Last week, I discussed character appearance/description and the lack thereof in my WIP. Of course, as with any other aspect of reading, the amount of description a reader wants to see is based on personal preference, and even among the Ladies here, we have a wide range of opinions. But we weren’t the only ones thinking about writing characters this past week.
Over at ArghInk, as part of her Questionable series, Jenny Crusie answered a question from friend of 8LW, Deb Blake, about building in-depth characters. (I love this series. Basically, if Jenny is talking about craft, I’m listening!) Jenny talked about creating characters with length (character arc) and depth (the way the details of her life reflect that arc). Focused on character as I have been, I had to put all three of ‘my girls’ in the WIP to the test to see how their development holds up. Because Eileen is my main protagonist, I especially focused on her.
Eileen definitely has a developmental arc. She’d better have one – I’ve built umpteen conflict boxes and timelines and turning point charts, including how each event forces her to grow and change. But to check her progress, I wrote out quick sketches of Eileen the beginning, each major turning point, and the end of the story to actually see the progression. Using Robert McKee’s idea of from his text Story, I checked for the “major reversal of in the value-charged conditions” in comparing Eileen’s life at the beginning of the story to that in the end. In the beginning, Eileen is scared of her ex-husband and in full defensive mode to try to protect her life (and her fledgeling business) from him. By the end, Eileen is on the offensive, proactively pursuing everything important to her (I won’t say any more than that to avoid spoilers). While there are a few tweaks I still plan to make around a few of the turning points, Eileen’s character arc is pretty solid.
Next, I looked at the details of Eileen’s life. Again, I did quick sketches of what details I include about her at the crucial points in the novel. The good news is that I did include information about several of the same details at each turning point. These details focus on her home/living situation, her business/work situation, and her dependence on (and independence from) her friends. These are big, important parts of Eileen’s life, so it was easy and instinctive to show these evolving over the course of the story. But I also identified some additional details I could use to flesh out the depth of Eileen’s arc.
For example, Eileen’s looks – which I (for the most part) didn’t include in the first and second drafts – could change as the story progresses. Just small changes, but changes that show her growing confidence in and acceptance of herself. This actually occurred to me because one of the notes I made to myself for the next revision was to amp up the creep factor in one of the Alex (ex-husband) versus Eileen scenes by having him push some of her old self-doubt buttons by giving her back-handed compliments about how her looks have changes since he last saw her two years earlier. This will throw her into self-doubt, then quiet defiance, and finally all-out kick-ass rage as the story progresses. By the end, Eileen will have transitioned from looking, at the beginning of the story, much as she had when she’d been married to Alex to, at the end of the story, the image of the woman she wants to see when she looks in the mirror.
Are you happy with the ‘length and depth’ of your characters? What techniques do you use to make your characters fully developed, ‘true-to-life’ people?
In my WIP, my character moves on most visually when she gets out of her poodle skirt and into regular clothes. Other than that, when confronted with ideas and situations not in evidence with her current assumptions, she grows and changes. I know she does; I hope I’ve showed that!
I have a tendency to think I’ve ‘shown’ some changes that I really haven’t, so listing out the character details at each point in time helped me see where evidence of change was lacking.
I can’t say I use the following technique, per se, but I would like to use verbs as description. On the first draft, we’re so busy capturing the ideas that sometimes we forget to use descriptive verbs. And I know that quite often on a first draft, I’ll completely brainfart a descriptive word so I’ll approximate it and highlight it so I know to come back to it later and find a better word.
My firsties are really sparse on character description, maybe because they are so vivid in my head. But by the time I get around to the second or third draft, I need to be a little more descriptive because sometimes the character is fainter. (-: And then there are the times where I wonder, “Where the heck was I going with THIS descriptive paragraph?” And more times when I think, “Oh, hey, that was a great character trait — why did I forget it later in the book?”
I don’t use a character bible/atlas like I should, I think.