Thursday, June 17, 2010

Character Sketches -- Why??

It is that ever annoying question, parents have learned to dread.

“Can I have this, Mommy?”



“Just trust me, the answer is no.”


“I don’t know. Hush.”

**long pause**


And if you are a parent of any 4 year old, you know this dialogue very well. You can tell by their voice when that dreaded question is going to be popped and watch out, you just might do some popping yourself!

But as novelists, this question is allowed and should be asked at an alarming rate. Because to truly understand our characters and their reasons to act, we must ask the age old question.


When I started my women’s fiction novel (insert title here- literally!) in early late April/ early May, I wanted to take the time to build my characters. To get to know them and just what makes them tick. Because only through knowing that, will I understand how they will try or lack of trying to control whatever situation is thrown at them.

I am a SOTP writer. I like to wing it and see where it will take me. But even if you are a seat of the pants writer, this little exercise won’t take away from any creative energy, in fact it will actually give you a better game plan and help you from getting lost in the middle, unsure where to take the story.

The outline for my heroine looked a little bit like this:

Jenna Hutch, married, and pregnant with another man’s baby. Conceived before the wedding. Husband does not know.


Fear of commitment drove her to make a fatal mistake on the eve of her wedding.


She is fearful her husband will one day not love her and leave her for another woman.


Her father dumped her mother when Jenna was a child, leaving her for another woman.


Because her mother drank and did not show her husband love.

Ha, here is one of the answers I was searching for when I was drawing Jenna. This is what makes Jenna act the way she does. Her biggest fear is that someday her husband will stop loving her and Jenna does not want to lose her husband like her mother lost her father. She is driven to keep her husband’s love, to the point of never telling her husband about the baby that isn’t his. Because she saw what losing her father’s love did to her mother, and she will not turn into the woman her mother is.

Have you ever seen the reality TV show, Biggest Loser or Losing it with Jillian? If so, you will understand what I am saying here. The people in need of weight lose usually come under her thumb with some comment about why they "don't know why they are fat." A-hem. Jillian never lets them think that way for long.

"I don't know!"

"Yes you do, why?"

"I don't know!"


And on and on she will go until she hits the root of the problem and you know what, she is always (ok nearly, no one is perfect!) right! That is what we need to do with our characters. They can't answer "I don't know", because they do know, you just have to drill it out.

All through my story Jenna slips deeper and deeper into the pit she never wanted to enter. And the deeper she slides, the worse her situation gets.

All because of that little tidbit I discovered about her when I was creating my character sketch.

I even did an outline on Jenna’s mother. Why she drank, why Jenna thinks she pushed her dad away. I found out what made Jenna’s husband tick. Though he didn’t play as big a role in the story as I originally planned, I still needed to understand why he acted a certain way. Finding out that he was adopted and was lied to his entire life and found out about it after his parent’s death played an important role in the story. He values complete honesty and Jenna is lying to him. So when she finds out he despises liars, it sends her into another tail spin to never tell him about the baby for fear she will lose him.

I had to know my characters before I started this novel. I didn’t want to go into it blind and not understand their motives. But I also wanted to know what they looked like. Having a visual image of my characters before me was extremely helpful in picturing them. Visualizing the facial expressions or their reactions. And actually as the novel grew, I stopped looking at the pictures as their image took over my mind and I saw and understood them better.

But I chose Kimberly Williams-Paisley as my heroine Jenna.

And Logan Bartholomew as my hero, Greg

Understanding what your characters look like can be extremely helpful in writing them. Visualizing what they are wearing and the like can make the crafting and showing of the story that much easier. (Refer to Krista’s post, Avoiding Bare Walls and Three Sided Houses, if you would like more excellent information. )

Don’t be afraid to ask the “why?” question. It just might take you deeper and help you understand your characters that much better. Dig deep, the deeper you go, the more realistic your characters will become.

I want to share a small excerpt with you, a section that wouldn’t have been possibly unless I truly understood my character, but before, what is the big WHY question your character faces? I would love to hear about it, and maybe do a little brainstorming if you need to!

Home has and always will the same. The green grass outside the front porch, its arms welcoming all who come and enter to be filled with peace.

But the funny thing with images is that they are just that. A persona. A glimpse into a perfect world that hides its warts with surprising agility.

I parked my car beside Dad’s two ton pickup and stepped out into the warm afternoon air. Summer in the high desert of Oregon could be brutal, but today was the perfect combination of an overhanging cloud and a kiss of a breeze feathering my hair.

The cotton less cotton woods, Dad nurtured and babied for as long as I could remember, cast a tall shadow over the house I had called home for eighteen years. Their green leaves crackling gently.

Three white crosses all bearing names I didn’t need to see to know, sat at pristine angles, burrowed into the soil beneath the tree.

I turned away. The outside of my life was just like that cross. Pristine and white, standing straight, but dig deep enough and like my mother’s obsession with those symbols, my life was just as tormented.


Mia said...

Great post, Casey. Your story sounds interesting. I definitely feel for the mother of the baby. Not that she made the right choices in the first place (being unfaithful), but clearly she regrets her mistake and wants to tell the husband, putting it off because of fear. Makes sense to me.

I always love (and OK, sometimes it drives me crazy) trying to figure out the why's in my story. I'll be doing a lot of that with my villain soon. Why is he obsessed? Why is he abusive? What happened in his life for him to resort to murder?

I love the symbolism in the excerpt you shared with us. Usually, I can't make my scenes all deep like that, but one scene in my book actually surprised me with all of its hidden meaning :)

And I never found a title for my first book, either. It's still in a folder on my desktop simply titled 'My First Novel' LOL :)

Casey said...

Mia, that is great that you are taking your villian so deep. That gives him a reason to act the way he does and is very comendable that you are taking such strides. Getting to the why of your characters won't be very difficult if you are willing to just dream for a while and not rush the process. Even if you sit all day and don't come up with something right away, the answers will come.

Not all my scenes are deep either, it is just a matter of editing. :) Thanks for the imput, I am so glad you liked it. :)

And if you a-hem, refer to my very first post, you will know I abhore titling things, I feel sorry for my future children. LOL!

Also, I will be around for a little while, but then gone all day, I will check back in tonight. I look forward to the rest of the comments!

Tessa Emily Hall said...

Wow! Great post. It's important knowing the "whys" to your characters, even if you never mention his/her background in the story. There's a reason for every personality, every action, every thought.

Thanks for sharing! I'll remember the "why" game next time I'm sketching up my characters. :)


Casey said...

Thanks for stopping by Tessa, so glad you liked the post. This was the first time I had tried playing the "why game" after I learned about it during a class w/ Susan May Warren and I really think it helped me know my characters better. I was definately better prepared to write them.

Mary Vee Writer said...

Jenna is a character we can all related to. It's easier to get caught up in hiding truths.
It's easy to solve problems our own way.
This looks to be a great book showing Jenna's struggles.
What a great idea to play the "why game".
Thanks for sharing this idea.
Great post:)

Casey said...

Thanks Mary, I hope people can relate to Jenna, I just don't know if I have too many faults for her and I need to bring it back a bit. Something to consider while editing. Glad you liked it. :)