Saturday, May 24, 2008

Character Sketches

In a break from my usual babbling about nonsense, I thought I would spend the next few days talking about some of the things I've learned about the craft and art of writing. Today, I'm going to start with something that is near and dear to my heart -- the character.

In a statement that will likely upset some authors and a few readers, I believe that most books fall into one of two categories : character-driven and plot-driven. In this, I mean the driving force, the main focus, of the book is either the main character(s) or it's some event within the book (ie. the plot). Now, I will admit that there are some amazing writers out there who can accomplish both, thus writing books that absolutely blow your mind. How can you tell which the book is? Why did you read it? Are you reading it to see what a character does or if she falls for this guy that's she's been giving the cold shoulder for the past 3 books? Or did you read the book to see how some horrible event is averted?

Now, before anyone's feathers get ruffled, that's not to say that a plot-driven book can't have great characters or character-driven book can't have a kick-ass plot. I've read both. But one or the other tends to be the driving force in the book.

So, why did I dig myself this hole in the first place? Oh, yeah... characters. I write character-driven books. It can't be helped. It's where I start with every story I write. It all begins with a character walking into my life and saying "Jocelynn, I've got a story for you to tell." Well, not all of them have been quite so polite, but you get the picture. And like the dutiful writer that I am, I scurry off to get a pen and paper so I can start making notes about the character that has just been born.

As a result, I tend to keep extremely detailed character sketches of my main players. The minor character still get some notes, just enough to jog my memory of eye color, hair color, height. But the main characters get several pages. I try to write a complete history of each character. I will say that 95% of the information that I place in the character sketches never appears in the books. However, I know that information and I know in a more complete way how my characters' motives and decisions are going to be affected by those past events. One thing I've heard from several editors over the years that a book should read like it's the tip of the iceberg poking out of the water. The writer should have this whole mass of information just below the surface to back up his/her writing. The writer is giving the reader only a small snapshot of the world the character is living in. However, it should feel like the rest of the world is still functioning even though your character is focused somewhere else.

Am I making any sense? I hope so. I'll go more into some of the details I list for my characters, but today I have a writing prompt I picked up while I attended the Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa a few years ago.

You have your character all sketched out in your mind or on paper. Now image that character has a box in his/her closet. It can be any size box -- shoe, jewelry, etc. But the box is shoved in the back of the closet and it's hidden under a pile of sheets and old clothes. Someone wouldn't spot the box unless he or she was specifically looking for it. In other words, this box is hidden. What's in the box? Why is the box hidden? When did your character hide the box and its contents? How often does the character remove the box from the closet? Does your character ever open the box? Why?

I completed the same exercise with one of my nightwalkers when I was in Iowa. Tristan kept in a shoe box a gold watch made for him by his father and given to him on his wedding day. In the comments, please tell me what your character has hidden if you complete this writing prompt. It can be serious or funny.


Freedom Star said...

Ooh, I really like this writing prompt! Let's see...this is going to be a bit disturbing, but this character is the antagonist of my story, and he would have kept a lock of hair from his first victim and stuck it in a velvet jewelry box, like the kind a ring or necklace would come in. His closet would have neat piles of black sheets folded nicely, and the jewelry box would be tucked between the folded sheets somewhere easily accessible for him, but not so easy to access that if someone were to go through his closet looking for extra sheets, they'd find it. He would have this as a memento of sorts, because he's a bit sick and twisted like that.

For one of my other characters, possibly my earliest, I would say this character, Lily, would have a fresh box of dark chocolate and trashy romance novels in a locked box in her walk in closet, inside the mini fridge she has stocked with ginger ale and iced tea, next to her work shoes and box of spare guns and trinkets she gets from the FBI. FBI agents like Lily are not the type you'd expect to read romance, which is why it would be hidden. :)

Jocelynn said...

Great stuff! I'm glad you find this stuff helpful. I'll try to dig up some of my other notes from the Iowa writers' workshop.