Most of us as would-be writers want to get out books into someone’s hands, but don’t always understand how to make the characters in our heads as likeable or engaging to someone who only has the black-magic-marks-on-white-paper to go by. Kate Daniels, for example, was raised to be an unfeeling killer and is often kind of grim. But we love her. How a writer can/should communicate this kind of chemistry with the reader would be a valuable insight
There is a simple trick to this: do you like your character? Do you, as a writer, feel affection for the character you’ve created? Do they amuse you? Do you feel for them when you write their struggles? Writing is a contact sport. If you are emotionally involved, it will show on the page. If you are emotionally detached, you will get comments like, “I just couldn’t connect with the character. There is distance. I lost interest. I am bored.”
You probably read writers say dramatic nonsense like “I suffer for my art” and “I bleed on the page.” Overwrought snowflakeness aside, they do have a point. Normally we build emotional barriers, a kind of defense to help us survive, otherwise we would go crazy and suffer a nervous breakdown every time we watch the news. We buffer the world and our emotions a little bit. When you’re writing, you can’t do that.
By forcing your characters through the narrative, you are putting yourself through an emotionally taxing experience. What are they feeling here? How are they reacting there? How does their chest feel when they watch their brother die?
If you do it for awhile, everything will start to affect you deeply. I am not normally a sentimental person, but we are right now digging into Hidden Legacy 4 and I watched a video of a kitty on Facebook looking at a video of her recently deceased owner on the phone. She watched it very intently and then rubbed on the phone, and I hysterically cried. I am crying as I am typing this.
You have to emotionally engage. It will make you a basket-case. That’s the price we pay.
Regarding an article on writing by Gordon and Ilona, I was wondering if they might address the issue of writing a Character Bible? Do they create them? How do they go about it? Do they find it helpful, especially when writing a series? At the beginning of a series are the main characters especially given an extremely detailed backstory, family history, characteristics, likes, dislikes, skills etc that is strictly adhered to throughout the story? Is it added to as the series progresses? Anything they would like to share in regards to this subject would be extremely appreciated. Thank you!
None of this is writing.
None of this is words on the page. It doesn’t get you closer to the finish line. It doesn’t result in pay. And most of the time it doesn’t matter. Nobody cares about all of that background information. It’s not important. What’s important is how your character will react when they find a lame horse being beaten in the street by his owner. You can’t figure that out until you write it.
We do not do character bibles. The most we ever do is note height and skin, eye, and hair color.
If you want to do a character bible, do it. But ask yourself, is this an excuse to put off writing? Would the time be better spent jumping into the narrative and then filling in important details are you go along? Writing is difficult and character bibles are a fun distraction. Try to not get carried away. There is a real danger that if you describe every quirk and trial of the character, when you actually get to writing, they will come off as overworked and lifeless.
I would love to hear about your process as far as character development. You do such a fantastic job of keeping us agog to learn more about your characters throughout the books and series. So much so that I read for that perhaps more than the outer plots.
We do not do any sort of formal character development. We simply sit down and write and figure it out as we go. The thing to keep in mind is that the character is always a product of their environment.
Your characters are a product of their environment. They are shaped by their life experiences. Two boys of the same age, one a beggar on the street and the other a spoiled rich kid, may react completely differently to the same ethical dilemma, or they may react the same. The question is why? What happened to them to make them this way? You don’t need to write it down or inform the reader, unless it’s absolutely necessary. But you should think about it and figure out what makes your made up people tick. 🙂
More on characters in a later post.
You make a good point about the character bible. I find that kind of overthinking is really just a stall technique for me. I find it more beneficial to fill in that information after writing, as sort of a quick reference for down the line, to avoid inconsistencies.
Love your writing comments – they clarify something that’s quite mysterious to me as a non-writer. I can see them being a hugh help to developing writers. It also appears that writing really is a compulsion – that need to express yourself in written words. You feed my compulsion to read. Thanks.
I’m a hobby writer and your comment is spot on. I write when I have emotions to work through, and it helps deal with handling those emotions. Sometimes, I can even dictate how I feel by starting out my narrative and then consciously taking it in a specific (more positive) direction. So, for example, I love horror-comedies or dramas with many twists of plot. That said, the way the authorlords enrapture is just something else.
