post. The opening lines sum up my responsibility when creating memorable characters:

Getting to know you,
Getting to know all about you.

Anna sang this song to the King’s children.  This odd woman, who stood in the presence of the king, wore strange clothing, and demanded a home of her own was a proper English woman trying to communicate with children from a foreign king's land at a time in which women held a low station. The children eventually respected and honored her.  They never said those words, but their feelings were clearly communicated as the story progressed. As the reader, I cheered this budding relationship that later touch the king’s heart.

If I delve into the inner soul of my characters, way beyond the needs of my novel, then I should be able to embed their personality into the core of the story.  Before I can know my character I need to find out who they are!

Summary of my WIP:  Gregson Holmes' English teacher had no clue he'd opened a pandora box when assigning weekly stories on any topic.  Using his gift of observation and keen interest in Sherlock Holmes, Gregson penned stories about schoolmates. Every event described in his paper came true the next day.  His best friend, Jon, failed to understand how Gregson knew ahead of time.  While the stories appeared harmless, Gregson discovered his English spiral missing the day after his teacher read a story about three suspicious men.  Robbery. Kidnapping. Stranded. Starving. Murder. Chase. Gregson's future as a writer or detective may be details.


When trying to get to know my protagonist, I felt like I was looking at a shadow hiding behind a tall piece of furniture.  As I walked closer, the shadow inched further away. To make him feel comfortable I stepped back to asked a few questions:

"Who are you?"   He didn’t answer. “Plese come into the light and tell me who you are.”  He still didn’t answer.

I stopped back each day while doing research for this WIP to listen for him.  One day I overheard him chatting to his friend on facebook.

G:            Hey, Jon.  You’re on!  How’s the peach fuzz?

J:            It’s raining again, Gregson.  Of course I’m on. How did you know I got my hair cut today?

G:            Simple, Jon. You get your hair cut on the second Tuesday of the month, like clockwork.

J:            Hmmm. I hadn’t noticed. Did you finish your paper for Mr. Watson? I haven’t started. I hate 6th grade English.

G:            Of course.  I wrote a story about Rene getting an A on the math test next week.

J:            You’re kidding?  Why’d you do that? You know she never gets higher than a D in math.

G:            Gotta go. Three men just walked passed my house.  Never seen them before. Think I’ll follow.

The day after the test, Rene flashed her math paper around the classroom. Who wouldn’t notice the huge red A.

Jon pulled Gregson aside where others wouldn't hear.  “How’d you know?”

Simple, Jon. Last week when we walked my dog, Toby, I noticed scraps of paper with scrawls of practice problems falling from the trash can on the curb in front of her house. Several pieces had the same math problem scribbled; one had the answer correct.  There was a brown stain at the top on one page indicating long hours studying which required a caffeine product, most likely a cola since she brings one every Wednesday for pizza day.  I immediately deduced she studied a great length for this test, most likely the entire week based upon the volume of torn pages. Quite unusual for her, I might add. Her mother must have helped her for there was a trace of hairspray residue.

J:            But I only saw you grab a scrap piece of paper out of Toby's mouth.  I didn't notice anything on it, or any other scraps of paper.

G:            Observation requires more than simply seeing, Jon.

Once I overheard this conversation, I knew exactly what Gregson and Jon looked like.  I found pictures of them from two years ago. They actually looked like two boys I already knew!

Choosing the best character to put in our story involves more than filling a grocery list of characteristics.  We need to get to know the real-deep-down-inside them.  At that point, we  can tell their story in such a compelling way the reader will develop a bond.

As you spend time getting to know your characters try to answer these questions:
Here is a partial list

·      What does he like to wear, eat, listen to?
·      Who are his friends, and why?
·      Who causes him problems, and how?
·      What does he do in his free time?
·      Where does he live? What does his bedroom look like?
·      What is his main problem?  How can he solve it?
·      Who are others in his life and how do they impact his story?
·      What distinctive traits does he have (physical, mental, spiritual, social)?

Got it?  OK, here's a test for you.  Pretend you're at a police station sitting at the desk of a sketch artist.  She asks you to describe the missing witness (your protagonist).  Would she draw an accurate picture?  Would the police get ideas how to look for the witness based on mannerisms you’ve shared?  

What other ways can you share with us to make memorable characters?

BTW Zach and Adam have graciously allowed me to use their pictures in this post.  Thanks, guys!


Kaye Dacus said...

I love that you got to know these characters through their Facebook dialogue! What a great creativity exercise. (And such a cute story idea!)

Mia said...

Your story and characters made me smile. What an awesome plot idea! I bet it's fun to write for younger readers. I'd guess it's much harder than people think (not sure if I could do it, to be honest), but it seems like it'd be rewarding :)

Casey said...

I love the Sherlock Holmes angle you've put on this. I read a set of his stories my senior year of high school and really liked them.

Love the list of questions, it is a great way to really know the character, even if it isn't shared in the actual writing, it makes them more real for the writer. Great post, Mary. :)

Mary Vee Writer said...

Thanks Kaye!
I was pondering how to introduce my characters for this post while facebooking. It was one of those smack ya upside-the-head moments...have them facebook each other! My teen daughter thought it was a good idea, too, so I went with it:)

Mary Vee Writer said...

Thanks Mia!
Writing for kids IS tough. I'm reminded each time I take a class on writing for kids or read a book on Children's-young adult writing.
One main aspect...hardly any description...lots of action. Weaving in those descriptors can be tricky!
Rewarding is tops when I get to hear a teen or tween read the story and laugh or burst out in some other way. Way cool....way cool

Mary Vee Writer said...

Thanks Casey!
I'm enjoying chewing through all the Sherlock Holmes related material I can find in my research.

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Wow! I loved the facebook idea! That is great! And your story idea is soooo creative! I love unique ideas like that. GREAT post, girl!

Casey said...

So did you create a facebook page for both of them for real or just in your imagination? :)

Mary Vee Writer said...

Great question.
I created it in my imagination.
But, what if we did create facebook pages for our characters. That might actually be an interesting thing to do.
I think I might stay away from creating one for my villain, might get uninvited dialogue...but for the protagonist.....hmmmmmmm.
Let's think about it:)

Mary Vee Writer said...

Thanks Sherrinda:)