Monday, March 2, 2009

Getting Into Character

I have a confession to make. I hear voices in my head. Now, under normal circumstances, this confession would make one question their sanity and perhaps lead to years of intensive therapy. But I left out an important part of the confession: I am a writer. The voices I hear in my head are those of the characters that live there, in the land of my imagination, toying with my gray matter until I finally tease them out and onto the page. And there is the secret, at least for me, of characterization. I have to be able to hear the voices before I can get a fix on the characters.

As anyone who takes a pen to paper will tell you, characterization is an integral part of the story. You can have a mediocre plot, a tried and true plot, and yet still make it come alive with fascinating characters. Likewise, boring characters can sink a good plot. Just ask any reader what kept them enthralled in a book and more often than not they will give you a detailed description of…the characters. What do you remember most about Romeo and Juliet? The intricacies of the plot – or how passionate the lovers were for each other? What about the movie Titanic? What remains fixed in your mind, the fact that the ship sank after striking an iceberg or the ill-fated love affair between Jack and Rose?

Characters define a story; they are the backbone of the plot. Everything that happens within the story depends upon the type of characters that populate it. So the writer owes it to the reader to give him or her characters they will not forget. Characters that will live within them long after the last page is read and the book is closed. Characters that make them want to revisit that book again and again. How? For me, it is the simple matter of feeling that way about the characters myself. After all, if I can’t feel passionate about my characters, how can I expect my readers to? And so I listen to my characters.

For me, listening to the way they speak, the words they use, is an integral part of characterization. That is how I “get into” character. I playact in my mind. Visualize the character in a scene and play with her emotions. It helps to imagine a certain actress playing the character in a movie, to run the scene in my head like it’s a filmstrip. How does she sound? How does she stand? What does she look like when she’s angry? These are all key ingredients to characterization. You have to think of them as real people, full-bodied and well-developed. When you start wondering how your character would feel about a certain situation or how she would handle a certain crisis, then you have done your job. If you can write a line of dialogue and on a second pass realize that your character would never say that, or at least not in that way, then you’re totally in synch with your character and are one step closer to remaining true to them.

At this point, you might be thinking that’s all well and good, but how do you get so in tune with your characters? Another good tool that I use, in addition to the filmstripping, is the character interview. This is a fun and cool exercise for the writer because we never know just what our characters are going to say until we ask the questions. As evidenced in an interview of one of my characters – Dante, from Nora’s Soul – when he was interviewed by Pat Bertram Suffice it to say that Dante’s true nature leapt right off the page from the moment of his introduction – and he didn’t let up once. Not only did this make for an interesting interview, it made the character more memorable.

Why not try it for yourself? You just never know what you might learn when you open up your mind to the voices in your head.


2 deadly screams:

Carrie said...

Hi Margay,

I know what you mean about hearing their voices so you can get into character.

My character Brandon Brandelbuck speaks with a British accent and lives on a continent that takes after the Victorian age (I think) even though the continent exists on a planet on the other side of the known universe, on Centurion 54.

His cousin Cleo, however, speaks more like Americans do and comes from a continent that is a lot like a cross between Las Vegas, NV, and Amsterdam, Holland, but is well governed, to protect everyone involved.

Cleo also has a close friend, who I'm still not sure where he's from, but all I know is that he has what he calls an, "island accent." That he uses when only around people that he is very comfortable with.

I'm learning lots of stuff about all of these characters except for one thing. I know that both Cleo and Brandon can trace their lineage back to the original founding families, but they haven't told me yet why that's special. All I know is that their lineage is reflected by their purple eyes and that some people wear contacts to give the appearance of purple eyes because of what they represent.

The answers? They're all being tight lipped about it, but who knows, maybe if I actually interview them, I might learn some other stuff. Unfortunately, my Interplanetary Portal Gate isn't working right and I can't get any communication through to Centurion 54.

I've been reading more and more character interviews, so I am really excited to one myself. Hopefully in the near future.

Great Blog Margay!

Margay said...

Thank you, Carrie. Yeah, I believe the best way to get into your character's head (for once - turn those tables!) is to interview them. You just never know what they might say next. I can't tell you how many times I have been surprised by what has come out of my characters' mouths! And then there are times when they are stingy with answers (ahem, Dante) and three books in, you're still wondering what their story is - or should I say backstory? But I love it! There is nothing more invigorating than engaging in a great conversation with your characters.