Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Characters - Beyond the Second Dimension

We've all heard at one time or another that our characters are flat. Okay, so what do you, as an author, do with that? Well, it isn't enough to know that you're characters are flat, you need to know in what area they fall flat in.

Characters can be flat in a couple different ways: personality, emotionally, physically, and psychologically. So, if you're having trouble figuring out just how your character(s) fell flat enough for someone to comment on them, ask them to elaborate.

How do you stand that character up and give him or her enough mass to hold themselves upright?

If it's merely a case of the reader wanting to know more about the physical appearance and description of your character, ask them what they feel is lacking. Maybe the problem isn't necessarily lack of detail, but how long the reader has to wait to find it. Be sure to put a face to that name early enough to draw the reader in, even if the current features are temporary and might be different from the true ones. It will help the reader put things into the proper context.

If you're not sure how to get your descriptions any clearer, maybe you need to test your description skills. The best way to do that is to start with your own body and how you would describe it. Then, give that description of yourself to your significant other and ask them to guess who you are describing. Then you might want to move on to other people (family and friends) that may be in a position to recognize your physical description. See how many people guess that it's you? If some have trouble, ask they why? Maybe you left out some key detail that helps cement the picture in their head.

As a test, repeat the exercise for a couple of other people you feel you know very well and then test your description with the people who may be in the best position to judge your description and see if they can guess it correctly. The results can tell you a lot about yourself and your relationships with others. How observant did you find yourself to be? If others found your descriptions lacking, you've just identified a weakness. The best way to fix this is to observe people and try to describe them. The more you practice, the better you'll be.

If their seems to be issues with the personality, psychology, or emotional nature of your character, the problem may be that you did not dig deep enough into your character's mind and you need to go back and pick it some more.

How do you do get deeper in to a character's head?

Well, the first thing I suggest that you do is think about yourself and what makes you tick. Make up a realistic situation, put yourself in it as the main character and consider how you fit into all of the facets of it. What would motivate you? How would you react in this situation? What would your thought processes be? If you aren't sure, talk it through with the person who knows you best and ask them what they think you'd do and see if you agree with what they came up with. If not, why not? This might help you arrive at your answers. How do you're life experiences effect your answers?

Once you get some sort of understanding of yourself, move on to other people that you know (male and female). How would they react in the same situation? Do you understand what would motivate them in that situation and what their thought process might be? If not, then you need to discuss this activity with them and find out how they answer the questions to try to see what makes them tick.

The interesting thing about this type of exercise is that you learn a lot about yourself and your relationships with other people. If you were able to answer them in some way, you need to test how accurate you were. Who do you think you know better, your family or your friends? To see how well you really did, talk to them and find out how close you were.

Be sure to understand how their life experiences effect their decisions. That can help you better understand a character type you chose to write about and help you to dig deeper into your character's head to find the missing pieces.

If you did very well, the problem could be that you just need to add a few more well placed details to make a more complete picture to help the reader understand your character better. Maybe the problem is that you don't understand the character type well enough (soldier, car salesman, etc.) and you need to do more research into character types.

Yes, a character interview/questionnaire can be helpful and informational, but it won't take you very far if your understanding of your chosen character/character type is lacking. The best way to discover this is when readers or others, "in the know," tell you.

Another way to give your character substance lies with the emoting and the, "show don't tell," approach. To really make an impact here requires two things - physical gestures and speech descriptions. Sure, a character may be smiling when he says something, but how does he say it and what kind of smile is it? Does he have a sarcastic, bored (as in a sense of ennui), or devilish tone?

Another parameter to consider is the emotional and physical responses of the other characters involved, if there are any. How do they react to what he says and how he says it? Do they laugh and call him a card, are they offended and slap him before walking away, or are they downright scared with chills running down their spine?

What the character says and does when alone (especially a villain) can be very telling for motive and attitude towards other people.

Hopefully, I have helped you find a way to flesh out that character that's giving you trouble!


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