Very interesting. Especially the character bible part. It makes a lot of sense. A character bible is almost a fan thing to create.
It makes me think of Hugh. I definitely got the feeling he was a straight up villain through the whole series and then certain events happened and his backstory revealed someone deeper and actually redeemable. Which is very impressive since he was so incredibly awful so often, but I wonder if that change/opportunity surprised you as well. Not just the reaction to the April Fool’s joke, but seeing the character suddenly change for you.
I think a “character bible” at the beginning might get in the way of a great surprise like that and that would be a shame.
Heather Langston says
Thank you for sharing this! I’ve always felt that I absolutely HAD to have a character guideline; I like security and functional boundaries. Perhaps that is why I hold back instead of just letting things happen on the page. I get the feeling that I overthink the creative process.
I look forward to your next post!
This is a great post, but in your statement about emotionally engaging. I have a lot of trouble. I have no idea how to emotionally engage. Any tips to get me back in touch with my emotions?
Nicki Garvey says
When I am feeling distant from my emotions I usually go back to a childhood movie or book. It reverts me to some degree back into an age where I wasn’t so distant.
Then I follow it up with a newer kids movie (Inside Out and Coco made me sob quite a few times). There is something about kids movies that pull me back into an emotional space.
Thanks so much for this advice! I’ll try it out
Years of therapy? Hey, it worked for me.
Thank you, very interesting! I liked your comments on actually writing and delaying writing. It’s so much easier to delay!
Catherine Jett says
Wow – what a gift! Found this fascinating, and an explanation of why I like your characters so much – they portray real feelings, not just cardboard cutouts or templates of feelings… You guys are a gift, both for your novels, and for your openness about the process!
Lynne Binkley says
IThank you so much. I do not want or dream to become a writer. I just love to read. Your blog – all the insights into the art of writing, your posts about games or knitting, or about househunting, etc.etc. – I read it as another one of your books, always checking for updates, always being fascinated by your writing skill. And your storytelling talent!
On a side note, it was fun to see those graduation pictures side by side. We (former Soviet Union students) really never smiled in the official photos…
Same here. I don’t have characters or stories in my head, but I find the process fascinating.
Related question to characters… I’ve seen several authors write that the characters “took over the book” or did something the author didn’t expect and so on. Do you find something similar happening to you, or do you pretty much go into it knowing what the characters are going to do and say?
I’ve certainly fallen into the Character bible trap in the past. I think character bibles become more important when you’ve got a long running series with some 50 established characters in it. Though I do think it can be helpful to gather a list of names you might want to use. I can waste so much time thinking of names when I could just stick something in that sounds decent and change it later if I really want.
A suggestion from one of my writing classes in college was to make index cards of people, places, things, story incidents, so on. Simple descriptions with a few basic traits that might be the start of things but aren’t fully realized ideas. When you’re writing and you find yourself needing something you can pull from your cards as a way to jump start that thing. I know it’s not words on the page, but maybe it’s useful for people who have ideas they need to get out of their heads and store away or who get stuck as they write.
This sounds a lot like how I create an MMO character… I start with a basic concept of the character, then play through the game. The character grows, changes, and lets me in on their backstory as I play and how they react shapes their personality. Sometimes the circumstances really change them, make them think about things. If a character does not undergo this growth I end up deleting them, because there’s nothing there to work with except a piece on a game board. That’s not fun for me.
I think of it as having a multiple personality thing going in my head while my own personality stays in charge… Silly, yes, but it works for me. It gets to the point I will have arguments with my characters, and I often lose… =)
Case in point, Delinn, shadow priest in World of Warcraft. Back in the Wrath of the Lich King xpac, she wanted a particular mount. It was pricey. I stipulated that the money could not be taken from other characters. She basically agreed and we went and quested hard for several days to earn the money. That mount FIT her well, so she wanted it bad.
I have several characters in two different MMO’s, not to mention all the old D&D/Pathfinder campaigns and Shadowrun as well. I have a lot of personalities in my head and I find it awesome. =)
“otherwise we would go crazy and suffer a nervous breakdown every time we watch the news”
I’ve just realized a have no such barriers.
I needed to read this tonight. Thank you.