Saturday, August 3, 2013

Guest Post: Erin M. Pruett on Character Development

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@afgrappin) or who know me in real life have no doubt heard me mention my co-author. Erin M. Pruett is, at least in writing, my better half. I don't do every project with her, but the ones I do are markedly different than the ones I do alone. And even my solo projects often get run past her and discussed in some way form or fashion. I've been trying to talk her into writing a post for a few weeks, and she finally did her first one as a birthday present for me. I think I need to have birthdays more often.

I'm not going to go into detail on just how much Erin helps me with my writing. I'll let her tell you. Here's her first post on writing.

"Character Development and Motivations" OR "How to Keep Your Characters from Sounding and Acting Like You (or Alike in General)"

    Hello, hello! Guest writer Erin here, giving my 2 cents on something that A.F.G. is always needing my help with. My main talent in writing lies in character development. I love psychology and analyzing personalities, and that helps to give me insight into my/A.F.'s characters' personalities and flesh them out into people that are as real and tangible as you or I. I'm not the "when" or "where" in the writing process. I'm the "who" and "why." Put A.F. and me together, and you get the "how." Anytime I'm approached by my brainstorming buddy A.F. with an idea for a new story arc for a particular character, the first thing I say is, "Why? Why would they do that? What is their motivation? What in their personality profile or backstory would influence them in choosing or doing this?" If we can't come up with a good answer, the idea is scrapped. If that person has no reason or motive to carry out an action, and we can't give them one within the confines of the story, then it doesn't make sense for them to do it.

    A big advantage that the two of us have as writers is each other. I'll write about our brainstorming buddy processes another time, but it applies to this post in regards to character development: it keeps us from falling into one of an author's biggest traps: creating characters that all sound and act like the same person. That's one of my biggest pet peeves when reading a book or short story. They care about the same things, they react the same way, they always agree on the best course of action, they have the same speech patterns and use the same curses, and their motivations for their actions are unclear. So I'll hope it's a fluke, and read something else by the same author, and the same problem is apparent. Then I'll read/see/hear an interview by same said author, and realize exactly what the problem is: their characters sound and act just like them! Sometimes the case is that they tend to unconsciously base their characters off of the person they know and love the most, and that can be even harder to overcome than accidentally making all of your characters into incarnations of yourself. Why, you ask? Because you tend to love that person more than yourself, that's why. *wink*
So, how do you keep this from happening? How can you be sure your characters aren't all based on or influenced by your own personality or that of someone important in your life? There are a couple of methods that I've heard of and used.

1. The first, and most obvious, method is to have a brainstorming/writing partner. This person could be a full-blown co-author, a wall to bounce ideas off of before you write, or someone who reads over your first draft and critiques it. Having another person to listen to your ideas when they're fresh can help you from making mistakes in the initial writing process, which is much nicer than finishing your story/novel/etc. and getting blasted by publishers and editors and having to go back and change everything. Another perspective in the creative stage, in whatever capacity you're comfortable with, definitely helps, in more ways than just character development.

2. Then there's the method of using beta readers. Before you publish anything, whether it be on a personal blog or with a publishing company, have a couple of different people read your work and critique it. I'm not talking about looking for grammatical and spelling errors, like a final (technical) editor might. Have them look for plot holes, inconsistencies, and character development. Give them a list of questions to answer, like, "Did you believe the characters were real people?" and, "Did their choices make sense?" and, "Did they seem like separate individuals with real personalities?" and so on. Get their perspective on your story, your world, and the people populating it. It helps to have one or more pairs of eyes, opinions, and preferences, outside of your own, who don't have the same insight into the story that you do (knowledge of backstories, world history, etc.) to fall back on to fill in any gaps that might be present. In fact, whether or not you need help with character development, it's always a good idea to employ beta readers. It can't hurt, and it could make a world of difference in, well, your world!

3. Another method, one that A.F. employs quite well, is to base each character off of the personality of a different person that you know. For example, the Queen in a story is based on your mom, the King your Dad, the jester your ex, the main character/hero your best friend, and so on. Any time a problem is presented to any character, you simply ask yourself, "What would ____ do?" Or, you could call that person and ask them. It helps to ensure that your characters have distinct, real personalities, and make choices that are different than the ones you would make. And since you know these people personally, the characters are going to have more depth with less initial work from you. The downside is that you only have a limited circle of people in your life that you know well enough to base characters on, and if you rely too heavily on this method, the characters within each story might all be well-rounded and different from all others in that particular story, but all of your stories (and the people in them) as a whole might start to sound the same, since they're all populated with what boils down to the same people. So unless you have a vast group of friends and relatives, and you don't play favorites and choose the same ones as personality donors all the time, this method might not be the best one for you to fall back on.

4. Now I'll tell you my preferred method. I call it the "What Would I Do?" method. I first create a character based on me. I pour my heart and soul and entire personality into one character, who is influenced by me and only me, down to the smallest detail. Once I'm satisfied that I am represented in the story by this character, I build the rest of my characters and their psychological profiles (I've even taken personality tests like the Myers-Briggs Personality Test from the perspectives of my characters to be sure the results come out differently from mine and that I know them inside and out), sometimes using a bit of the previously mentioned method of basing them on people I know, but it's pretty easy for me to build original people using this method. I come up with their vices, their habits (biting fingernails, people-watching, drinking, etc.) and why they have them, what they like to do for fun, things they hate to see in other people (pet peeves), what their upbringing was like, how if affected them, their philosophy on life, everything. I go into unnecessary, miniscule detail about every possible aspect of every single character, major or minor, because once you're writing, you never know what will become important, and it's good to already have all those tiny bits in place. You may never use most of what you come up with about the characters in the story explicitly and sometimes the story itself may necessitate a change, but those little details can still help you in the decision making process while writing. Then, once my cast list is finalized and detailed, writing can begin.

Sometimes, I find myself in a situation where I don't know what a character would do or why. In those cases, the first step I take is to figure out what I would do in that situation. Once I know that, I can eliminate it, and keep it from influencing my decisions for the character. I have a very strong, very opinionated, personality (just ask A.F.), and it's easy for "me" to take over my characters and smother them, no matter how much detailed work I've put into building them. So by first putting "myself" into their situation and deciding what I would do/choose, I can then easily put it aside, step out of my head and instead put myself inside the character's head, and choose from their perspective, not mine. I look into their past and psychology, see how it might relate to and/or influence them in this particular situation, and then what needs to happen usually becomes clear. Another way that this method is useful is if I need something to happen in a story, but don't know who should do it or why, so I use a variation of the same method. I ask myself who I know in my life who would be best suited for/most likely to do the task I need done, etc., I find which character is most like that person, and then go from there.
    I totally get how easy it is to make decisions for your characters that are heavily based on what you would do. I mean, you are you. It's very hard to get out of your own head and keep yourself out of your characters. I struggled with that for a long time, and I know A.F. did (and sometimes still does). So by letting myself decide what I would do, I'm analyzing myself, I'm letting my mind say, "Well, this is what I would do and why," and then I can set it aside, satisfied that my opinion has been heard, and then I can hear my characters' opinions. Sometimes you have to be selfish and let yourself be heard first, so that your words don't end up coming out of your characters' mouths. Creating a "you" character does wonders as well, because that way you don't have to remove yourself and your personality from the equation entirely; you have a focused outlet for "you," so then your other characters can be themselves, and you can see them with unbiased eyes.

    I hope all this makes sense, and helps you to create well-rounded, realistic characters! A.F.'s characters have certainly gotten more depth and individuality since I started butting in with my methods (*wink*), so I'm hopeful that they will work for people other than me. Happy writing!

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