Country Music, Sardines, and the Color Orange

I attended a workshop many years ago where the two speakers – two ladies who were writing partners – discussed what goes into developing believable characters. They used an elaborate system of character development worksheets that traced the lives of their characters from infancy to the exact moment the story began. The worksheets – all 5 pages of them – were used to record all kinds of information: best childhood friend, most memorable family vacation, favorite food, least favorite color, favorite book, favorite movie, and on and on. Their theory was that, as a writer, you need to know your character as well or better than you know yourself.

My writing partner Jared and I were talking about this recently. There is a lot of value in this concept, and I use a form of worksheet myself.  However – it certainly isn’t 5 pages long and I don’t need to know ever minute detail of my character(s) life.  Jared and I were discussing a piece of writing that included a lot of interesting character detail, but none of it really added anything to the story. Descriptions of certain characteristics were included that really didn’t help the reader to better understand either the story or the character, and didn’t really contribute to the concept overall.  But there are some things that I think it’s crucial to know about my characters.

The first thing I need to know is how old is the character. Since I write kid and adult characters, I need to have a good feel for the age and level of life experience of my characters. 

Next, I need to know what this character looks like. Is my character tall? Short? In between? Heavy? Skinny? Average? Being able to envision my character physically helps me to imagine how he or she moves and interacts with the world.

I also need to know who interacts with my character? Family members, friends, teachers, enemies, pets, imaginary friends – whomever. This is the group that populates my character’s world, so I need them to be believable, too.

Then I get to the fun stuff – I need to know what my character’s proudest moment is.  This tells me what my character values about him or her self.  This is what my character’s strength is primarily based on – that core value that gives my character integrity. I won’t necessarily show the event or activity in particular, but I will make this clear through action, dialog, and character choices.

Along with that, I need to know my character’s greatest fear. This shows me where and how my character is most vulnerable. When it comes time for the major conflict in the story, where is my character most likely to crack? Again, I don’t necessarily have to show the reader a specific memory or incident, but it should be clear to the reader that when conflict hits, this character has a weakness or two.

Then I need to know my character’s secret wish or dream – something perhaps even his or her best friend doesn’t know. This will tell me a lot about my character’s motivation, what will keep pushing my character past fear and on toward success. This can also serve as a way to make my character more vulnerable because he or she doesn’t want this secret revealed.

The final step for me is to ask my character if there is anything he or she wants me to know. I have found that my characters will always be happy to tell me all kinds of stuff, but that they always try to put themselves in the best light. For me, this is a form of reverse psychology. Whatever they tell me, I look for the opposite to see what the characters are trying to steer me away from.

It’s rare I need to know  character’s favorite food, least favorite music, or favorite color. Unless this information moves the story forward (in a novel in progress called “Death’s Kiss” the main character hate macaroni and cheese, and that plays an important role in an important scene), then it doesn’t matter to the story so I don’t bother finding it out.

The bottom line to me is, it isn’t the volume of information you gather on  character, it’s the quality and purpose of that information. And besides, who has time to spend filling in 5 pages of worksheets when you could spend that time actually working on your story?

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4 thoughts on “Country Music, Sardines, and the Color Orange

  1. I agree with this. I have tried some of those incredibly elaborate character worksheets. Waste of time. Know the important things… the things that matter. The character will be believable if you realize them fully, but I don’t think it’s necessary to spend so much time on tedious details that don’t contribute to the storyline. All in a ll, a great blog… despite the fact that you called me “Jard” throughout… 🙂

  2. Kim Justesen says:

    OMG – I am soooo sorry! I didn’t see that and spell check didn’t catch it! I fixed it – but I may call you Jard anyway, just cuz!

  3. Ariel says:

    How did I miss this? And with a juicy typo in it too! 😉 My empathy works kind of like osmosis, in that the more ways I am close to something or someone–especially physically–the more info that I ‘just know’ complexly about them. I found that this not only helped my imagination as an artist and writer to be able to create out of those ingredients, but it made me a natural in the world of marketing as well. The very first boss I had specifically for that was actually a politician that I had been paired with by a school mentoring program. Kind of like Big Brothers and Sisters for the kids who were not like kids. After we both grew kind of bored one day, he gave me the challenge of writing a political campaign for a friend of his that was running for county commissioner, a first for here for a woman. I was 11. The candidate won, and though I was credited in the newspaper with having authored the speeches and significant portions of the campaign, I was not photographed with the winning candidate and the rest of her team. In fact, they intentionally added an adult female to the group photo who hurried in and out for the shoot that the reporter stated he assumed was me. What advice did he give me, in that challenge? Create an original character and then make them a stereotype. Simultaneously. Two years before that, I had written a book on neo-mythology, my personal favorite being the explanation and personification for the birth of black holes, so in a way I was familiar with the concept. The pressures of public marketing, and especially the volatile world of adults in public contentions, was all totally new to me. It forced me to evolve an understanding beyond my life experience, as you talk about in analyzing your characters. This was very painful for me, and despite my success when faced with it, in the end someone else took the credit for being me because I fit a stereotype myself–just by being a kid. That experience alone gave me the competitive drive to apply that to everything I did creatively after that. People tell me that my writing and art is strange to them for its power to evoke, invoke and just be different. But the same people will also talk to me 5, 10, 20 years later and tell me that they have often referenced or atleast not forgotten that piece. And ironically now that I am finding success again, I no longer wish to be visually part of that picture…the twists of fate, ha 🙂

  4. Ariel says:

    Hey, Mimi. It’s been about an hour since I read this blog, and I just wanted to say that I think that is a great model that you came up with: Favorite proud moment, Worst fear, Secret wish….I think that I am going to print this out and leave it on my daughter’s desk. I have heard the fear/motivation model used alot, but this is more humanifying. Also the details about who they interact with should include who they do so with in their head, as well. That conveys influence more effectively than many other devices. You are such a fantastic teacher, truly, and have a real gift for being succinct and organized that I would like to have one day, as well as make a legacy of. Brava and thank you xx

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